Shop online safely by avoiding these red flagsFeb 22, 2021 03:16PM ● By Karen Telleen-Lawton
For clothing especially, we like to test drive a product before purchase—browsing the store, feeling the fabric and trying it on in front of a mirror. But the pandemic has driven many die-hard brick and mortar shoppers online.
Mail-order purchases can sometimes be a bit of a gamble. Will the clothing size, color and quality be as advertised? Can we return it if we don’t like it? Will our credit card account be compromised?
My friend Chris found herself on the losing end of an online shopping scam. It ended up costing her at least as much in angst and time as it cost her in cash. But, she’s now a savvier online shopper.
Scam, or bad business?
It began a few months into the pandemic when she ordered a summer dress in two sizes, a pair of pants with a matching top, and earrings from a retailer called Lilicloth. When the clothes arrived, they were poorly made and ill-fitting.
“I wish I had read through the reviews before buying merchandise from them,” she told me.
She decided to return all of it. Though the website led her to believe it was an American company, her options were to accept a refund of only 15 percent or return them to an address in China. Lilicloth even suggested that “if there are any sizing issues, you can use this refund to alter the cloth.”
Lilicloth may be a scam or just a really bad business. Either way, it’s a lousy deal and all too common.
The Better Business Bureau reported that in 2019, online purchasing represented a quarter of the scams reported. It’s also the most likely to lead to a financial loss. According to AARP, the Federal Trade Commission reported a quadrupling in undelivered orders from 2015 to 2019. Spring of 2020 saw new record highs, tracking the pandemic-inspired spike in online shopping.
Even more ominous is that an unsatisfactory purchase may be just the first step in a continuing saga of heartache. In addition to inferior or missing products, scammers may be selling your data to advertising companies, infecting your computer with malware, or even harvesting your financial information for identity theft.
The surest way to improve both your experience and support your community in these difficult times is to shop locally. If that’s not a reasonable option for all your needs, the simplest choice may be to just use retailers you know and trust.
Big online resellers like Amazon and eBay are experimenting with policies such as automatically approved returns. In some cases, you can get a refund without returning the product. However, if you try to take advantage of this policy, eventually you can be permanently banned from using the website.
Avoid online scams
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the chances you’re scammed while online shopping.
If the product you’re considering is half the price of competitive products (or less), there’s a good chance it’s too good to be true.
If you’ve never ordered from a certain website, check their product reviews. Even more important, type the company name in the search bar along with the word “scam,” and see what comes up.
Likewise, be skeptical if the website seems unprofessional, with typos, grammatical errors, and the look of a company that may move quickly into—and out of—a market. Try to contact them by phone and email and gauge the response. If their corporate customer service email looks more like a personal email (like AOL, Gmail, or Yahoo), check further. Be even more suspicious if their URL (which shows in the search bar, or when you hover over a link) looks slightly off.
Though not foolproof, payment by credit card is the most secure. Apple computer users can check for the little padlock sign in the address bar. These websites are protected by a digital certificate, meaning traffic between your Mac and the server is encrypted to prevent your personal information. For non-Mac users, check for the https:// in the URL.
On the other hand, if the retailer demands payment by money order, preloaded money card, or wire transfer, they may be trying to cover their tracks.
If you’ve made it this far and still want to order from an unfamiliar company, look around the website for information about their business practices. What is their policy on returns? Do they discuss dispute resolution? It should be clear and understandable.
Finally, if you are the victim of a scam, report it. The FTC maintains a hotline at www.usa.gov/stop-scams-frauds, or call 877-382-4357.
Unfortunately, Chris’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. She returned the clothes, spending $63 for return shipment to China. She waited four months with no word. Finally, her package was returned, addressee unknown. She spent over a hundred dollars and was stuck with unwearable clothes.
Be skeptical if you spot any of these:
- The price is too good to be true.
- The website is unprofessional.
- The payment arrangement is insecure or biased against the customer.
- Information on returns and dispute resolution is absent or sketchy.
- You find a plethora of bad reviews.