There's a growing risk the shopping site you just clicked on is trying to scam you.
E-commerce is at its peak during the holiday season. As shopping online has become commonplace, so has online fraud, fake websites—and counterfeit goods.
"A typical shopping scam starts through a social media advertisement that sends you to a fake website. You make a purchase, but it never arrives, or you receive a counterfeit product," said Scott Edwards, director of fraud risk management and financial crimes at BOK Financial®.
"These sites will look exactly like a reputable company's website except for a few small details," added Paul Tucker, chief information security and privacy officer at BOK Financial.
Spot the fake
Edwards and Tucker offered four ways to recognize a fake website.
- Check the URL. Scammers love tweaking website URLs, hoping you won't notice. Avoid URLs with extraneous words or characters—for example, .discount, .shopping, or .amaz0n.
- Become the grammar police. Fake websites are notorious for their poor grammar and spelling. If you spot misspelled words or shoddy sentence structure, it might be time to click away from that "bargain" site.
- Limited contact information and shopping policies. Scammers may only provide an email address and lack customer service phone numbers or chat support. This makes it harder to resolve issues. If you can't find a return policy, you're better off avoiding the site.
- They have suspiciously high reviews. One of the easiest ways to sniff out scammers is by checking for customer reviews. A site with nothing but glowing five-star reviews should be taken with a grain of skepticism.
If you're unsure about the site, do some independent research. Search for the company name plus "compliant" or "scam" to see what pops up.
Shopping scams abound this time of year
Although it's always important to remain vigilant, it's even more important to be on the lookout during the holiday season, experts said.
"An estimated 60%-70% of online merchant sites are vulnerable to scams, and lots of new fake websites pop up during the holiday shopping season, only to disappear in a few months," said Edwards, who recommended a few other red flags:
Too good to be true discounts. A website's "60%-off Rolex watches" advertisement should send you running in the opposite direction. Faux e-stores offer popular items at a fraction of the cost to lure in victims. While it's fun to fantasize about the deal of the century, remember that if it's too good to be true, it probably is.
Phishing emails. Generative AI is making it a lot harder to spot phishing emails and fake websites. Beware of unsolicited emails that ask you to click through to the website to make a purchase. Instead, close the email and go to the website through your browser. Tucker said a common scam around the holidays are "package-tracking emails" directing you to fake shipping sites that ask you to create an account and then steal your personal and financial information.
Buy from encrypted websites. Look for the padlock symbol in the address bar and ensure the URL starts with "https://". Avoid sites without this security feature.
Abnormal payment methods. Be cautious of websites or customer service representatives that request payment through wire transfers, ACH, gift cards or payment apps like Venmo, Zelle or CashApp. Instead, stick to well-known payment platforms that offer buyer protection like PayPal and credit cards.
Beware of counterfeit products. There's been a boom of counterfeit products on third-party sites, according to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Possible counterfeits include everything from shoes to perfume to electronics. These fake goods pose a financial risk for consumers and a health and safety threat, since many products are made with substandard materials or ingredients. Edwards and Tucker said the best way to protect yourself against counterfeits is to buy directly from the brand and not on third-party sites. They warn that even reputable third-party sellers like Walmart and Amazon may have counterfeit products.
E-commerce fraud isn't going away anytime soon. Be aware so you can enjoy a fraud-free holiday season—and online gift orders that actually arrive.
Learn more about BOK Financial's online security or call 844-517-3308 to report suspicious activity on BOK Financial-related accounts. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency also keeps an up-to-date list of current threats.