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How to avoid a counterfeit Christmas

Watch out for fake products and sites while shopping online

It’s true: You can buy almost anything online. More than 500 million items are for sale on Amazon alone. Unfortunately, too many of those goods are no good; they're counterfeit.  

Consumers have complained to the Iowa Attorney General's office about never receiving refunds when they’ve discovered they’ve purchased fake items through Amazon or never received what they ordered at all. Other consumers report receiving phishing emails and text messages that refer to orders they have never made. 

‘Tis the season to find bargains, but beware of scrooges who are out to fool you and steal your money or your personal information. Even if you stick to known online retailers like Amazon and Walmart, you’ll may encounter third-party vendors, which fulfill and ship their own inventory. 

Such third-party sellers are notorious for selling fakes, according to a 2018 study by the Government Accountability Office and a November story from the Washington Post. In fact, 20 of the 47 items that the GAO purchased from third-party sellers on five popular consumer websites were counterfeit. Keep in mind: Counterfeit goods may not only be shoddy; items like electronics, could also be dangerous. 

Here are some ways to avoid questionable third-party vendors:

Check out the seller: On Amazon and, look below the “Add to Cart” button to see the name of the entity that ships and sells the product. Click on the vendor’s name to see consumer reviews, return policies, contact information and other information. Search the name on the Better Business Bureau’s website and through a search engine to spot possible red flags.

Read the customer reviews with caution: Consumer Reports advises that reviews on product pages are aggregated regardless of who the seller is. “If you look closely, you may see reviews that are wildly different for the same product, which could be due to quality control issues, durability issues, and different customer experiences — or this could signal a problem,” the magazine notes.

Review the return policy: Some third-party sellers will offer a return policy equivalent to Amazon or Walmart, but others do not. If you cannot find a third-party seller’s policy on returns and exchanges, including whether the retailer charges a restocking fee and who pays for return shipping, you may wish to purchase your item elsewhere. Also beware if there’s no way to contact a seller. If a seller states “no returns” or “all sales are final,” carefully consider that before placing an order. A reputable retailer will almost always accept returns and will clearly disclose its terms and conditions.

If your purchase isn’t what you expected and you seek a refund, contact the third-party seller first. If you do not receive a response or if you are denied a refund, you can see if you are eligible for a refund from the website that facilitated the purchase. You may be eligible for Amazon's A-to-z Guarantee, for example, but other retailers may cover only the products they sell directly.  

Fraudulent sites and phishing attacks

Online shoppers should also beware of fraudulent websites that fool consumers into entering personal data and credit card information. Many scammers create websites that closely mimic a genuine e-commerce site or send out phishing emails and text messages promising big discounts or free gift cards. A report by cybersecurity firm NormShield says the number of potential phishing domains for 50 major e-commerce sites have multiplied six times in the last four years to 6,000, and NormShield expects the number to exceed 9,000 by the end of 2019.

Here are some ways to protect yourself:

Examine emails and texts carefully: Scammers can easily copy company logos and other details. Look for clues like generic greetings and misspellings to spot scam messages. If the message asks you to click a button to update account information or provide other details, stop. It’s always better to visit a web retailer’s site through your web browser to contact them regarding your account or to make purchases.

Protect your computer and mobile phone by using security software: Set the software to update automatically to ensure it’s equipped to deal with the newest security threats. Using multi-factor authentication can also provide security by requiring two or more credentials to log on to an account.

Look for the secure “s”: Does a website have a “https://” at the beginning of a web address (and perhaps a padlock symbol before it)? The “s” stands for “secure,” which means that the information passed between your computer and the website is encrypted. This makes it difficult for hackers to intercept sensitive information that they could use to charge your credit card or, even worse, steal your identity. Keep in mind, however, that even a “secure” website doesn’t absolutely guarantee security — it simply means your data safely travels from your device to the site. A secure site does not ensure that the site stores your data securely or is legitimate to begin with.

For more information, see the Federal Trade Commission’s tips.

Other ways to protect yourself while shopping online 

Use your credit card: A credit card is generally the safest way to pay online. It provides you more protections than a debit card, prepaid money card, or gift card. Credit card issuers generally offer you the ability to dispute charges for unsatisfactory goods and services, and protect you from unauthorized charges if a criminal steals your credit card information. If you think you may have provided card information to a website that is fraudulent, contact your card issuer as soon as possible. Avoid sites that ask for payment by cashier’s check or wire transfer. And, however you pay, be sure to keep copies of your purchase records and emails.

Review your financial statements: Make sure you were charged the right amount, and also make sure there aren’t any unauthorized charges after your purchase. If you discover something wrong, contact your card issuer immediately.

Be wary of purchase discounts tied to "free trial" offers: These are often buying club solicitations, which may lead to automatic billing for an unwanted membership if you don't cancel by a certain date, or charges in the future for goods or services you didn't authorize.

How to file a complaint

If you believe you’ve been scammed, contact your local law enforcement agency or the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division. To file a complaint, go here or call 515-281-5926 (in Des Moines area) or 888-777-4590 (outside the metro area). 

For more tips, follow the Iowa Attorney General on Facebook and Twitter at @AGIowa

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