Shopping Online Risks

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but we’re having ourselves a bit of a pandemic.

COVID-19 has driven everybody’s life online, and shopping is no exception. According to a survey conducted by the UN, online purchases have shot up in every industry, even as people have less money to spend.

Statistics on online shopping from the UN Conference on Trade and Development
Sure, food is important, but have you ever tried to quarantine without video games?

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday approaching, lots of people are making the right choice: staying home from the superstore, and searching for deals online instead. A bargain on a 72-inch TV is nice, but not if all the money you save goes toward a trip to the ICU.

But while you may be safe from infection at home, that doesn’t mean you’re not taking any risks. In fact, if you ignore all the risks of shopping online and don’t follow common-sense precautions, you could be in for a different kind of virus altogether.


What Are the Risks of Online Shopping?

Like most things on the internet, there’s no sense in being paranoid. Of course there are all types of online risks out there, but this list is meant to educate you, not frighten you.

With that in mind, here are five of the biggest dangers of internet shopping.

1. Fake Online Stores

Ever see those “mockbuster” movies like Transmorphers or Atlantic Rim? You know, those awful films that are just distinct enough from major blockbusters to avoid a lawsuit, but similar enough that your grandma might purchase the DVD by accident.

Mockbuster
Wait, they got Christopher Plummer? Did he have a big parking ticket or something?

Scammers use the same trick to cheat online shoppers out of their money. They’ll set up a storefront with an extremely similar name to a popular e-commerce site, and gussy everything up so it looks legit.

In reality, there’s no store, no products and no chance you’ll see your money again if you send it to them. You can try and get a refund from your credit card company, but if the company fails to answer chargeback requests and vanishes into thin air, you’re out of options.

2. Identity Theft

Online shopping is a major weak point that hackers love to exploit.

One of the most common tricks is to spy on a mark’s online activity, then call or email pretending to be the store the customer just ordered from. “There’s been a problem processing your payment,” they might say. “Could you give me your credit card details again?”

Or they might skip the social engineering and attack directly, by inserting some evil code into an honest website’s payment portal to get a shopper’s personal data. If it looks similar enough, customers will hand over their financial information willingly, without knowing what they’ve done.

3. Low-Quality Goods

Sometimes a store is technically on the up-and-up, but its merchandise is of such poor quality that it might as well be a criminal enterprise.

This is especially dangerous on sites like Wish, Amazon and eBay, who do almost nothing to restrict who’s allowed to sell. Customers have reported getting cheap replicas instead of the real article and, in some extreme cases, literally getting a photograph in the mail of the thing they thought they were buying.

The good news about getting scammed on a larger site is that you have a better chance of getting your money back. Even so, it pays to be overly skeptical about anything that seems like a great hidden deal, especially if there are no reviews.

Another tip: if you can’t find any information about a seller, they’re hiding it for a reason.

4. Email Spam

It starts off innocently. An online store asks you to make an account before you check out. Fair enough, you think — they probably just want to save my address for next time.

A few minutes later, the first message appears in your inbox. “Thanks for signing up for news alerts from CreepyAndOverbearing.com! We can’t wait to start on a wonderful journey together.”

Image of a nonexistent URL
Actually, that domain is free if anyone wants it.

But you didn’t buy a ticket for this journey. Now, you could be stuck unsubscribing from up to five different mailing lists, to say nothing of third parties they might be selling your information to. 

And that’s only the legitimate spam. Phishing sites can send you emails as well, and might even ask for personal information before you can unsubscribe.

5. Data Breaches

Anytime you add your information to an online database, there’s a risk it might be exposed. In March 2020, 8 million customer records on leading ecommerce websites were left lying out in the open for five days. No financial information was compromised, but plenty of personal details could be Googled by anybody during that time.

What can we learn from data breaches? You can’t expect a company to protect you, no matter how large. You’ve got to take your security into your own hands.


How Can You Protect Yourself From Online Shopping Risks?

Keep these tips in mind to avoid the dangers of shopping online.

product rating
Be cautious about product ratings.
  • Verify reviews. Don’t trust a product just because it’s got a few glowing reviews — those could be from fake accounts. Research the reviewers and see if they have any other online presence: other reviews, social media profiles or account information on Amazon or eBay.
  • Use a VPN. If you’re protecting yourself with a VPN like ExpressVPN, you’re much less likely to leak compromising information.
  • Follow the news. Don’t wait for a company to tell you your data has been compromised. If you learn that a store you shopped at has suffered a leak, change your password immediately, then change it on any sites where you used the same one (you shouldn’t be doing that in the first place).
  • Don’t give out personal information without an ironclad reason. If somebody emails asking for any personal info, no matter who they say they are, ask them to prove they work for the company they’re claiming to be from. You’ll probably never hear from them again.

Final Thoughts: How to Navigate the Dangers of Online Shopping

The one word to write on a sticky note and tape to your monitor before Black Friday: skepticism. Be suspicious of five-star reviews without details. Be extra suspicious of unfamiliar emails. And if a deal seems too good to be true…it probably is.

As long as you stay skeptical, you should have no trouble shopping online safely. Good luck, have fun and try not to shop while you’re in a turkey coma — trust me, it doesn’t lead to good decisions. Thanks for reading!

Have you had any bad experiences shopping online? Let us know in the comments.

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