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I’m usually quite wary when buying things online, especially when it’s a website, seller or brand that I’ve not seen before, with dubious reviews that seem too good to be true.
But at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak, when everyone was rushing to buy face masks, hand sanitiser and Dettol, my judgement was clouded. It didn’t help that I was in the middle of settling some urgent family matters as well, so I was super distracted.
I know, I know. That SHOULD NEVER be an excuse for not doing my due diligence when buying things online.
Too good to be true?
One of my friends had shared in a WhatsApp chat group a link to an e-commerce website selling face masks. She said it looked pretty legit, and she was considering purchasing the face masks too.
I was in the middle of running an important errand, so I didn’t think twice and immediately went to the website. I needed to buy these masks for my family to keep them safe.
There were other things that didn’t seem right about the website as well:
- It didn’t occur to me that the website claimed to have over 70,000 customers but I had never heard of it.
- They claimed to have 759 reviews, but the website actually loaded only 20.
- What was that weird smudge on the packaging visual? In hindsight it looked like another logo had been blurred out.
- I couldn’t even “Write a review” as the button is not working.
- And did I even check what currency I was paying in? (No, I didn’t.)
In addition, I was subjected to pressure tactics that psychologically pushed me to quickly make my purchase without making adequate checks.
- On the website, I was first directed to a “waiting room” (it has since been removed), which had a countdown timer and the supposed number of fellow buyers ahead of me. The “wait time” was surprisingly rather short.
- Each purchase would be limited to 5 boxes of masks (now it’s 10) — and to a kiasu Singaporean like myself, it was really tempting to buy up my entire allotted limit.
- At checkout, I was presented with yet another timer, rushing me to complete my purchase. There was also a reminder that their stocks were very limited, so I had to hurry!
I hurriedly put in my order for 2 boxes, entered my billing and shipping details, and checked out. Little did I know…
Oh &$%(#, did I get scammed?
The first blow: I had assumed I was paying in SGD, but the cost of $28.99 per box of 50 masks, not including shipping, was actually in USD. At that time, local scalpers were selling 1 box of masks for at least $35 online — can’t believe I actually thought I was getting a “good deal” from this website.
US$64.95 = S$90.25 charged to my credit card. Ouch.
The next blow: My friends alerted me to forum posts saying that this could be a scam.
What didn’t add up:
- On a Whois lookup, the website was created in early February (I purchased the masks on 8 February 2020). How was it possible they already had 70,000 customers + reviews in just a few days?!?!
- Some people on the forum posts highlighted that some of the “reviews” were fake, having been lifted wholesale from large and reputable e-commerce platforms such as Amazon.
- The “quality certificate” that the e-commerce website used was also allegedly taken from another company, with the company name conveniently blurred out.
It didn’t help that within that same week, online news sites based in both Singapore and Malaysia reported that many police reports had been lodged against this face mask e-commerce site. So I, too, lodged an online police report detailing my experience and concerns.
Having provided my credit card details and shipping address, my personal data was compromised. A scammer could make fraudulent purchases on my credit card, sell my personal information, and who knows what else.
I got lucky?
On 13 February, I decided to try my luck and sent the e-commerce company an email, asking them to cancel my order and refund the money.
Funnily enough, the very next day — which happened to be 14 February, AKA Valentine’s Day — the e-commerce company sent the above email, saying that my order has been cancelled due to an “unexpected delay of shipment”.
No flowers or chocolates this V-Day for me, but I’d gladly accept a refund of my $90! So I waited with bated breath…
FINALLY, on 4 March, I received the above email from the e-commerce website. Could it be true? Yes, the refund was in my credit card statement. However, due to the fluctuating Forex rates, I “lost” about $8.
Better than nothing — but once bitten, twice shy; I’m now super, ultra, extra careful when I buy things online. Here’s what I learnt:
Falling prey to an e-commerce scam is more common than you think
According to a recent report in The Straits Times, $41.3 million was lost to scams in the first quarter of 2020 alone. The most common type of scam involved e-commerce, and “Covid-19 related items” accounted for 1 in 4 such cases.
The report goes on to cite the police: “Fraudulent sellers duped 1,159 victims out of at least $1.3 million in e-commerce scams in the first quarter of 2020. The largest amount lost in a single case was $175,000.”
And what’s worrying is that the number of e-commerce scams is on the rise.
I perused the Singapore Police Force’s Mid-Year Crime Statistics for January to June 2019 report, and noted the following:
- E-commerce scams were the top scam in Singapore during the same period last year as well.
- The number of e-commerce scam cases increased by 42% to 1,435 in the first half of 2019, from 1,013 in the same period in 2018 (2020’s Q1 figure is already 1,159).
- The total amount cheated increased to $1.2 million in the first half of 2019, from $870,000 in the same period in 2018 (2020’s Q1 figure is already $1.3 million).
- The largest sum cheated in a single case in the first half of 2019 was $43,000 (2020’s Q1 record right now is $175,000).
Tips to sniff out an e-commerce scam
Here are some red flags to look out for, but as always, do exercise your due diligence as they may not be sure-fire ways to detect a scam (some scammers are so sophisticated, it’s difficult to instantly weed them out).
- Poor command of English
Even if the website looks professional, I know something is off when the English reads badly. On some of these websites, it seems like the website builder hastily threw something together with snippets from Google Translate.
- The website URL looks weird
Have you ever encountered e-commerce websites that claim to be of a certain big brand — but something’s fishy about the URL? For example, the URL name could look very similar but might be misspelled, have an extra hyphen, or use capital “i” instead of lowercase “L” to fool you. This has happened to Singapore government websites as well, such as SingPass.
- Too good to be true
Just like the face mask e-commerce site I encountered, the “reviews” sounded too good to be true. Plus, 70,000 customers? I should have been more vigilant. Other e-commerce websites might employ tactics such as offers, low prices or freebies that sound too good to be true.
- Is the seller even contactable?
Many scam e-commerce websites don’t need their customers to have a direct line to them. What they want is to grab your money and go. Who cares about customer service? If the seller or business does not have useful information and/or contact details about themselves, that should set off alarm bells. You should also exercise some caution if the email address looks like a personal email (i.e. Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail) instead of an established business email account.
- No reviews?
Whenever I buy things from an e-commerce platform, such as Shopee, Lazada, Carousell or Amazon, I always look for reviews as many are third party sellers (or resellers). New user? No reviews yet? Even if their price offered is the cheapest, I’d rather pay a few bucks more for peace of mind. And if there are reviews, I ALWAYS read the worst ones first.
- Pressure tactics
In my case, I was blindsided by pressure tactics. When you make a purchase, whether online or offline, don’t rush into it only to regret when it’s too late. Always be prudent when spending your hard-earned money.
- Withholding of information
Is there adequate product information on the e-commerce website? Does the seller respond to your queries or try to avoid providing details? If you are buying a service, are all the terms and conditions available to you before purchase?
- The platform is not secure
These days, when we make payment online, we need to make sure the payment portal is secure. Even if it’s a legitimate business, an unsecured payment portal can lead to hackers discovering and misusing your personal information. For example, is the website using HTTPS or data encryption?
Level up your defences to protect yourself from e-commerce scams
You can also do the following to protect yourself better:
- Check how the e-commerce website safeguards YOUR interests
Is there any clause on the site about damaged goods, or refunds for undelivered items? You might be better off transacting on reliable platforms that protect the seller — for example, some e-commerce platforms like Shopee only release payment to the seller once the buyer successfully receives the item.
- Buy big-ticket items only from reputable vendors
Need a washing machine or a new laptop? It’s better to visit the actual physical store if possible, or look for the vendor’s official e-commerce website online. Even if the third party seller online seems reliable, there could be electrical issues that they’re unable to fix or perhaps the warranty has already expired for a second-hand item. If you’re still going ahead, it’s best to meet up to check and test the item personally before paying the cash (post-Covid-19, of course!).
- Read the reviews — but with a pinch of salt
I usually read reviews to see how negative the 1-star comments are, and if I can trust the vendor’s authenticity and quality claims, as well as delivery and after sales service. However, reviews can be faked — scammers can buy over accounts of sellers with good ratings, and some vendors like to “encourage” customers to leave a glowing review in exchange for a discount code.
- Further verification
Check if the seller is on the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE)’s company alert list. You can also try to verify the seller’s identity against a local phone number or bank account number, where possible (but this info might be faked as well). On Carousell, check if the seller (or buyer) has a verified badge.
- Don’t provide too much information
Most sellers only require your contact details and delivery address. Be suspicious if they start to ask for your NRIC and other sensitive information.
Online scammers are getting smarter
By all means, the measures above should not serve as an exhaustive list. Online scammers are finding more innovative ways to target people like you and me.
For example, I was targeted by an SMS number masking ploy — SMS masking is often used for marketing purposes, in which a number, i.e. 73333, can be replaced by a sender’s name such as MONEYSMART.
In the ploy, the message supposedly came from “AUTHMSG”, which is commonly used to deliver phone verification messages.
I’ve previously received official messages from AUTHMSG so I was confused when the text read: “Your delivery has been stopped at our depot. Trk#: r690382803147 please resolve the issue here: [URL withheld by MoneySmart].”
Imagine if I had been expecting an important delivery? Flustered, I could have gone to the website (which apparently is a pseudo SingPost page), entered my information, and fallen victim to an impersonation and phishing scam.
It seems that I wasn’t the only one, as someone else reported the incident here.
You’re #1ClickAway from a better Internet
The Media Literacy Council is running the Better Internet Campaign, which focuses on keeping us Internet-dwellers safe with the message: “Be Safe, Be Smart, and Be Kind”.
After all, we could be just #1ClickAway — either from exposing ourselves to danger, or from protecting ourselves and reducing the increasing rate of e-commerce scams.
Learn more about the Better Internet Campaign here, and find out more about how you can protect yourself and your loved ones from becoming a victim of an online e-commerce scam.
What e-commerce scams have you encountered recently? Share your experience in the comments below!