Are you sure that online store is real? You might be surprised

Emma McGowan 19 Dec 2023

The new trend in online fashion: An increase in counterfeit boutiques. Understanding them, recognizing the signs, and actions to take if you're scammed.

The surge in online shopping has unfortunately paved the way for numerous internet frauds. Cybercriminals are craftily establishing phony online boutiques, offering an array of products from trendy apparel to high-tech gadgets, and occasionally, even pets. The rise of user-friendly online store platforms, originally designed to simplify launching digital storefronts, has unintentionally contributed to this problem. 

Alarmingly, these platforms are now being manipulated by fraudsters, enabling them to create websites that are startlingly genuine in appearance. These fraudulent sites are so expertly designed that they can deceive even seasoned shoppers. Moreover, this is not just a localized issue. These scam artists have a worldwide presence, launching numerous fake stores in various languages and regions, presenting a significant challenge in identifying and shutting them down. 

Often, consumers find themselves duped after making a purchase, either receiving nothing or an item vastly different from what was advertised. In more egregious cases, they receive counterfeit products. Efforts to secure a refund are met with deceptive tactics from the scammers, ranging from additional payment requests for product returns to prolonged and frustrating interactions that end with the scam site vanishing. 

Online shopping scams on the rise  

Fake online stores pose a serious risk to consumers and are now among the top three online scams causing financial loss, as reported by entities like the FTC and the Better Business Bureau. At Avast, we've harnessed advanced AI technology to differentiate between legitimate and fraudulent online stores. Through extensive research on these fake stores, we've been astonished by their rapid proliferation, emerging daily in large numbers. 

What's even more alarming is the effectiveness of these scammers in drawing substantial traffic to their deceptive sites. They accomplish this through social media advertising and the use of unethical SEO tactics, ensuring high visibility in search engine results for popular items. Our analysis has shown a worrying trend: a significant increase in daily visits to these fake stores since the start of the year. 

Targeted brands 

Scammers are not limited to specific product types on their fake sites. Our investigations reveal that these counterfeit stores cover over 20 product categories, ranging from apparel and luxury items to electronics, furniture, and home and garden equipment.   

Initially, these scammers predominantly used well-known brands as bait. However, there's a growing trend towards targeting smaller businesses and independent online sellers, posing financial and reputational risks. These scammers often steal product images, descriptions, and other content from legitimate sites, creating a façade of authenticity. 

Interestingly, we've found that fake stores selling clothing, particularly women's fashion, attract the most traffic. Our analysis of the most visited scam sites across the top 10 countries indicates that eight out of these ten countries are primarily targeted with clothing scams, with the remaining focusing on electronics and home and garden items. This trend highlights the particular vulnerability of consumers in these categories, emphasizing the need for increased caution while shopping online for these goods. 

How to spot a fraudulent online store 

Identifying fake online fashion stores is a complex task, even for those well-versed in online shopping. To navigate this landscape safely, shoppers should be vigilant for certain warning signs of a fraudulent store. 

  1. Unbelievably low prices

One common tactic used by scammers is to lure customers with extremely low prices, often under the guise of store closure sales or unbelievable clearance deals. Be cautious of stores that offer items at prices significantly lower than market average. Remember, if it seems too good to be true, it likely is. Additionally, widespread discounts across all products in a store should raise suspicion.  

  1. Manipulated reviews and fake endorsements

Online reviews are a critical factor in purchasing decisions. Scammers, aware of this, often create fake reviews and endorsements on their sites, mimicking the look of legitimate customer feedback. For example, they may use images from reputable review platforms without linking to actual, verifiable reviews.  

To protect yourself, verify reviews on independent platforms and social media. Pay attention to negative comments about non-delivery, counterfeit products, or problematic return policies. Absence of reviews for an e-shop should prompt you to search for feedback using the company's name, often found in their "About Us" section. 

  1. Bogus company information

Before making a purchase from a store lacking third-party reviews, do some detective work. Search for the store's business name and address. If you find the same address associated with multiple businesses, or if it's located in a residential area, be cautious.  

Also, verify if the store provides a contact number and check its legitimacy. A search engine check of the phone number and address can reveal if they are commonly associated with different, unrelated stores, a red flag for fraudulent activity. 

Be wary of stores that omit essential details in their "About Us" or "Contact Us" sections. A legitimate store will transparently display operational information, including physical location and contact methods. 

  1. Unusual payment methods

When shopping online, avoid stores that insist on unconventional payment methods such as wire transfers, cryptocurrencies, or gift cards. Opt for secure payment options like credit cards, PayPal (using a credit card), or recognized online payment gateways. These methods offer greater protection and a higher likelihood of recovering your funds in case of fraud. 

Be alert for any payment process errors that might lead you to less secure payment options. 

  1. Inconsistencies in claims 

Scammers often overlook details, leading to contradictions within their sites. For instance, a store may claim that all products are locally made and shipped, but the shipping details suggest international origins. Comparing the information in "About Us" or "Contact Us" with the products sold can also reveal discrepancies. Copy-pasted, irrelevant information is a common red flag. 

  1. Stores claiming to sell everything

Be skeptical of unknown stores claiming to offer an extensive range of products without ever running out of stock. While large retailers might have diverse inventories, smaller stores usually have more limited selections.  

Stay secure online 

For added security, consider Avast’s state-of-the-art security solutions, featuring advanced AI algorithms designed to detect and warn against fake online stores. These tools are crafted to provide a safe and stress-free online shopping experience. 

What to do if you’re scammed by a fake online store 

If you've unfortunately been scammed by a counterfeit online store, resulting in issues like not receiving the product, receiving the wrong or a substandard item, you have the right to dispute the transaction and seek a refund. The approach may vary based on your payment method. 

Request a refund 

For payments made via credit/debit card or wire/bank transfer, contact your bank or card network (like Visa or Mastercard) immediately to file a chargeback request. Remember, there's usually a time limit (typically 30 to 120 days) to initiate this process. 

If you used PayPal, start by requesting a refund directly from the seller. If there's no response and you're within 180 days of the payment date, escalate the issue through PayPal’s Resolution Center. 

Directly contacting a fraudulent store for refunds often leads to intentional delays. It's recommended to initiate the refund process through your payment method. Gather any evidence like invoices to support your claim. 

Report fraudulent stores 

After initiating your refund process, it’s crucial to report the fake store to prevent others from falling victim. Take the following steps: 

  • Report the store on the social media platform where you found it. Leaving a negative review on their profile can also be helpful. 
  • Leave a warning review on third-party platforms like Google, Trustpilot, or Sitejabber. 
  • Report to authorities and consumer protection agencies in your country. 
  • Notify Avast about the scam so we can analyze it and enhance our defense mechanisms. 

Staying safe in the digital shopping world 

Online shopping, while convenient, comes with its risks. Always approach new e-shops with caution, and remember, if an offer seems too incredible, it might just be a scam. Equip yourself with knowledge and tools like Avast's security solutions, designed to safeguard your online shopping experiences. By staying vigilant and informed, you can enjoy the vast world of e-commerce with confidence and security. 

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