Sniffing Out a Website Scam
A few weeks ago, I wrote an entire post dedicated to cool items I’ve discovered thanks to Instagram ads. However, this week my wife and I had a slightly different experience on the platform — one that almost led us right into a potential scam.
To set the stage without getting into too much detail, my wife was looking on Instagram and saw an advertisement in her Stories about a site that was allegedly liquidating one of their product lines. As they noted, to do this, they were offering some of their duffel bags for “free,” with customers only covering the shipping and handling. Now, I know what you’re thinking and, yes, we were already quite skeptical to begin with. However, when we arrived on the site, it didn’t look half bad and there were other bags that, while discounted, weren’t the “free” ones that had been advertised. So maybe it wasn’t too good to be true after all? (Narrator: “It was.”)
Before getting our hopes up and certainly before entering any of our personal information, we decided to take a few additional steps to see if everything was on the up and up. As it turns out, it’s a good thing we did. If you find yourself in a similar situation and want to avoid falling for such a scam, here are three quick things you can do:
Search for reviews
The first thing I would do if you’re skeptical of a website is to look for user reviews. Now, I actually tend to hate most online reviews as I find them to either be bitterly and unfairly negative or suspiciously and uniformly positive with little in between. Still, the practice of seeking out these reviews should at least help give you a better idea about whether or not you’re walking into trouble.
Incidentally, when I practiced this step, I came across something more concerning: little mention of the company whatsoever. Obviously, this can be an even larger sign that something is off and that you might want to put your credit card away.
Scrutinize their social media
One of the ways I’ve seen fake news outlets fool people in my Facebook feed is by having a domain that’s remarkably similar to an actual, credible news outlet. Similarly, just yesterday I saw a hoax going around from a Twitter user that changed their display name and avatar to mirror SportsCenter, with few noticing that the username was quite different. I mention this because, initially, I thought perhaps the site I was seeing was merely ripping off a known brand. Thus, I went to look for the real brand’s social accounts and check their profile to see if the URLs matched up.
As I noted, this plan proved problematic since I couldn’t find much about the brand on the Internet or social media. However, I did find it curious that the site I was looking at didn’t have any social account links on their homepage. But, of course, we did find the site via an Instagram ad in the first place, so we looked on there. Once on their IG profile, we realized they had only posted a few images — and all of them in recent days. This brings me to my last point…
Check their website registration
Another easy way to see if a site might not be legit is to look up their domain registration. This can be done on a number of websites but I typically use Lookup.ICANN.org. Once there, just enter the domain you’re looking for and hit “lookup.”
In this case, what I think is the most telling bit of info is the “Created” date. Oftentimes these scam sites do get shutdown quickly or choose to hop around, so a freshly-created site may be a red flag. Sure enough, when we were investigating the site we had questions about, we discovered that it had been registered just a day prior to when we were viewing it. That was really the final straw for me.
So, was the site we were looking at a scam? Well, it depends on your definition of “scam.” When I was searching for more info on the company, the only thing I came across was a Reddit thread about similar-sounding sites but with slightly different URLs. One user on there said that, as I expected, the shipping cost on the item was extremely high but that they actually did receive a product. Thus, the going theory among those Redditors was that these sites were run by drop-shippers trying to make their cheap wares seem of higher quality while also getting people to somehow overpay for what was supposed to be a “free” item. If true, I suppose that’s better than just taking people’s money and giving them nothing in return… but it’s definitely still shady.
Ultimately, while I’m sure we would have bailed when we saw the shipping price regardless, I’m glad we took the time to dive a little deeper before we entered any of our information. By the way, we also attempted to flag the ad and account for Instagram just in case these practices go against their policies. Still, while it would probably behoove IG to clean up trash like this from their platform, it’s ultimately up to you to sniff out these scams and keep yourself safe.