Commonplace online retail scams and how you can avoid becoming a victim

Fast forward a few years to the conversations that parents and grandparents will be having with kids.

“When we wanted to buy something, we used to go to shops, which were buildings in the town centre that are now mainly apartments. Or we’d drive out of town to what were called retail parks, where it was easier to find a car space. They never seemed to have enough car chargers though, it wouldn’t have worked these days.”

Of course, there will still be physical shops, but the internet and more recently, COVID-19, have changed the face of retail forever. There are many upsides to the explosion in home shopping – convenience, choice and the ability to find great prices being right up there. But there are downsides too, like not getting out of the house or talking to actual shop assistants. But worse, there’s fraud, with scammers exploiting both online shopping and deliveries.

They use impersonation techniques to manipulate you into carrying out an action that enables them to steal your money or your identity, or both. Online retailers range from niche start-ups to the largest commercial website on the planet. All can be impersonated with a high degree of ingenuity, but it tends to be the larger, better known ones that are used the most, simply because they are more familiar to most, have more customers and the scams are more likely to both hit home and be believed. It’s certainly commonplace for the scams listed below to misrepresent some of the huge, online-only retailers, not least those with third-party seller partners.

retailWhat are some of these retail scams?

There are many different scams and many variations on them, but these are some of the most commonplace, to give you an idea of how they go.

‘Locked account’

An email or text message claiming to come from the retailer informing you that your account could be compromised – or has been locked – after multiple login attempts from a different country, or from a different device. You’re asked to verify your account, which involves supplying confidential details such as login details or details of the bank account you normally pay from.

‘Prize draw’ or ‘raffle’

Again, you receive an email or SMS to say that you’ve won some kind of prize (often a technology product or a shopping ‘credit’), and you need to click on a link to arrange delivery or acceptance. The link leads to a fake (but often authentic looking) website requesting confidential details, or set up to infect your device with malware.

A variation on this is the ‘rewards scheme’, often fake, ostensibly to thank you for your loyalty, but in fact designed to defraud you.

Shipping notifications

There are several variations on retail scams, which is perpetrated via email or text claiming to be sent by the retailer regarding shipping of your order.

  • You purchase an expensive item and pay for it. The seller deliberately sends an empty package – normally made up to what would be the weight of the authentic shipment – to either your address or a different address (such as commercial premises) where they know they will get a signature as proof of delivery without the receiver actually checking the box. When you report non-delivery despite being notified that it has been delivered, the signature indicates otherwise and you don’t have a leg to stand on.
  • You’ve attempted to purchase an item and added it to your shopping trolley, then receive an email telling you that it cannot be shipped to your location. After a couple of days, you’ll receive a further email saying that the item has been shipped and asking you to transfer the payment. The fraudster has diverted the sale away from the checkout process, no product arrives and your money has gone.
  • The fraudster sends you an email verification of your processed order but it contains an incorrect shipping address. You’re then asked to click a link to amend the information, but it leads to a fake, malware-ridden website.
  • You receive an email claiming to be from one of the well-known parcel delivery firms, with an attached file claiming to be a delivery note or tracking notification. Open the attachment and your device will be infected with spyware or ransomware, causing major problems.
Fake reviews
  • Many retail and other websites display customer reviews of either their products, or their user experience of the site. Most people tend to have their purchase influenced by reading online reviews, but fake reviews are very commonplace. There are several ways that these are created and perpetrated, including sellers purchasing their own products, shipping them as gifts to others then leaving a glowing review for themselves via fake accounts, known as ‘brushing scams’.

What to do to avoid retail scams

Many emails and texts from retailers and delivery firms contain poor grammar and/or spelling and clumsy branding, and don’t address you by name. However, many are professionally put together, making it difficult to differentiate. Most emails and texts are sent from addresses and numbers very similar to the real companies’ versions, again making it difficult to spot a fraud. Also, many of today’s scammers spoof sender addresses and numbers to add authenticity.

If you’re not certain if a communication is from the real seller, contact the seller’s customer services department via the contact form on the real website, or via email or phone using the details you know to be correct, and not those listed in the email or text. It’s always better to check – even if you have need to hang on the phone for a reply – than to risk losing your money or having your identity compromised.

Also, never pay by bank transfer, as no reputable retailer will take payment in this way.

If I think I’ve become a victim of retail scams

If you suspect you’ve been scammed, contact the retailer in whose name the fraud has been committed, and report the fraud to Action Fraud at

The ‘empty box’ scam is more difficult to overcome, especially since the COVID outbreak where most delivery drivers simply leave the package on your doorstep, normally known as ‘contactless delivery’. Some couriers take a photo of the package with a visible house or office street number, providing further evidence that it has been delivered. As far as the driver is concerned, it’s genuine.

Lockdowns, home working, physical store closures and social distancing have all conspired to drive a massive increase in demand for home shopping. Sometimes, we order so many products online that we forget what’s due to land on the doorstep, creating a perfect storm for fraudsters. Our overarching advice would be to always keep a record of what you’ve ordered with a bookmark or screenshot, keeping a close eye on bank and credit card statements, pay by credit card to reduce risk of financial losses, and open parcels as soon as they arrive so you can be sure what you thought was in the box, is in the box.

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