The Sneakiest Online Shopping Scams

Stealing a credit card through a laptopOnline shoppers will spend a record $91 billion over 61 days this holiday season, according to predictions. On Black Friday alone, there will be some $3 billion in internet buys, and Cyber Monday is expected to be the busiest shopping day of all time, generating about $3.4 billion in sales.

That’s great news for retailers … as well as rip-off artists behind these sneakiest online shopping scams:

App traps. In the reigning ruse, a surge in bogus apps recently began flooding Apple and Android app stores mimicking well-known retailers and products — from Dollar Tree and Foot Locker to luxury brands including Jimmy Choo and Christian Dior. Some contain malware that can steal personal information or trigger ransomware to hijack mobile devices until a ransom is paid, notes the New York Times. Others encourage users to enter credit card information or log in using their Facebook credentials, which can jeopardize those accounts.

Defense: Before downloading, carefully check app logos and descriptions for misspellings, missing letters (such as “Foot Locke” without the “r”) or poor English, as many fakes originate in China. Other red flags include poor or few customer reviews, indications the app just launched, or links to apps from other retailers.

Survey swindles. These unexpected emails, text messages and social media posts promise a generous gift card, coupon or actual products for sharing your opinions about planned purchases or a “recent shopping experience.” But beware: Links that supposedly lead you to the survey often hide computer malware, or “questions” about personal or financial information — including bank and credit accounts for supposed reward deposits — could be a set-up for future identity theft or to get you on scammer-shared sucker lists for future come-ons.

Defense: Don’t trust generic “Dear Customer” inquiries; when legitimate companies ask about customer experiences, they’re personalized with your name, specific product and/or purchase time — and usually arrive at your in-box within 30 minutes after an online transaction. Expensive items like iPads or $100 gift cards aren’t awarded by the thousands just for answering a few questions, so before falling for social media posts, authenticate giveaways at manufacturer or retailer websites. Before clicking on any link supposedly from a well-known company, hover your computer mouse over the URL or link; if the address doesn’t display the company’s name before .com, assume a scam or likely malware because when legitimate vendors conduct surveys, they often lead back to the company website.

Copycat cons. Apps aren’t the only copycats; fraudsters also set up lookalike websites of respected retailers to sell cheap counterfeits and capture credit card information. These bogus websites may look exactly like the real McCoy — and be included in search engine results when you type specific products, company names or even terms like “discount toys.” But look closely: Their domain address is slightly off … a missing or extra letter, variation of a company name (say, Overstock Inc. vs. the real or other sneaky tweaks, such as, indicating the website was registered in Mongolia, or for a site in Cameroon.

Ways to save, expert investment advice, scam alerts and more! — AARP Money Newsletter »

Defense: In addition to a careful reading of the domain name and product description text — beware of “scammer grammar” and anything not ending with .com or .org — look for a Contact Us page with a physical address you can verify by looking up the company on the Internet, or a phone number. Scam sites often allow only for email correspondence, which makes for better hiding in cyberspace. If a phone number is listed, call it to ensure it’s not a fax machine or voicemail with no live operator — two more red flags for a potential scam. Of course, never provide credit card information on any page without an https://. The “s” means it’s secure.

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud. Keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

Photo: BrianAJackson/iStock

Also of Interest

See the AARP home page for deals, savings tips, trivia and more.