The prevalence of fake online stores can make shopping on the internet dangerous. But you can spot a bogus online vendor if you know what to look for.
In this article, I’m going to go over some easy steps you can take to confirm that the site you’re visiting is real — before you click “Buy now.”
Can You Tell a Fake Online Store From a Real One?
Consumer Action Center Director Lori Silverman says she was recently scammed while shopping online.
“Looking back there were a lot of red flags,” she says. “I was on the original site when shopping, but when I decided to quickly purchase the items, I ended up on the fake site.”
Here’s how she discovered it was a scam: “Several days passed after I received the email that the package was on its way, so I contacted the company and gave them my tracking number. They then informed me that this is not one of their tracking numbers and that I must have purchased from a fake site.”
Here’s how Lori was able to get her money back: “I then contacted American Express and disputed the charge. The charge was to PayPal and American Express informed me I could dispute with PayPal instead if I wanted. I chose to continue the dispute with Amex. While the charge is in dispute, Amex has credited my account.”
Given the state of internet security, you may be wondering what an online shopper can do to stay safe making a purchase. The steps I’ll share here come from my own research as well as advice from money expert Clark Howard.
Here Are 6 Steps to Spot a Fake Online Store
1. Scrutinize the URL
Some fraudulent sites have URLs that look just like those of legit websites — at first glance. Before you input any of your personal information, like your credit card number, study the URL.
If you used a search engine to get to the site, look in the address bar to confirm that you’ve landed on the webpage you wanted.
Clark suggests that you type in the URL yourself and then make sure to check for spelling errors. Some cybercriminals set up sites that are just one letter off from real sites, hoping that you will mistype the URL.
2. Click on the Padlock in the Address Bar
In addition to studying the URL, you’ll want to look for a padlock in the address bar. If you click on it, a dropdown box will open that will tell you security information about the site including:
- Whether the certificate is valid
- The number of cookies in use
- Other site settings
A padlock in the address bar generally signifies that the site has been verified as secure (like Clark.com!).
This isn’t foolproof: Some bogus sites have been able to replicate the padlock icon. It’s also true that, even if a site is deemed secure, it can still get hacked.
3. Use a Website Checker
You can check the legitimacy of any website by using online verification services:
- Go to UrlVoid.com and enter the website’s URL into the bar. After that, you can see all kinds of details about the site. UrlVoid.com generates a report and runs the website through multiple lists to see if any warning signs pop up.
- Go to Google Transparency Report, which can tell you how safe a website is. Once you’re on the homepage, just enter the URL in the “Check site status” box and hit the Return key.
4. Rely on Your Browser
If you keep your browser updated and have antivirus software on your computer, it should tell you when you’ve run across an unsafe site.
If you see a “Not Secure” warning on your screen, back out of the site or close the page immediately.
5. Look for a Trust Seal
If you see a trust seal or trust badge on a website, it’s not just for decoration. Whether it’s from the Better Business Bureau, PayPal or Google, trust seals tell users that they can make secure transactions.
Results of a study cited on CXL.com indicate that recognizable site seals foster trust among e-commerce shoppers.
It must be said, though, that you should never trust a website simply based on a site seal or badge alone. If you haven’t used the site before, always research it well before you enter your personal information.
6. Read the Reviews
Another great way to tell whether a website is legitimate or not is to read reviews from multiple sources. Trustpilot is a review site that lets you see what real customers have to say about websites, products and services.
The site also features a business transparency page that can tell you more about the online vendor you plan to patronize. Want to learn more? Team Clark’s review of Trustpilot has everything you need to know.
Hackers and scammers are constantly coming up with ways to trick even the most capable browsers.
If you run across a fake website, you can report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, send an email to the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency and/or contact these internet companies:
When shopping online, remember always to heed cybersecurity warnings, and be cautious when you sense something isn’t right.
Want to learn more about how to safeguard yourself online? Check out Clark’s Free Virus, Spyware & Malware Protection Guide.