How I Fell for an Online Scam (and Got My Money Back)
Scammers will create fake online stores to steal shoppers' money and personal information. Stay safe by watching out for these red flags next time you're shopping online.
Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels
While my work primarily focuses on learning and writing about personal finances, I've delved into the world of scams and fraud recently. It's always been my mission to help others save money, and teaching others to detect and avoid scams is perfectly in line with this goal. However, in spite of my newfound interest, I still fell victim to an e-commerce scam. Learn from my mistakes, and don't ignore the red flags next time you're tempted to click buy.
How the scammers got to me
The scam started when I was shopping for a solar generator — a rechargeable battery with outlets on it that you can connect to a solar panel for off-the-grid power. I was doing a lot of comparison shopping and getting ready to make a purchase during a major retailer's site-wide sale.
Instead, I got pulled in by a targeted social media ad featuring a well-known solar generator brand and discounted prices "due to the company closing its retail stores." After clicking on the ad, I was sent to a website with the brand's information and logo, multiple products with in-depth descriptions and a countdown next to each type of generator. There were only a few left, and I watched as the available quantity slowly dropped.
Just as the scammers wanted, I felt the urge to act quickly. It seemed plausible, I told myself. The company sells its products online and through physical retailers, and the price was low but only slightly lower than the sale prices I was seeing on the other site. I wishfully thought that maybe they were saving money on fees or commissions and passing the savings on to me.
What was actually happening
Fake e-commerce websites are a popular type of online shopping scam. The scammers can quickly set up a website, or many sites, using stolen graphics and text from legitimate retailers' sites. They then drive traffic to their fake site by posting on social media, online marketplaces or using social media ads.
If you make a "purchase" on one of these fake sites, the scammers might steal your money outright or steal your payment information and use or sell it later. Or, in some cases, they may send you products that were stolen or bought through fraudulent means (such as using someone else's stolen credit card information).
In the days after I fell for the scam, I was repeatedly targeted by ads on Facebook for the same product. Some sent me to the same scam website, but others sent me to identical sites with different addresses. A few weeks later, I found that all these scam websites were taken down.
The red flags I ignored
I knew enough to be suspicious from the start, but I ignored a few red flags because I wanted to get a good deal. Here's what you — and I — should keep a closer eye on.
- The mismatched URL. The website's URL didn't include the brand's name. The company's logo, images and even an advertisement with a well-known celebrity were copied from the official website. But the mismatched URL was a big red flag.
- The flimsy about page. The product descriptions and main pages on the website had well-written, and likely copied, text. But the other pages, such as the about and contact pages, lacked many details. It wasn't the case here, but I've seen some scam websites that copy the about page text from a competitor's website. For example, they claim to be Brand X but have an about page featuring Brand Y.
- The details from the payment confirmation. Once I submitted my payment, I got an email confirmation from PayPal with the seller's information. I noticed it was a personal Gmail address rather than a business account.
I should have recognized the entire setup as a scam from the start, especially because it started with a social media ad. But seeing the recipient's personal information on the receipt was when it finally clicked.
How I got my money back
Although I was suspicious, I partially went through with the purchase because I was able to pay using a credit card via PayPal. I knew that if this wound up being a scam, I could dispute the purchase and likely get my money back.
A few minutes after checking out, I was convinced the seller was scamming me and I submitted a dispute to PayPal along with a description of what I thought happened and screenshots to back up my case. While the investigation took several weeks, I eventually got a refund.
Oddly enough, the seller still sent me a tracking code that showed the item was delivered the next week. But nothing was actually sent to my house.
After reflecting on what happened, there are a few steps I'll take to avoid similar scams in the future, and I suggest you consider them as well:
- Take a breath before buying. It was early in the morning when I fell for the scam, and I'd spent the previous few days trying to find the best deal on the solar generator I wanted. This all added to the sense of urgency. If I had taken a quick break and taken a few minutes to make coffee before coming back to my computer, I probably would have rethought my decision.
- Listen to your gut. Even though the price wasn't outlandishly low, it was a surprising discount. It felt slightly too good to be true, and I should have trusted that feeling.
- Consider the payment method. If I used a different payment method, such as a gift card, wire transfer, Zelle or cryptocurrency, there likely wouldn't be any way to get my money back. And if I had submitted my credit card information directly to the website, I could have become the victim of credit card fraud.
These same steps can also help you avoid losing money on other scams. However, scammers are always coming up with new ways to separate you from your money and personal information, and it's best to keep your guard up whenever you're asked to share info online.
Get your FICO® Score from FICO, for free. No credit card required.