There has been a major increase in online shopping scams during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent public service announcement by the FBI. Reports to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) from victims of online shopping scams have soared in recent months.
Many of the reports concern orders from websites where the goods are not received or where different items to those ordered were sent. Victims of these scams were directed to websites offering a range of items for sale from social media platforms and through general web searches looking for specific items on the shopping pages.
These sites were offering cut price deals on small appliances, tools, furniture, gym equipment and other items, with the prices far lower than the cost of the items at other online stores.
Many of the websites required victims to make payment using an online money transfer service. The websites provided contact information, including valid U.S. addresses, to make victims believe they were dealing with a legitimate U.S. company, but the contact information was unassociated with the website. That contain information was found to be have been used across a range of different scam sites. Many of the scam sites used information that had been copied from legitimate websites.
When goods were not received and victims contacted the sellers, some were offered partial refunds. Individuals who were sent incorrect items were told to return the goods that had been shipped “in error” in order to receive the correct goods or a refund, but the correct goods were never shipped and no full refunds were given. One common theme involved taking payment for one item and being sent disposable facemasks from China.
The FBI is warning all consumers to be on alert and to take extra care when purchasing online. Many of the scam sites used the top-level domains .club and .top, rather than standard .com domains. Many of the websites had only been registered in the past 6 months and used a private domain registration service to prevent their information from being published in the Whois Public Internet Directory. In most of the cases, the items being offered for sale were at a substantially discounted price. Many of the websites used a free email service for contact information rather than a company email address.
The FBI recommends checking the Whois directory prior to making any purchase and to avoid using any websites that have the registrant information hidden, to be wary of recently created websites, and to check with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) website and conduct a check of the business prior to making any purchases. If any contact information is provided on the site, to check that the retailer is actually at the address.