June 25, 2024

Fake retail websites are one of the many ways fraudsters are attempting to part customers with their money and personal information. Often, these illegitimate websites appear very similar to recognized retailers’, but with some attention to details, these can be distinguished. You can spot them through irregular URLs, unattainable price drops, lack of necessary information, and clumsy spelling or format.

Aussies shelled out over $63 billion on internet shopping last year. Although reports of scam losses saw a drop during the same period, swindlers are still preying on a large portion of this sum.

Our recent scan of counterfeit retail websites unveiled that these scams still pose a hazard, with dubious pages cloning well-known retailers such as Rip Curl and Witchery. What’s more, study led by a European cyber security consultancy recently unveiled one fraud network controlling tens of thousands of these counterfeit stores, causing consumers worldwide to lose huge amounts of money over a three-year period.

With the end of financial year sales approaching in Australia, we’ve assembled the most practical tips for identifying imitation websites and safeguarding your online purchases.

Understanding Counterfeit Online Stores

These are essentially product and service scams. Typically, scammers create websites that seem like they belong to well-known businesses. They use the logos of popular stores and spread deceptive advertisements for significantly marked-down items on all types of social media and search engines. This way, fraudsters can establish a store presence with little financial investment.

Those who purchase items from these fraudulent sites either never receive their order or end up with sub-par items they never wanted. Meanwhile, scammers benefit from the easy profits these fake stores yield.

Is this a common occurrence?

It’s quite common. According to reports submitted to ACCC’s Scamwatch, from January to November last year, over 2700 reports were made regarding fake online stores. As a result, these fraudulent operations fleeced shoppers of over half a million dollars.

A 2022 study carried out for the Australian Retailers Association revealed that 40% of the 1000 surveyed Australians had come across a scam shopping website. And this year, Aussies have lost almost $900,000 to all types of online shopping frauds, comprising these sham sites.

Moreover, scammers are turning to trusted online platforms to promote these scams aggressively. The latest sham pages we identified were being promoted on Facebook. While Google and Facebook’s parent company Meta are working on removing these harmful ads, CHOICE is arguing for these digital platforms to be legally obligated to do more to save users from scams.

Identifying a Fake Website

1. Odd URL

Few things are as easily recognizable as a retailer’s website address or URL. However, a scammer’s URL attempts to mirror the actual deal as closely as possible. Sometimes, they use numbers instead of letters that appear alike, such as using one instead of a lower-case “L”. Unauthorized URLs often contain redundant words and formatting, far from the plain and identifiable presence major retailers aim for.

For instance, our latest scam website search brought up a site masquerading the popular surf brand Rip Curl with the URL ripcurlseller.com and another one pretending to be the clothing brand Witchery with the URL witchery-au.com. Both companies verified to us that these sites are dishonest. Their actual pages have straightforward and credible URLs – ripcurl.com and witchery.com.au, respectively.

2. Unrealistic Prices

Fraud sites are often marked by unusually high discounts, with some providing up to 80% off all their ‘items’. As one CHOICE member shared, she narrowly escaped spending $120 on what she suspects was a mimic site offering substantial price reductions. It was only after she tried making the payment and it failed, that she starting having suspicions. She then canceled her card before any transaction was recorded and later discovered the prices were too good to be authentic.

3. Crude Artistry or Peculiar Blueprint

Typically, scammers don’t put much thought into the quality of content on these fake sites. Professor Haskell-Dowland explains that these often display a carelessness with the layout and the textual descriptions of the advertisements for the products.

Notably, one such site we found last year mimicking outdoor retailer Kathmandu, didn’t update the name of the company in its ‘About Us’ section.


What actions should you take in case of online shopping scams?

If you suspect an online shopping scam, report it immediately to the store being impersonated, your local police, and your bank.

What precautions can be taken to avoid online shopping scams?

Always verify the URL of the e-commerce website you are visiting, be wary of unrealistic price drops, check the quality and grammar of images and content, and ensure that all necessary information is available on the website.

How can you recover your money if you have fallen victim to an online shopping scam?

Contact your bank immediately; they may be able to stop the transaction or recover your money. Report the scam to your local police and the relevant authorities.Online shoppers often underestimate the lurking threat of fraud lurking in the shadows of the internet. One alarming example is a fake Kathmandu website that caught our eye because of a suspiciously worded ‘About Us’ page.

On some other sites, the glaring giveaways can be seen in the ‘Contact Us’ section where the listed email accounts are far from professional, sometimes even personal Gmail accounts.

“To trust a big name brand with such shabby contact information is unthinkable,” says Professor Haskell-Dowland. He advises consumers to validate a shopping site by looking for links to its privacy policies, terms and conditions, and contact details.

Unconventional payment methods are another red flag. Professor Cross warns of sites that pressure consumers to pay via unusual methods like Bitcoin or bank transfers.

Customers can also warn each other of scam sites through reviews available on Google, social media, and Trustpilot.

Scam websites often have a short lifespan, being set up and taken down rather rapidly. Therefore, check when the domain was registered using tools like [whois.com](http://whois.com) or [Icann Lookup](https://lookup.icann.org/en) to judge a site’s authenticity.

However, the presence of a padlock symbol or “https” in the URL of a website isn’t a guarantee of safety. It merely suggests that the site has a security certificate.

If you stumble upon a fraudulent website, report it to the [ACCC’s Scamwatch](https://www.scamwatch.gov.au/report-a-scam). You can take it a step further by alerting the genuine retailer that’s being impersonated.

In case you’ve already fallen for a scam, contact your bank or card provider at once. If your personal identity details are at risk, reach out to [IDCare](https://www.idcare.org/). If you’ve lost money or sensitive information, contact [ReportCyber](https://www.cyber.gov.au/report-and-recover/report).

Do not forget to change your password immediately if you’ve created an account on the scam website.

### Frequently Asked Questions

**Q1. What should I do when I encounter a website that I suspect to be a scam?**

Report it to the [ACCC’s Scamwatch](https://www.scamwatch.gov.au/report-a-scam). You should also notify the retailer being impersonated.

**Q2. What should I do if I’ve become a victim of a scam website?**

Immediately contact your financial institution or card provider, [IDCare](https://www.idcare.org/), and [ReportCyber](https://www.cyber.gov.au/report-and-recover/report) depending on the situation.

**Q3. How can I validate a webpage’s authenticity?**

Look out for things like odd URLs, unusually low prices, poor phrasing and spelling errors, unconventional payment methods, and negative reviews. You can also use tools like [whois.com](http://whois.com) or [Icann Lookup](https://lookup.icann.org/en) to see when the domain was registered.