You’ve been wanting a Louis Vuitton tote for ages — a real one, not a fake bought on the street. But at $1,400, it’s way out of your price range.
And then you see an amazing sale online. The bag of your dreams, and it’s 75 percent off. At $350, it’s a steal, but you’ve got to act fast. Should you go for it, or is it a scam?
At that price, it’s probably a scam. But it can be hard to tell, because scammers are very good at making a fake offer look like the real thing. Designer goods are a popular target but so are cars, event tickets, health care products, pets, electronics and many other items.
Many real bargains are available online. To weed out the good from the fake, stay skeptical and know what to look for. Here are seven questions to spot a scam:
1. Does it pass the smell test?
Remember the old saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”? Take a close look at the ad. Does it make sense? Does it include a reasonable amount of detail about the item, or is text vague and generic? If you’re buying a used item, is there a photo? Are the images crisp, or dark and grainy? Does the website look sloppy? Are the grammar and spelling reasonably good?
Some people and companies are better than others at presenting their goods. But if the price seems too low or you get a bad feeling from the website or ad, investigate further.
2. Is the URL legit?
Scammers are good at creating websites and emails that look legitimate. Take a close look at the URL.
- Does it begin with “https://”? This indicates that the site is secure and any information you enter is encrypted — an important consideration when you send payment or give out personal information.
- Is the business name part of the URL? In addition to being encrypted, the business name should be in the URL, without extra words or characters. For example, “company.com” looks legitimate, but “company-sale-you-won’t-believe.com” does not.
- If the business is one you’ve heard of, is its name is spelled correctly?
- If the site appears to be a name-brand website, open a new browser window and go to the company’s website. Do the two sites look the same? Does the company website include the same offer?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” assume the offer is a scam and move on.
3. Can you contact the company?
Legitimate e-commerce companies include mailing addresses, phone numbers and “contact us” information on their web pages. They also spell out return and privacy policies. If these items are missing, you’re likely dealing with a scam site. If a phone number is listed, call it to confirm that the company is real. If you call them, ask if they are ready to sign a legal bill of sale with you. If they start hesitating or ensuring you it is not necessary – think twice before buying anything there.
4. Is the payment method secure?
A legitimate website will take credit cards with a secure payment system (shown by the https:// in the URL). Or it will use a secure third-party payment service such as PayPal.
Scammers like to do things differently. They might have an unsecured website. They might ask you to provide bank account or credit card information by email. Email is not secure — a scam artist can use your email for a future fraud that may compromise both your computer and your identity. Or the scammer may want payment by money order or wire transfer. Money orders are difficult to trace, and a thief can use a wire transfer to hack into your bank account.
Even paying with a debit card is risky. Credit cards include fraud protection, but with a debit card, you’re opening yourself up to greater losses with less protection.
5. If you’re buying locally, can you see and inspect the item?
If you are buying something locally, make sure you see the item before you hand over your cash. Check to see that the item is in the advertised condition, and that it works properly. If you are buying a car, have it inspected by a reputable mechanic before sealing the deal. If you are buying designer goods, do a little research beforehand to know the telltale signs of a fake.
6. What does the internet say?
If you suspect a scam, a quick Google search for the name of the item or title of the listing may tell you all you need to know. Scammers frequently post the same ads in multiple places, over a long period of time. If people have been scammed in the past, the title may show up in your search results. Read reviews with a critical eye. If they are vague and 100 percent positive, they may be fake and a sign of a scam. If people complain of being scammed, stay away. You can also search for company reviews on the Better Business Bureau (BBB) website or use its Scam Tracker tool.
If you’ve been the victim of a scam sale, you can report it to the BBB or to one of the agencies listed on USA.gov’s scam and fraud reporting page.