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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.

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    Katrin Sprenger

    Katrin Sprenger is CEO of the Zurich start-up Silenccio. The online service is one of AXA’s cooperation partners and offers help and protection against internet fraud. She has useful tips on how to recognize fake shops and how you can protect yourself against internet fraud.

What is a fake shop?

Fake shops are online shops set up online for fraudulent purposes. They normally pose as online retailers that consumers can place orders with - the goods are usually paid for in advance, but the purchaser either does not receive them or they are poor quality, such as fake rather than original. 

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. 

When do I have to be particularly careful as a consumer?

A rule of thumb is that you should be careful if you see offers that look too good to be true. If a product is being offered on a website that is well below the average price, you should be wary and check certain details on the website before ordering (see infobox).

You should also take a closer look at the product images. A reputable online shop attaches importance to sharp and clear product images that normally look as though they have come from a single cast. You should be careful if the product images in the shop are thrown together and of varying quality.

And last but not least, you should be wary if the online shop only accepts advance payments by transfer or credit card payment. Then it’s worth at least doing a bit of research to find out what other buyers’ experiences are. 

How can I recognice 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: Is the domain name correct? Fraudsters like to work with small transposed letters in the domain which the customer automatically assumes are correct, such as or
  • 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? Can the seller be clearly identified and are the contact details given on the website? In Switzerland, online shops must display contact details as well as a legal notice. 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.
  • Is the text in the shop written correctly? Or is it full of grammatical and spelling mistakes?

I’ve found a great beauty shop on Instagram that turned out to be a fake shop. Don’t Instagram or Facebook check out the providers?

No, Instagram or Facebook don’t check out the providers. Both platforms simply provide an opportunity to have a social media presence. Posted content is only checked to determine whether it breaches the relevant platform’s rules on the portrayal of violence or explicit content, for example. Nothing else is checked - even if the purchase isn’t carried out on the platform itself, but externally with the online shop.

Can a Google search help to uncover fake shops?

It’s worth doing a quick Google search before ordering from a shop you’re not familiar with. If you enter “shop name” and “rating”, you are normally taken directly to the reviews of other buyers. If these are essentially positive, you can normally order with confidence. If the shop’s rating is poor, you should give it a wide berth, even and especially if the offer seems tempting.

What’s the difference between http:// and https://?

The difference is whether information entered on online forms, for instance, is transmitted securely or not.

If there’s no “s”, it means that if I pay by credit card, information I enter as a buyer will be transmitted on a one-to-one basis and therefore unencrypted. In this case, information can be accessed and stolen by hackers.

If the shop has an https address, I can assume as a consumer that the information will be encrypted and therefore transmitted securely.

Can I shop 100% securely with known online shops?

There will never be 100% security, there is always a residual risk. For example, there’s a risk that you’ll receive the wrong products or only part of what you ordered. But in most cases these problems can be solved and are nothing compared to the hassle of being tricked by a fake shop or not being able to contact the operator if you have a complaint.

What is drop shipping?

Drop shipping is an online sales model where the product being sold is not physically in stock, but when ordered by the end customer, it can be ordered and sent out by the manufacturer or wholesaler more or less on time.

The online shop is therefore a kind of distributor between end customers and manufacturers. One example of the drop shipping model is online furniture shops: It goes without saying that they cannot possibly have in stock all the beds, cupboards or tables that they offer. 

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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.

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.

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

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. 

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. 

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