The big retailers leading the way in online sales aren't the only players in the game. Many mom-and-pop retail stores maintain websites for selling their wares, and some entrepreneurs create online-only stores that ship products directly from warehouses. Unfortunately, scammers also use ecommerce as an opportunity to take shoppers' personal and financial information from afar. An odd-looking site or too-good-to-be-true deal might be the work of scammer rather than an ecommerce amateur. These 10 signs can help shoppers distinguish between the two.
Even businesses that don't have storefronts must be based somewhere. Look for contact information or an “about” page to learn something about the business. The absence of an address or contact phone number could indicate trouble.
Secure websites -- indicated by "https" rather than "http" at the beginning of a URL -- encrypt data such as payment information. Do not submit personal or financial data to unsecured sites. Web browsers also help shoppers notice when a site is, or isn't, secure. Look for a closed lock, often in green, in the address bar. An open lock and red background indicate the site isn't using the secure protocol to send and receive data.
Trust seals, such as those from McAfee, Truste, and VeraSafe, can indicate a site is monitored or is known to use security measures to protect users' data. Don't take the image as proof, however -- anyone can copy and paste one onto a website despite copyright restrictions. The seal should be clickable, leading either to the seal provider's website or a pop-up that signals its validity. The lack of a seal doesn't necessarily mean a site is unsafe, but a seal that isn't clickable could be a worrying sign.
On a supposed ecommerce website, a pop-up may appear warning that the site isn't safe and directing shoppers to download a browser update or anti-virus software. Full stop: The download may actually be the virus. Fake warnings can appear almost identical to legitimate warnings, but the real ones don't tell you to download anything.
Online sellers must gather buyers' payment information and shipping addresses. Some retailers may ask buyers to sign up for an email newsletter and to provide extra personal information, such as shopping preferences or annual income. The data can help them better understand their customers and target emails. But a trustworthy site won't ask for unnecessary personal data, such as Social Security number or mother's pre-marriage name.
When you're unfamiliar with an online shopping site, spend a few minutes looking for reviews or complaints. Search the website's name alongside “review” or “scam” and read a few of the top results. Don't be too quick to conclude anything from an aggregate negative rating. The site may not be a scam, but the products it sells may be deficient or customer service may be lacking. Of course, those are also reasons to reconsider a purchase.
Scammers are known to set up accounts on legitimate sites such as Amazon and eBay to lure victims. Check feedback on individual sellers before buying or bidding on a product. Common scams include selling a picture of a product rather than the product itself (read the listing carefully) or selling counterfeit goods. (EBay does have a guarantee that helps protect buyers who never receive what they paid for, or receive a subpar or counterfeit product.)
When buying a product online, look for well-known payment methods, such as major credit cards. Cards from the major issuers have zero-liability policies, which can protect cardholders if their information is used to make unauthorized purchases. PayPal is a common and trustworthy way to make purchases because it adds a layer of security: Shoppers input only their PayPal account information, not debit or credit card details. (Still, there are many scams that involve PayPal-lookalike websites or emails, so proceed with caution.) If a seller or online retailer asks for a wire transfer or personal check, that's likely a sign to back off. Once a check has been sent to an unscrupulous vendor, there might not be anything you can do to get the money back.
As the old adage goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Some scammers list products on Craigslist and other classified sites at remarkably low prices. Often the scammers claim they are traveling or unavailable when potential buyers express interest. They'll try to get the buyer to submit payment up front, with an empty promise to deliver the goods as soon as they can.
Looking for coupon or discount codes before checking out can lead to savings. But watch out for coupon scams. Scammers often use Facebook and other social media outlets to post and give away fake coupons in exchange for personal information that they use or sell later.
Related: 14 Best Coupon and Deal Sites for 2016