Online Shopping in Hyperdrive Mode; Consumers ripped-off by Imposters

September 4, 2022

The following article by the Consumer Council of Fiji reiterates the importance of consumers’ vigilance when shopping online given the increase in the number of consumers losing money to unscrupulous and fly-by night online operators.

The market share of shopping that consumers do online has been growing for years and the COVID-19 pandemic sent the trend into hyperdrive.

Unfortunately, Cybercriminals are keeping pace. This is evident by the number of complaints lodged at the Consumer Council of Fiji (CCoF) relating to online shopping; a staggering 189 complaints were registered in a 12-month period between August 2021 and July 2022. Additionally, a recent poll run by the Consumer Council of Fiji has revealed that 56% of consumers who participated have been ripped by businesses/individuals operating online via platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.

The typical shopping scam starts with a bogus website, mobile app or, increasingly, social media pages and relating advertisements. A study done by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) found that 40 percent of online shopping scams reported to the different consumer protection organizations originate on Facebook or Instagram. This is also true for Fiji as the CCoF has discovered increasing number of consumers being duped via these social media platforms. While many online sellers are legitimate, unfortunately scammers can use the anonymous nature of the internet and social media to rip off unsuspecting shoppers.

It is also noted that at times, some of these imposters do deliver merchandise however, these are either shoddy knockoffs or of extreme unmerchantable quality — – not worth the money consumers spent. Moreore often, consumers wait in vain for their purchase to arrive; which never eventuates.

Case study
In one of the cases lodged at the Council, a customer ordered an iPhone in March 2022 which was being retailed online. The consumer paid $3000 however, the phone has not been delivered to-date. Upon the Council’s intervention, the online operator agreed to provide a full refund – which has not eventuated.

The ‘Peak’ period for online imposters
Whilst online imposters and fake stores are becoming increasingly common, not surprisingly, it goes in to hyperdrive mode during national holidays/celebrations and other special events/days; which triggers a brief ‘shopping season’. The BBB also warns that these seasonal super sales bring a plethora of deceptive ads, phishing messages and lookalike shopping sites.

This being said, Fijian are already starting to prepare for Father’s Day; which is just around the conner. Thousands of consumers will be eagerly looking for gifts to show their appreciation and thank fathers for their unconditional love, support, affection, and contributions to their lives growing up. Online businesses will definitely take advantage of this by advertising products which are usually high in demand during this time of the year. So will imposters and fraudsters; with deals which would be hard to resist.

Warning Signs

In order to ensure that consumers are not ‘sitting ducks’ for online imposters’ ‘hunting’ for unsuspecting prey to rip-off, the following warning signs hints to the unscrupulous intents of such players.

Therefore, consumers need to be smart and vigilant and ensure that they do not fall victim to such lures.

  1. If too good to be true – it probably is. The Internet security firm Norton says that consumers should be on guard if discounts exceed 55 percent.
  2. Shoddy website design or sloppy English. Real retailers take great care with their online presentations. Therefore, if consumers come across shoddy websites and sloppy English; it should be regarded as a ‘red flag’.
  3. Limited or suspicious contact options — for example, they only have a fill-in contact form, or the customer-service email is a Yahoo or Gmail account, not a corporate one.
  4. URLs with extraneous words or characters (most stores use only their brand name in web addresses) or unusual domains — for example, bargain, .app or a foreign domain instead of .com or .net.
  5. The other party insists on immediate payment, or payment by electronic funds transfer or a wire service. They may insist that you pay up-front for discount cards before you can access a cheap deal or a give-away.
  6. The social media-based store is very new and selling products at very low prices. The store may have limited information about delivery and other policies.
  7. The online retailer does not provide adequate information. This information may pertain to privacy, terms and conditions of use, dispute resolution or contact details. The seller may be based overseas, or the seller does not allow payment through a secure payment service such as PayPal or a credit card transaction.
  8. Create a sense of urgency — Online scammers know they need you to act quickly before you realize what they are up to. They will often create a sense of urgency to stop you from first checking their claims.
  9. Check the ratio of followers to engagement. Be wary if a social media account has thousands of followers, but the posts does not have much engagement. These accounts buy fake followers just to look authentic hence, consumers should try and refrain from engaging with them.
  10. Bad reviews or reviews that does not make sense. Find reviews of the site or the owner of the business to learn what others have said about them. If consumers come across bad reviews; an informed decision can be made. If consumers come across reviews that does not make sense, such as reviews for a light bulb when you are buying a phone charger, consider yourself warned. Another red flag can be if all the reviews are all glowing, but written in less-than-standard English or from usernames that are just a jumble of numbers and letters: they could be fake.

Do’s and Don’ts – In a nutshell

As a ‘rule of thumb’, consumers must always take heed of the following Do’s and Don’ts whenever shopping online.

Do’sDon’ts
Do use trusted sites rather than shopping with a search engine.
Scammers can game search results to lead you astray.
Do comparative shopping. Check prices from multiple retailers to help determine if a deal you have seen really is too good to be true.
Do research an unfamiliar product or brand. Search for its name with terms like “scam” or “complaint,” and look for reviews.
Do check that phone numbers and addresses on store sites are genuine, so you can contact the seller in case of problems.
Do carefully read delivery, exchange, refund and privacy policies. If they are vague or non-existent, take your business elsewhere.
Do look twice at URLs and app names. Misplaced or transposed letters are a scam giveaway but easy to miss.  
Don’t pay by wire transfer or money order.
Sellers that demand these types of payments
may be scammers, and unlike with credit cards or reputable e-pay services such as PayPal, there is
little recourse to recover your money.
Don’t assume a retail website is safe because it is encrypted. Many scam sites use encryption, indicated by a padlock icon or “https://” in front of the URL,
to provide a false sense of security. Use other means, like those listed to the left, to confirm if a site is legit.
Don’t provide more information than a retailer needs. That should be only your billing
information and the shipping address.
Don’t use sites that require you to download software or enter personal information to access coupons or discount codes.
Don’t buy from sites that are very new. Look for a copyright date.

If you have been ripped-off by individuals/businesses operating via online platforms or suspect that any pages/accounts are intentionally deceiving consumers then reach out to the Consumer Council of Fiji immediately via:

  • The Consumer Council of Fiji Mobile App (available on Google Play Store only);
  • National Consumer Helpline Toll Free Number 155;
  • Email: complaints@consumersfiji.org;
  • Complaints portal on consumersfiji.org; or
  • Visit our office at Level 5, Vanua Arcade, Victoria Parade, Suva

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