Online Scams Becoming Increasingly Common


A person on a laptop with a credit card | Image by Shutterstock

In the age of targeted ads, scammers are getting increasingly sophisticated, making it more important than ever to think before you tap, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

“These criminals are smart. They really use technology to their advantage,” said Amy Rasor, Fort Worth regional director for the BBB.

This is due to data mining — when large data sets are sifted through to determine trends or patterns based on user demographics, buying history, or digital behavior — and targeted ads — when advertisement networks show ads to users based on their data.

Furthermore, every move is monitored by current data mining technologies.

“You may have emailed someone, you may have had a discussion and your Alexa picked it up,” said Rasor. “Everything is being tracked at this point.”

Advertising platforms can collect and track data from different sources, such as cookies — tiny files that store information about your on-site actions or purchases — from the websites you have previously browsed. Cookies are collected when you click “allow cookies” on a website, and they are transferred to the CRM or third-party services.

This is why ads often feel eerily familiar: platforms such as Facebook and Instagram utilize targeted ads. While sometimes these ads can yield deals and steals, they could also trap unsuspecting users and lead them into a scam.

“People pretend that they’re Google, Amazon, the IRS,” said Rasor. “It’s the same thing with products — they can easily mimic a brand.”

One Texas woman was drawn into a similar brand-mimicking scam while scrolling on Facebook.

“It looked like James Avery. There was nothing indicating it wasn’t James Avery,” said Christy Oxner of Weatherford.

Oxner clicked on the ad, which took her to a website advertising a big sale and she proceeded to shop online. It seemed to be normal until she checked out.

“Once I hit purchase, it popped up where it was from and it just didn’t say James Avery.” Instead, it was a sequence of random letters and numbers, which also popped up on her PayPal account purchase history.

Oxner thought it was maybe an outlet or independent seller. But when the jewelry was delivered, it was clearly not what she had paid for.

“It looks like a gumball machine toy or something,” she said.

Oxner made a complaint and sent a photo of the purchased item via email.

“Their response after I sent them the picture was, ‘Those look nice. Why don’t you keep them and we’ll give you a discount on your next order?’ And I was like… ‘Um, what?'” laughed Oxner.

The company offered Oxener a 5% refund, then 8%, then 10%. However, they told her she would first have to pay to ship the jewelry back to China. She was, fortunately, able to get her money back through PayPal.

Over the last five years, reports of social media scams have soared.

In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission received about 5,000 complaints from people who lost a combined $42 million by scams. In 2021, there were 95,000 complaints with losses of over $770 million.

Rasor said there is one big problem with those numbers: “They’re not high enough.”

Much like the FTC, the BBB receives reports of online shopping scams. According to Rasor, those numbers represent only a small share of people falling victim to scams.

“There are tons more out there that have not shared this information,” she said. “They think, ‘Oh, I’m embarrassed, I don’t want to say I got scammed. Oh it wasn’t that much, it’s not that big a deal, we’ll just write it off as a mistake.'”

According to Rasor, you should check the settings for every app you’ve downloaded and be cautious when using your phone to avoid mistakes.

“You may want to go in and adjust your settings for ‘only allow to track when I’m using this app,’ or ‘don’t track at all.'”

Her advice doesn’t stop there. She also says that if you come across an interesting ad on social media, don’t tap it. Do not copy and paste the web address. Instead, open a browser and search for it yourself.

“You just want to go straight to the website to make sure it’s the company’s website.”

Also, make sure to do research on each brand before you buy, and purchase consciously — not on a random whim.

You might want to research key things such as a company return policy and contact information: if that information is unavailable, it is likely a scam.

Another good idea is to google the company name in conjunction with “scam” or “complaint” to see if other buyers have had issues. Also, make sure to read item reviews to see if people really are getting what they paid for.

Likewise, watch out for deals that are too good to be true, because they likely are not, and “high pressure” sales, when there’s a countdown or expiration on the deal.

BBB Scam Tracker is one resource you can use to search for complaints regarding companies or products.

Lastly, use a protected form of payment such as PayPal or a credit card when you shop online.

According to Rasor, adopting practices such as these is like adding a layer of protection, and can only help in the long run.

“Your cameras on your house are one level, your door lock is another level, your dogs are another level,” she said. “It has to layer what’s protecting us.”

For further information, the BBB just released an in-depth study about online shopping fraud and the role of social media.

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2 months ago

If the banking and payment processors, like Paypal, had to cough up the money for each fake/scam purchase made, they’d be a lot more interested in confirming those they process payments for aren’t trying to scam people.