- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2019

Consumer privacy researchers say online shoppers are set to lose more money to holiday scams this year than ever before, amid a steep increase in reports of internet shopping scams since 2015.

An analysis published Monday found that reports of online shopping scams grew more than 70% on average during and immediately following the prime holiday shopping season, October through January.

“Americans are likely to lose more money to scams during the holidays for two reasons,” said Sam Cook, consumer privacy and data journalist for Comparitech and author of the analysis. “First, we spend so much money during this time of year on gifts for major holidays. Additionally, the number of scam ads increase during this time of year, especially on Facebook, to take advantage of people shopping for the holiday season.”

Nearly 300 online shopping scams were reported to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) in 2015. In 2018, more than 10,000 scams were reported, according to Mr. Cook. So far this year, the BBB has received more than 6,500 reports of scams.

Citing BBB data, the analysis found that consumers lost $4.7 million in 2018 to online shopping scams, compared to $10,000 in 2015. In 2017, $2.3 million was lost to scams.

Consumers lost an average of $137.50 in 2018, almost double the average of $75 in 2017, according to the report.

Just over $3 million has been lost this year from online shopping, the analysis shows. Mr. Cook said he expects that number to surpass $5 million, but anticipates the increased loss from last year won’t be as drastic compared to 2017 and 2018.

However, data from the Federal Trade Commission reveals much larger numbers than the Comparitech analysis due to reports from law enforcement and other entities the agency tracks.

The FTC said consumers lost $108 million last year from online shopping, including $25 million in the last quarter of the year, with close to 150,000 reports. In 2017, consumers recorded a $95 million loss for the year with nearly 134,000 reports.

So far this year, consumers have recorded a loss of nearly $90 million with about 117,000 reports.

Mr. Cook said it’s hard to pinpoint why online shopping scams have gone up over the years, but said an improving economy, a growing awareness of online scams and more frequent use of social media, especially among people 50 years and older, could explain the uptick.

Brad Hayes, chief technology officer at the cybersecurity company Circadence, said an increase in the number of people shopping online coupled with an increase in platforms for trading stolen data and providing counterfeit products also contribute to more online scams.

“In short, it’s never been easier to get away with it, and there’s a broader distribution of cyber literacy among online shoppers,” he said.

Mr. Hayes said some of the most common mistakes online shoppers make are using the same password for multiple shopping and online accounts, shopping online using public Wi-Fi or unsecure networks and failing to delete credit card information after purchases.

To protect themselves from online scams, consumers can ensure the sites they are shopping on are secure by checking for “https” in the internet address and the certificate to see who is vouching for a website’s security, Mr. Hayes said. Consumers also can make sure the seller is reputable, especially if shopping on sites like Amazon.

The FTC recommends online consumers pay with a credit card, keep records of online transactions, check the site’s privacy policy and terms of sale such as refunds and delivery dates, and avoid emailing any financial information.

The agency also suggests consumers confirm an online seller’s physical address and phone number in case any problems arise. Consumers should not reply or follow a link in an email or pop-up message asking about financial information while browsing.

The Better Business Bureau says consumers should be especially cautious about online ads on social media sites and too-good-to-be-true deals on websites and in unsolicited emails. Consumers should be on the lookout for phishing emails that are disguised as messages from a well-known brand, but include links that can lead to risks of malware or identity theft.

Consumers can file online shopping fraud complaints to the FTC, the Better Business Bureau, their state Attorney General or county or state consumer protection agency.

• Shen Wu Tan can be reached at stan@washingtontimes.com.

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