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Online fraud: How can I recognize fake shops on the internet?

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Seen a branded sweater on the Internet for CHF 19 that would normally cost CHF 99? This kind of “bargain” should set alarm bells ringing for consumers, and now there’s a way to make sure it does. The start-up Silenccio offers a prevention service that identifies fake shops and makes online shopping safer. 

Katrin Sprenger, digital expert and CEO of Silenccio, answers some burning questions on the subject in the first of three interviews for AXA. The other two will focus on cybercrime and cyberbullying

What are the most common risks when it comes to online shopping?

One of the most common is losing your money directly. This typically happens when you order something – normally a product of some kind – and pay for it up front before you receive it. You can also lose money indirectly if the product you’ve ordered doesn’t live up to your expectations. You might get the wrong item, something might be missing, or maybe it’s faulty and therefore useless to you. 

How can I recognize fake shops? 

It’s getting harder and harder to identify them with absolute certainty because the people who run them are getting better and better at making them look just like real shops. That said, there are a few pointers you can use to check how trustworthy a shop is:

  • Take a closer look at the address: Does it look genuine, or is the name spelled wrong, e.g. instead of
  • Are the prices unbelievably cheap? If a bargain offer sounds too good to be true, you should  steer clear. There’s too much of a risk that you’re buying counterfeit goods, for example.
  • Are contact details listed? Online shops have to provide contact details. If you can’t find any on the site, don’t order anything.
  • Read the terms and conditions: Take care to read the small print. At the very least, you can find out about the returns policy, delivery times, etc. If this information isn’t presented clearly, it’s best to stay away.

Should I generally avoid buying from online shops that are new?

No, a sweeping generalization like that isn’t helpful, and it wouldn’t be fair on all the small businesses that have gone online during the coronavirus crisis. For niche products especially, you’ll probably need to resort to online shops you’re not familiar with quite often. On top of this, try to avoid paying up front. Choose payment on delivery or, if you don’t have a choice, use a payment service such as PayPal. You can then claim your money back from the payment service instead of the seller if there’s a problem with your order.

I recommend using a payment service or choosing payment on delivery wherever possible. This puts you in a better position as a customer than if you allow the seller to debit your credit card directly.

Katrin Sprenger, CEO of Silenccio
  • Teaser Image
    Katrin Sprenger

    Digital expert Katrin Sprenger has been CEO of the Zurich-based start-up Silenccio since summer 2019. Prior to that, she was Head of Digital Solutions and a member of the extended executive board at Dreifive/Goldbach Interactive, having spent more than ten years working for digital full-service agencies.


How does Silenccio’s warning system work in relation to fake shops? 

Customers can install a browser extension, a small piece of software that adds functions to your Internet browser that aren’t included as standard. Silenccio’s extension warns them as soon as they call up a shopping site that has been identified as insecure and advises them not to order anything from that site.

When they visit a site that’s been verified as secure, the extension does nothing, so they don’t even notice that it’s running. In addition to the browser extension, customers have access to a platform that allows them to query a shop’s URL (web address) and receive a recommendation as to whether or not they should order anything from that shop. 

Does the extension collect my data while I’m using the Internet?

No, it doesn’t collect user data or record your browsing history. All it does is check the URL of any site you visit against our database.

How does Silenccio gather information on fake shops?

Our database of fake shops is based on real user feedback. If we see lots of negative reviews for a particular shop, we add it to the database. 

An online shop has delivered something that doesn’t match my order. I’ve tried to contact the shop at the address provided, but I haven’t had a reply. What can I do?

In most cases, you’re going to need a lot of time and patience. If you’ve chosen the Online Shopping module as part of Cyber Plus insurance, we’ll take care of the hard work for you. Simply send us the necessary documentation via our platform, such as the order confirmation, invoice, etc., and we’ll contact the shop on your behalf to sort out the problem. If that doesn’t work, we can hand the matter over to AXA-ARAG at your request. If legal action doesn’t get the result you want either, perhaps because the fake shop no longer exists, AXA covers the financial loss you incurred. 

Are services like PayPal more secure than entering your credit card number on a site protected by SSL encryption?

SSL encryption and services like PayPal are two very different things. The presence of SSL simply tells you that your data are being transferred via a secure connection. PayPal and similar services use it, but they also handle the actual payment. As a rule of thumb, we can say that a service like PayPal is more secure than paying directly with your credit card because it offers buyers a certain degree of protection as part of the service.

Have you ever fallen victim to a fake shop?

Yes, that’s genuinely happened to me. A few years ago, I ordered some top-brand shoes for an amazingly cheap price, paid up front, and then never received the shoes. Nowadays, I’d spot straight away that something wasn’t right with that apparent bargain. 

You can find more tips on how to shop safely on the internet in our blog "Risks and rights for online shopping".

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