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Shopping online can save time and effort and gives you a wide choice of goods from around the world. Unfortunately, while most buyers and sellers are genuine, fraudsters use online shopping scams because they can hide their identity and target many victims at the same time.
What you can do to protect yourself
Do some research to find out what a fair or competitive price is for similar goods in the same condition; if the offer sounds too good to miss out on, it might not really exist, be fake or of inferior quality.
Fraudsters often use stock images or other people’s images, or use the same image on multiple websites/adverts. You can check if images appear elsewhere on the internet through websites like TinEye or reverse.photos.
Check the seller or buyer’s review history and feedback from other reviewers. Beware of accounts that may have been set up very recently with lots of favourable feedback that sounds similar, this could be an indication of fake reviews.
Always use the site’s recommended payment site, if they have one, and read the terms and conditions to understand what you are protected for. If you pay any other way than via a recommended payment site, you may not be able to recover your money.
Where there’s no recommended payment site, paying via credit card or known third party payment providers is preferable to direct bank transfers. Check your bank statements or online account regularly.
Make sure that the website you’re buying from is genuine – and not a fake or copycat site – by typing in the address yourself and checking the spelling. Fake addresses usually vary from authentic ones with just one or two incorrect letters.
Research sellers’ and other bidders’ selling history. And bear in mind that a website ending ‘.co.uk’ doesn’t necessarily mean it’s based in the UK. Check the address of the company and the phone number.
Don’t make payment over insecure WiFi (a public WiFi or one with no password to access).
Make sure you’re making payments on a secure site. You can check the link is secure in two ways:
there should be a padlock symbol in the browser window where you can see the site address / URL when you log in or register (beware on unfamiliar sites as this can be faked); if you’re not sure the webpage is genuine, don't use it.; be sure that the padlock is within the address bar at the top of the screen, not on the page itself
the web address should begin with ‘https://’; the ‘s’ stands for ‘secure’
As well as the advice above, there are further steps you should take if buying a car advertised online.
Always view the vehicle and documentation before making any payment.
Make sure you receive a receipt and ‘new keeper’s details’ (V5C registration certificate) at the time you make the payment.
Check that the V5C has a DVLA watermark, and that the vehicle identification number (VIN) printed on it matches that on the vehicle itself.
The VIN is stamped into the vehicle’s chassis, usually in the engine bay or beneath the plastic trim around the driver or passenger door opening. It’s normally also displayed on the bottom left of the windscreen when viewing from outside the vehicle, and/or on a sticker inside the driver or passenger door opening.
Don’t be pressurised into making any advance payments (such as a holding deposit or transportation fee) without seeing the vehicle in person first.
Carry out checks by getting a Hire Purchase Investigation (HPI) vehicle history check or similar report to make sure the vehicle isn’t stolen, cloned or subject to outstanding payments, and a DVLA MOT history check.
Be wary of purchasing vehicles from another country, particularly when there are requests for exportation costs.
Use known third party payment providers after checking terms and conditions. If making a direct bank transfer, send the transfer only at the point of collection. Avoid using cheques or banker’s draft.
If you make payments in cash, consider carrying this out at your or the seller’s bank premises for added protection.
Be aware of spoofed websites: these are fake sites made to look like real ones to steal your personal or banking details when you submit them to the site.
Check the website address at the top of the web address bar to make sure no characters are incorrect. Look for ‘https’ at the beginning of the web address and the padlock symbol (see above).
How the scammers work
The most common scams occur on online auction sites, where criminals pose as sellers of popular items, such as mobile phones, cars and designer goods at bargain prices.
Their aim is to encourage you to transfer money quickly. After the payment is made they disappear, leaving you with no goods (or faulty or counterfeit goods) and no way of getting your money back.
Some criminals create and operate fraudulent websites posing as genuine online retailers. These can be difficult to distinguish from the real thing.
Criminals sometimes pose as buyers on auction sites, sending spoof emails as proof of payment transfer to the genuine seller. The payment fails to materialise, but the goods have already been sent.
Scammers can enter a very low bid and then, using another name, enter an extremely high bid. Just before bidding closes the high bidder will withdraw leaving the scammer’s low bid to win.
Scammers use fraudulent (phishing) emails to pose as well-known payment or auction sites to steal your financial details and/or money.
It can be difficult to spot a scammer among the vast majority of genuine buyers and sellers online, but there are some common ploys they use that should help you identify fraudulent advertisements:
scammers will lure you in with ‘irresistible’ bargain prices for popular items, such as mobile phones, designer goods and vehicles that don’t really exist
they’ll try to pressurise you into not using secure recommended payment sites and to pay via a bank transfer
they might encourage you to transfer money immediately by offering a special discount or pressurise you by saying it’s time-limited or they have other buyers interested
fraudsters may pressurise you to transfer payment or a holding deposit before you have seen the item(s) in person
When selling goods, make sure you receive payment confirmation before sending goods. Always check your account online or ask your bank to make sure cleared funds have been received.
Take pictures of items before posting them so you have proof of condition in case of a fraudulent claim.
Fraudsters send fake emails claiming to be from well-known companies, providing payment instructions or claiming payments have been received in order to steal your details and money. Like fake websites, these phishing emails often use similar email addresses and stolen logos to appear genuine.
In some cases, fraudsters spoof genuine addresses. You can check if emails are genuine by contacting the company directly. Don't do this by using the contact details or live chat functions on the email received, use known contact details (preferably phone), or log into your account to confirm.
Don't trust unsolicited emails following unsuccessful bids on auctions that claim the original bidder is no longer purchasing and offer you the purchase instead.
Get Safe Online Provides unbiased, practical, easy-to-understand information about online safety and security.
Action Fraud The UK’s national fraud and cyber crime reporting centre. Providing a central point of contact for information about fraud and cyber crime. Call 0300 123 2040.