How to spot social media shopping scams

Scams abound on social media; these tips can help you avoid them

Social media is an easy and effective way to connect with family, friends, potential career networks, and people with similar interests. This unprecedented connectivity can be convenient and fun, allowing us to stay in touch with those we care about and share life's biggest moments. 

It's also become commonplace these days to both sell and buy things on social media, and unfortunately, the combination of all of these capabilities has created the perfect environment for scam artists to use these platforms to find unsuspecting victims. 

Lest you think that is a rare occurrence, a 2022 survey of 560 social media users found that 47% of them had fallen victim to online shopping scams. More, the Federal Trade Commission reports that in 2022, fraud losses reached $770 million for social media scams, and they were the second most commonly reported scam to the FTC. Many of these scams involve ads, social posts or direct messages — so being aware and socially savvy is essential. 

Tips for recognizing shopping scams on social media

Scammers have various tools in their do-no-good toolkits and target people in several ways. Some aim to fool you into buying poor quality, fake, or non-existent products. Others want to steal your passwords and gain access to your bank accounts. These cybercriminals have become increasingly more sophisticated over the years and infinitely more ruthless in their attempts.

An individual user has to stay sharp to avoid getting sucked into social media shopping scams. Being savvy about how to recognize shopping scams is a great first line of defense to protect you, your private information, and your finances. Here are some red flags to watch for and tips for avoiding being scammed. 

  • Direct messages that promise freebies or discounts should be viewed with suspicion. It's common for scammers to seek to get your personal login information or financial information in this manner. 
  • Any high-pressure sales tactics should also raise a red flag. Scammers know getting you to act fast is key to reeling you in as a victim. 
  • Be wary of clicking on ads or links from people or businesses you do not know.
  • Know that scammers are often adept at recreating online sites or apps that look and seem to be legitimate businesses or ones that you know, use, or frequent. They are also very good at creating URLs that appear to be correct. Instead of clicking ads or links, if there is an online business you trust and want to access, always open a new browser and type in the URL by hand on your browser bar to ensure you're going to the legitimate business you want to patronize. Fake apps often contain malware that can infect your device and lock it to get you to pay them money. This is frequently known as ransomware and is a common cybercrime tactic. 
  • Beware if a seller wants to move your conversation off the social media platform or have you transfer money on another platform. This is a common tactic to eliminate proof that there is a scam.
  • Think twice, or three times, before complying with a request to pay in advance. 
  • If someone you do not know asks you to send money or personal information, beware. Scammers are adept at creating user profiles, befriending victims and waiting patiently to take advantage of them, sometimes by purporting to sell them items. 
  • Always research a company before you buy from them. Look at reviews on several impartial websites, and be sure to search for possible scams or complaints about that company by searching for the company name followed by "scam," "complaint," and "fraud." 
  • If the company website doesn't provide a physical address and phone number, that's a red flag. 
  • If you are considering acting on a social media ad, be sure to read the comments under the ad. 
  • Check your social media settings, and when possible, opt out of targeted advertising. These ads target people based on age, gender, and web history to target you, and scammers often use this tool to manipulate consumers. 
  • Always read and understand return and refund policies before you buy. A best practice is to buy from companies that allow buyers at least 30 days to return an item. 
  • Avoid paying with your debit card, as it can be harder to recoup losses. Instead, use a credit card or a third-party payment platform, which allows more potential for disputing charges. 
  • Always save your purchase records in case a problem should occur. 

If you become a victim of social media shopping scams, file a report

Unfortunately, scams do happen even to people who are web savvy and careful in their online activities. If you fall victim to a social media shopping scam, it's important to report the incident to authorities so that other people may be protected. 

You can file a complaint with your state's consumer protection office. The Federal Trade Commission also has a site for reporting fraud. And if you need additional legal advice, consult a trusted attorney near you to learn your legal rights and options for pursuing legal action. 

By Joe Veenstra, Johns, Flaherty & Collins, SC, attorney in La Crosse. For legal advice related to a scam or other consumer issues, contact him at 608-784-5678.

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