How to spot fake shopping sites and avoid being scammed

FILE - In this Dec. 12, 2016 file photo, a person in Miami searches the internet for sales. Online shopping scams are on the rise as thieves look to take advantage of the increase in people shopping online during the pandemic.  (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 12, 2016 file photo, a person in Miami searches the internet for sales. Online shopping scams are on the rise as thieves look to take advantage of the increase in people shopping online during the pandemic. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

NEW YORK – Ben Black bought what he thought was a well-priced drone online. But the drone never showed up, the site stopped responding to his emails and he never got his $100 back.

He was scammed.

“I’m pissed I got caught in it,” says Black, who lives in Westminster, Colorado.

Online shopping scams, like the one Black fell for, are on the rise as thieves take advantage of the surge of people flocking to the internet during the pandemic. They do it by creating slick-looking websites pretending to sell gadgets, toys, cleaning supplies and anything else in high demand. To lure you onto the sites, scammers pay for ads on Facebook, Google and other websites.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission says it received a record number of reports from people losing money to online shopping scams in April and May, mostly from people being tricked into paying for face masks, disinfectant wipes and other pandemic-related supplies that never arrived. So far this year, the FTC has received more than 37,000 reports of online shopping fraud, amounting to $27 million in losses. The number has been increasing every year since 2015, amounting to a $420 million in losses.

The best way to not get scammed is to be aware of the tactics and know what to look for. Here’s some tips:

RESEARCH THE SITE

If you’re on a website you’ve never used before, do an online search of the company's name along with the words “scam” or “review.” Check the site’s social media pages for any complaints from customers. And try the Better Business Bureau's Scam Tracker, which lets you search company names and read any complaints. Another thing you should do: Read the site's “About Us” page. Misspellings or sentences that don’t make sense are red flags.

BE WARY OF ONLINE ADS

Place extra scrutiny on sites you find through social media ads, which are a common way to lure people in. Sometimes the ads are based on products you've been searching for online. For example, if you’ve been looking for a certain toy, scammers can buy ads to get their site on your Facebook timeline with a picture of the toy you've been wanting to buy.

BE SUSPICIOUS OF HARD-TO-FIND PRODUCTS

Another way shoppers get tricked is by sites that falsely say they have products in stock that are sold out almost everywhere else. Last month, for example, the FTC moved to shutdown 25 sites that tricked people into paying for Clorox and Lysol wipes, only to never receive them. Scammers do the same during the holidays, saying that they have hard-to-find video game consoles or toys.

DON’T FALL FOR PRICE

If the price is too good to be true, it probably is, says Better Business Bureau spokeswoman Katherine Hutt. Scammers offer lower prices on hot products knowing that shoppers will find them hard to resist.

IF YOU ARE SCAMMED...

Call your credit card company to dispute the charges and try to get a refund. You can also report the site on the Better Business Bureau and FTC websites, which could help others from being scammed.