While it has never been easier to shop online, the Consumer Fraud Task Force is advising consumers to take precautions against becoming victims of fraud or poor business practices.
The National Retail Federation expects e-commerce sales to reach more than $400 billion in 2017. Last year, a Pew Research study found that nearly 80 percent of shippers use online platforms to buy goods.
Better Business Bureau (BBB) ScamTracker statistics compiled during 2016 put online purchase scams as the fourth-highest scam for the year. Just over six percent of more than 30,000 ScamTracker reports made last year were consumers reporting they were ripped off while shopping online.
Consumers in the St. Louis region and across the nation have been victimized in a number online scams. The Task Force warns that it is simple for an online retailer to set up shop. If consumers use a merchant they don’t know, they should research the business to make sure they are trustworthy. Too often, consumers realize after the sale they just gave their hard-earned money to an unscrupulous business.
Here are some recent cases investigated by members of the Task Force:
- A St. Charles County based business that sells custom-painted video game controllers continues to receive complaints from consumers who say the company fails to deliver product for which they have paid. The business has been the focus of two BBB consumer alerts in the last three years and complaints continue to be filed against the company to both BBB and the Missouri Attorney General.
- Several customers filed complaints with BBB and the Missouri Attorney General against a Columbia, Mo.-based online business that sells women’s clothing and fashion accessories, saying they waited months for their orders. Some of the complainants said they eventually received their merchandise, but only after repeatedly reaching out to the business.
- The Federal Trade Commission in March charged a group of online marketers with deceptively luring consumers with “free” and “risk-free” trials for cooking gadgets, golf equipment and access to related online subscription services. According to the FTC, the businesses asked people for credit card information to cover shipping and handling and then charged the consumers for products and services without consent. The case is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.
The Task Force offers these tips for shopping safely online:
- Protect your computer. Install a firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware software. Check for and install the latest updates and run virus scans regularly.
- Check a site’s security settings. If the site is secure, its URL (web address) should start with https://.You may also see a picture of a small closed lock in the lower right hand corner of the screen.
- Confirm the online merchant’s physical address and phone number. If a website doesn’t have contact information, that increases the likelihood of the site being illegitimate.
- Beware of too-good-to-be-true deals. Offers on websites and in unsolicited emails may offer free or very low prices on hard-to-find items. There may be hidden costs or your purchase may sign you up for a monthly charge. Look for and read the fine print.
- Always pay with a credit card. Under federal law, you can dispute the charges if you don’t receive an item. Shoppers also have dispute rights if there are unauthorized charges on the card, and many cards have zero-liability polices if someone steals and uses your card number. Check your credit card statement regularly for unauthorized charges. Never wire money to someone you don’t know.
- Confirm shipping dates. Federal law requires that orders made by phone, mail or online be shipped by the date promised or within 30 days.
- Know your rights. If goods aren’t shipped on time, shoppers can cancel and demand a refund. Consumers also may reject merchandise if it is defective or was misrepresented.
- Do your homework. Go to bbb.org to check out a company or to register complaints. To learn about scams reported in your area and to report if you were a target, go to BBB’s ScamTracker.
The Task Force is a coalition of local, state and federal government agencies and nonprofit business and consumer groups in Missouri and Illinois that work together to protect consumer and donor rights and guard against fraud.
The group has tackled predatory payday loan offers, tax scams, timeshare reselling fraud, credit repair and foreclosure scams, bogus sweepstakes, Internet sweetheart scams, phony grant scams, home remodeling, air duct cleaning schemes and a variety of other issues.