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Be careful with the cloned store scam: There are already hundreds of victims

Even if affected customers file a complaint and notify the bank, recovering their money will not be easy

Woman shopping with a credit card at home.
Woman shopping with a credit card at home.Guido Mieth (Getty Images)

It is increasingly difficult to keep our money safe and not fall into the trap of cloned websites. In recent months, fake stores that imitate well-known brands have grown considerably, such as Hoff, Lefties, Abercombrie, Adidas, Asics, Billabong and Converse. The extensive list goes on. These pages proliferate in times of high commercial demand and, above all, sales season, although “it is a constant threat throughout the year,” acknowledge financial sources. They all have something in common and that is that they usually feature products at very low prices in order to attract victims. Police note that criminals post ads on social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, which redirect the user to the fraudulent website in just one click.

Scammers copy the design and interface of legitimate stores. They use names very similar to those of the original brand, introducing or eliminating a barely perceptible character, or registering the page under domains with a .shop ending. “I placed two orders on the Leftiess.shop website believing it was the original website,” recalls one victim on the website of Spain’s consumer association OCU. In addition, thieves use SSL certificates that encrypt the data and use the HTTPS protocol, which in turn displays a padlock in the navigation bar, which until now was believed to be an indicator of a trusted site.

The help of artificial intelligence

“The pandemic accelerated the rise of e-commerce, which in turn created new opportunities for cybercriminals. Furthermore, we foresee that this trend will continue and that thanks to tools that use artificial intelligence, the fake stores will increase in quality, making it increasingly difficult to distinguish them from the real stores,” says Luis Corrons, from the security software company Avast.

When victims of fake businesses realize the fraud, they must act quickly. “You must first contact the bank to inform and stop future transactions and change your passwords,” warns Corrons. Once the entity is notified, the affected party does not have to accept any charges for unauthorized operations that may occur from that moment on. It is important to keep all the information related to the fraud, such as screenshots of the website, emails or any other messages that could help prove how it was committed. The next step is to file a complaint with law enforcement.

Financial sources emphasize that while banks do “everything possible to safeguard the interests of clients,” it is not easy to recover the money that was paid for the purchased item, even if it is a scam. Clients could also check whether their credit card has some type of insurance associated with it allowing them to claim money back. In the U.S., victims can file a complaint with the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov and/or report the instance to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Experts at the law firm Legálitas have also noticed a surge in this type of fraud since the pandemic, and note “consumers have the obligation to know the company with which they are contracting, that is, if it is a company of recognized prestige that operates in the market and if it is legally established,” says Araceli Duran, a lawyer specializing in consumer affairs at the firm.

Other sources advise people not to be in a hurry to make a purchase, to be wary of excessive discounts, look for comments on the website and check that the purchase data seems correct, especially the destination bank account and the amount. The police recommend double-checking that the name of the store is spelled correctly in the URL and paying attention to poor quality images, poorly translated texts or misspellings.

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