7 red flags to look for when shopping online

While online shopping provides many benefits, you must be wary of scammers.

The Better Business Bureau’s Online Purchase Scams Report has consistently found online purchase scams are one of the top three riskiest scams based on how prevalent and costly they are to consumers. Of the people who reported a scam to the BBB, nearly 79% said they lost money in 2020 due to an online purchase scam.

Keep an eye out for some of these red flags if you want to stay safe next time you’re shopping online.

1. Prices are surprisingly low

Everyone likes getting a good deal, but a low price might indicate more risk than reward —especially when it’s a deep discount for popular brands and in-demand products.

Scammers set up fake online stores and “sell” items through a reputable marketplace website. In either case, you could wind up paying for a counterfeit product or get absolutely nothing in return. You might even receive fake shipping information or a warning that there will be shipping delays, giving the scammer more time to disappear before you suspect something is amiss.

2. You spot spelling errors in the URL

It’s easy to set up an e-commerce website, and scammers who do so may then pay to advertise their fake online stores.

These websites could use a real company’s logo, product images and descriptions. However, you might notice some minor spelling errors in the URL.

For example, the website might be wwwbrandname.com — notice there’s no period after the www. Or, perhaps the site ends in .bargain or .shop instead of .com. Also, look out for sites that start with HTTP rather than HTTPS, which denotes a site is secure and authenticated.

3. It’s a new website without much information

Beyond the URL, look for pages on the website with additional information about the company and its policies. If you don’t find an “about” page, return policy or contact information, that could be a red flag.

You could also look up when the website domain was registered by searching for “domain age checker” to find free tools. A recently registered domain could be a sign that scammers created the site; some will only keep a site up for a few weeks or months before shutting it down and starting another.

4. You’re asked to use unusual types of payment

Another red flag is when you’re asked to pay with specific payment options, such as:

  • Gift cards
  • Money orders
  • Wire transfers
  • Bank transfers
  • P2P payment apps
  • Cryptocurrencies

It’s often difficult, and may be impossible, to get your money back if you send a payment with one of these options. Most legitimate services will accept a credit card or debit card. In general, using a credit card could be safer because it’s not directly tied to your bank account, and credit cards may have better fraud protection guarantees.

5. The site pressures you to act fast

Artificial time constraints can push people to quickly act without thinking through a situation. Even if it’s a marketing gimmick rather than an outright scam, being aware of the psychological tricks at play can help you make a more informed decision.

Some examples include countdown timers for when a sale will end or your cart will expire.

6. The site requests unnecessary information

Companies need to collect a minimal amount of payment and contact information to process and fulfill your order.

However, you shouldn’t need to share additional personal information, such as your Social Security number or bank account details, to place an order.

Additionally, be wary of any site that requests you download a computer or mobile app as part of the ordering process.

7. You’re shopping on social media

Many small businesses sell products and primarily promote their company on social media channels.

But whether there’s a link to a website (remember tips 2 and 3 above) or you’re asked to send your payment and shipping information in a direct message, keep your guard up a little higher when you’re starting from a social media page.

For more information about how to protect yourself and your finances, see the following articles: