The 2019 holiday shopping season may be more costly this year for online shoppers than the previous three years combined, according to data journalist Sam Cook, reporting for Comparitech, a consumer advocacy website.

Comparitech analyzed publicly available data from 2015 to 2018 and found that consumer-reported online purchase scams increased by about 300% during that time, particularly during the fourth quarter of each year—the prime holiday shopping season from October to January, when online shopping scams ramp up by around 70%, Comparitech said.

As of September 2019, the Better Business Bureau reported a total of $10 million in loss value from online shopping scams, which shows a slight trend lower in the wake of a crackdown on scam ads posted on websites such as Facebook. However, Comparitech warns, that does not mean consumers should let down their guard; online shopping scams remain a costly threat to unwary consumers.

Comparitech reports that online shopping scams account for just over 15% of all scams reported to the Better Business Bureau’s scam tracker tool, just ahead of phishing scams. However, online shopping scams do not represent the largest total loss value for consumer-reported scams, Comparitech said—Nigerian/foreign-exchange transfer scams do. However, the total year-over-year loss values for online shopping scams are on the rise, even as the median loss value has fallen.

Most online scams usually follow the same too-good-to-be true pattern of discounts through targeted or sponsored ads on websites and social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, said Comparitech. Eager buyers, looking for a deal they’d never find in a brick-and-mortar store or through a name brand, add items to their online shopping carts and click “buy.” That’s when the trouble starts.

At times, the consumer will get no shipping details or purchase confirmation e-mails, or the support e-mail addresses on these websites, if any, often don’t work or no one responds. Or the consumer may wait weeks or months to receive the products, only to find they are nothing like the picture.

Comparitech offers several recommendations to avoid becoming a fraud statistic this online shopping holiday season. 

First, check for a secure connection that says HTTPS and not HTTP. The former ensures that no third parties can snoop on the connection between your browser and the site. You can be assured a website is secure if it has a lock symbol next to the web address in your browser.

Second, check the website’s ownership and registration information by using a free WhoIs lookup tool. Most trustworthy websites will have the owner’s information listed, including contact information. Sites that hide contact or ownership information may not always be untrustworthy, but should be regarded with caution.

Check the WhoIs website for the age of the site, which is also a trust indicator. Newly created websites may be legitimate, but most scam websites are created and operated for only a few weeks before being shut down. In fact, you’ll find some scam websites advertising “store closing” sales with large discounts of 50% to 70%, even though the website was registered just a few weeks or months ago.

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