Searching for the perfect holiday gift? The Better Business Bureau has a scam alert for you

PITTSBURGH — We are under 50 days away from Christmas and many of us are starting or finishing our holiday shopping. But as you log on to get some deals, it is important to remember online scams for popular toys, clothing and digital devices are on the rise. Channel 11 found out that scammers are going the extra step to make the purchases seem legitimate, hoping you fall victim.

“I go pretty much for everything that I need online anymore other than groceries,” said Aaryn Hogue of Pittsburgh.

While in-store shopping is gaining some lost ground, digital buying is a holiday habit for many Americans and scammers are at the other end of the screen waiting for you.

The Better Business Bureau released their 2021 Online Purchase Scam Report, which reveals these are the riskiest types of scams reported to them. One-third of all reports to their Scam Tracker website involve “online purchase scams.”

“We found four out of five people who report these scams are actually losing money,” said Caitlin Driscoll, Better Business Bureau’s Western PA public relations director.

The report says just this year, 74 percent of people who fell victim lost money and got no product. These scams include shoppers who paid for something and got a fake product. The BBB expects these scams to get worse this year with ongoing supply chain issues.

“They’re looking to take advantage of people who are searching for something who haven’t been able to find what they’re looking for or think that they’re finding it at a great deal,” said Driscoll. “Scammers are also able to create really legitimate professional-looking websites, ads on social media for people to click on once that mimic actual retailers’ websites as well. So people think that they’re making a secure purchase, whenever they may not be.”

Customers may even get an email with fake tracking numbers, creating a delay in realizing it’s a scam. People we spoke with like Hogue, say they aren’t surprised. “Things are very enticing to certain people, but I always live by the rule; If it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.”

>>Report a scam here: https://www.bbb.org/scamtracker

You may think you can spot these scams, but the BBB report reveals that’s not always the case. While people ages 65 and older reported more scams in 2021 than they did in 2020, they are less susceptible to this type of scam. Younger adults between 18-24 are more susceptible, with $125 being the median loss. People on the hunt for a popular or hard-to-find item were more likely to become a victim than those just passively browsing.

Emma Kim of Pittsburgh is almost 18 years old. She says she shops online often and has not fallen victim yet: “I try to make sure what I am buying is real and I look at reviews and do a little bit of research before I buy stuff.”

While research is key, how you search could contribute to falling victim. The BBB says Google, Facebook and Instagram were reported as ways used to purchase items that ended in a scam. Besides the reviews, there are other important steps you should take before checking out your cart.

Driscoll says to make sure the website you are using has HTTPS -- the “S” is key. It means the site is secure. Also, check out the URL name.

“You can use free tools available, such as “Better Whois” to enter in a website’s domain name, see how long it has been in existence,” said Driscoll. “If the about us section of the website may be claiming that they’ve been an operation for over 50 years, but the domain name is stating that it was only developed a month ago, that definitely could be a red flag.”

One other key point before you buy: Look at the fine print and return policy. Some big or digital items may come with a restocking fee or make you pay to return them.

Any time you shop online, it’s important to remember these general guidelines:

  • Watch for bad grammar or typos.
  • Read reviews.
  • Use traceable payment methods like credit cards.
  • Search for contact information, and try calling the phone number and searching the address to ensure it’s a legitimate business.
  • Verify the business’ legitimacy by researching or checking if it is accredited.