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Surge in fake online shopping sites

Feb 1, 2024

Surge in fake online shopping sitesDespite the fact that I write extensively on scams, I nearly became a victim in what seems to be an increasing wave of fake online shopping sites.

When I shared my story on social media, it became apparent that several well-known brands are being targeted by fraudsters who create fake websites that look just like the real company website, and then offer huge discounts to attract customers.

Shoe retailer Tsonga recently issued a warning to customers that social media adverts are taking customers to fraudulent websites not affiliated with their brand.

According to Tsonga, these websites “are set up in such a way that they deceive customers with the allure of favourite Tsonga items marked down by up to 80%. Unfortunately, these sites appear legitimate until you look at the actual URL of the site you are visiting. Please be extra vigilant as this is currently spreading like wildfire with their monetised advertisements they are sharing on social media.”

In my case it was not a social media post but a Google search that took me to one of these fake online shopping sites. I was looking for a pair of Skechers for my son and typed Skechers South Africa into Google to see where I could buy a pair.

At the top of the search was the website “Skechers South Africa” – which claimed to be the official online store. These fake sites pay Google so that they appear first on the search results page, providing them some credibility.

The site looked legitimate, and I found a pair of shoes for my son which were on sale. The discount was around 40%. This seemed reasonable considering that a week earlier I’d purchased a pair of hiking shoes from another retailer at a 60% discount – they had arrived the next day.

When I came to pay for the Skechers, I was given a further discount of 43%. I thought it was strange but continued to provide my details. I had to create an account which required my email address and home address. I then provided my credit card details for payment.

For some reason the payment did not go through, and I attempted to contact the site. That was when I started to get suspicious – the contact form did not provide any contact details.

By now the added discount was starting to also raise red flags in my mind, so I took a closer look at the website’s URL, which was skechers-south-africa.co.za. I discovered in my Google search that there were several variations on this URL, such as skecherssouth-africa.co.za and skechers-southafrica.co.za.

I ran a search for “Skechers South Africa scam” and quickly came across complaints on websites like Hellopeter, where people reported that their shoes had never arrived, despite having received emails from the “supplier” confirming the order.

In some cases, people received an item of much smaller value than what they had actually bought, for example a cap instead of shoes.

A website called malwaretips.com warns about Skechers South Africa explaining that “This scam website claims to sell various Skechers sneakers at very low prices, but will either send you counterfeit or inferior goods, or nothing at all.”

It appears to be part of a network of fake online shopping sites based in China which, according to malwaretips.com, sell customers’ personal and financial data including names, home addresses, phone numbers and credit card details.

I was fortunate that my payment never went through. I had used my virtual credit card which means that the CVV number changes every hour, so it cannot be used again. This is a great way to protect yourself when shopping online. I took the added protection of cancelling my card.

I did however receive a strange WhatsApp message from a business account within a few hours asking to talk to me. I blocked the number.

Warning signs

In hindsight, I should have seen the warning signs.

While the discounts were not that suspicious given that the January sales were on, an immediate red flag was that the shoes were available at that discount in every size and colour. In fact, the website had a huge variety of shoes and all of them were discounted.

In most legitimate sales there are one or two pairs left, usually in uncommon sizes, which is why they are being sold at a discount.

Another obvious red flag was the website address – a URL with a hyphen is probably not going to be legit.

The reality is that the number of these fake online shopping sites is only going to increase. A survey by cyber security company Mimecast, found that nearly all companies have had their web domain cloned in the past year, and 44% of companies have seen an increase in the misuse of their brands via spoofed emails. The most targeted industries are online banking, delivery and online retailing.

If you are shopping online, malwaretips.com offers this advice:

Check for legitimate domain name and company details: Fake online shopping sites often have domain names with odd spellings and extra words. In my case the hyphen and the fact that there were several similar wesbite addresses were warning signs. Check that a physical business address and a working consumer service phone number and/or email address are provided on the site.

Look for overly good-to-be-true deals: Scam websites lure customers by advertising extravagant discounts of 50-90%. As mentioned, this could be legit if there are only one or two items left, but a store would never discount every single item to that extent.

Verify company reputation: Seach the website, business name and owner names online for any negative reviews or scam reports. You can check sites like Hellopeter and Trustpilot.

Analyse site security and payment options: Scam websites tend to only take irreversible payments like electronic transfers or cryptocurrency, and tend to avoid credit cards which have stronger fraud protection. This is possibly why my payment did not go through. However, they could still collect your credit card details in order to sell them to a syndicate.

This article first appeared in City Press.

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Maya Fisher-French author of Money Questions Answered

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