Many of us have shifted some of our shopping online during the pandemic – it’s easy and very often you can have items delivered right to your door. Criminals are taking advantage of the increased popularity of online shopping by creating fake websites and apps that look authentic but are just a ploy to steal your personal information.

How to spot fake websites and apps

Scammers create online shopping websites and apps that have a similar look and feel to genuine retailers under an intentionally misleading, legitimate-sounding name. These websites are more often than not just a front to steal your credit card details and sensitive personal information. Cyber criminals are also creating fake mobile apps and posting them to app stores, waiting for you to download them. If you do, the app could place malicious software on your phone or access sensitive information when you login to mobile banking.

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada provides a few clues to help you identify a fake online shopping site

  • the site looks poorly designed, unprofessional and has broken links,
  • you can't find an address or phone number for the business,
  • sales, return and privacy policies are hard to find or unclear,
  • the back button is disabled - you get stuck on a page and can't go back,
  • you're asked for credit card information anytime other than when you are making a purchase.

Major app store platforms like Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store monitor content and routinely remove malicious apps. But you still need to be vigilant about the apps you download. Here are some signs of phony apps:

  • the name of the app publisher (typically displayed under the app’s name) is close to the retail app you’re looking for but isn’t quite right,
  • the app has a poorly written description or doesn’t have any user feedback,
  • the app requires an excessive number of permissions for installation,
  • the app has a lot of pop up ads or you are constantly being asked to enter personal information.

How to protect yourself while shopping online

  • Shop with reputable and trustworthy retailers that provide a street address and a working phone number.
  • When looking for the shopping app of your favourite retailer, visit the retailer’s website and look for the link to their legitimate app there – don’t just search through the app store.
  • Look at the URL of the website to see if it starts with "https" and displays a tiny padlock icon in the address bar. If it begins with "https" instead of "http" it means the site is secured using an SSL Certificate (the s stands for secure).
  • Stay clear of online ads for cheap or scarce items like hand sanitizer and cleaning products. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it very likely is.
  • Avoid using public WiFi when making purchases to safeguard your sensitive personal information and credit card details.
  • Never respond to pop-up messages on a website or app that asks for your financial information.
  • Use your credit card and avoid websites and apps that request payment by wire transfer, prepaid debit or gift cards, cash only or through third parties.
  • As always, keep your anti-virus software up to date on all devices you use for online shopping.

What to do if you are a victim of an online shopping scam

Report all shopping scams to your local police department. If you have charges on your credit card that you do not recognize or if you think that you may have revealed your credit card number when you shouldn’t have, contact your credit card provider right away using the phone number on the back of your card. The credit card provider will take the appropriate steps to protect you from fraud.

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