With Many Retailers Offering Online Sales, Phony Sites Blend In | #datingscams | #lovescams | #facebookscams

The online retailer Bombas sells socks that are durable, popular and pricey. One pair of women’s ankle socks, for instance, can go for $15.

So when Stephanie Lee, a 36-year-old mother of three from Seaford, Va., was alerted to a Bombas sale on the day after Christmas, she jumped at it. Her mother had sent her a Facebook message showing an ad for Bombas socks that were 53 percent off. When Ms. Lee clicked on the ad, she was sent to a page that had all the trappings of the company’s website, including a heading advertising “free shipping.”

“Of course they’re going to be discounting things right after Christmas because they are getting ready for the next season,” Ms. Lee said she recalled thinking.

She snagged a pair for her husband, a sock bag for the washer and a six-pack of Disney Princess-themed socks, perfect for her and her mother to wear while running the Disney Princess Half Marathon next month. Her total came to $116, and she entered her husband’s credit card information to pay. (The Disney socks alone usually cost $120). But Ms. Lee became suspicious when a confirmation email did not arrive in her inbox right away as it normally did when she ordered from Bombas.

Ms. Lee is just one of many shoppers lured in by a phony site peddling another company’s merchandise. It’s a problem increasingly confounding companies like Bombas, whose business model depends on advertising online and generating traffic through social media channels.

“It’s been a total game of whack-a-mole,” said Dave Heath, the chief executive of Bombas, which has taken a proactive approach to rooting out fake sites that purport to sell its products. “The second that we report a site and it gets blocked on one of the social media channels or blacklisted, they just spin up another instance and then there’s ads running almost kind of instantly.”

Online scams, which have existed for as long as things have been sold on the internet, are adapting to the budget-conscious behaviors of American consumers. Shoppers held out for bargains during the holiday season, knowing that stores, needing to get rid of inventory and worried about slowing sales, were more likely to offer them. That dynamic has created a ripe environment for fake sites to dupe unassuming shoppers who are strapped for cash and time by claiming to offer deep discounts on premium brands.

“It’s playing on the emotion of the consumer,” said Douglas LaGore, a principal in KPMG’s cybersecurity services division.

Many of these fake sites are run by networks of swindlers seeking to target large organizations, Mr. LaGore said. Over the past couple of years, many of these networks have produced a “cyber threat supply chain,” he said, meaning different groups gain specialized skills. One group in the network might identify potential targets, for instance, while another creates the deceptive material.

Impostor sites often use the same tactics as retailers, like paid search optimization tools, mobile apps and advertising strategies to generate traffic, said Rick Farnell, chief executive of Tracer, which uses artificial intelligence to identify potential cases of fraud through text and images. Tracer has taken down as many as 20,000 fake sites in a month for a client, he said.

About 35 percent of Tracer’s clients are retailers. Among them is Rothy’s, the women’s shoe brand known for its ballet flats. Rothy’s also works with Facebook’s parent company, Meta, and using tips from customers on Facebook who flag fake ads, said it now deals with about a few dozen impostor sites per month.

Toward the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021, Rothy’s was “easily dealing with hundreds of fake websites per month,” Zoë Richards, a company spokeswoman, said.

The Better Business Bureau said the number of online scams in general has risen 87 percent since it began tracking them in 2015. Of all online scams, retail-related ones are considered the most harmful in terms of the likelihood that a victim will lose money and the median amount of money at stake. They make up about a third of all scams, and 72 percent of people lose money when targeted, according to an October report from the bureau.

Nearly a quarter of the victims of online fraud said they were roped in by the offer of a great price.

As economic concerns weigh on many customers, some are more inclined to choose smaller sites that promise better prices over name-brand sites.

Stacie Odeneal, a 43-year-old child-welfare lawyer in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., and mother of three, does most of her shopping on Instagram and Facebook because she finds it convenient. Late on the night of Thanksgiving, she came across a Facebook ad offering discounts on Bombas socks. She had heard good things about the brand, and she wanted to hurry and buy before the sale disappeared.

But when she saw an unfamiliar charge on her credit card from a company that appeared to be based in Asia, she knew something was wrong. She soon learned that a neighbor had made a similar purchase, and they realized they had been duped. When she went to report the fake ad to Facebook, she stumbled across even more of them.

“I felt a sense of awareness that it’s easier than ever to fall prey to disingenuous people or companies seeking to capitalize on folks,” Ms. Odeneal said.

Mr. Heath said he thought Bombas was often targeted by scammers because it is a large online retailer, the decision to purchase socks online is often made quickly and much of the company’s marketing is done on social media.

For e-commerce retailers, especially those that rely on customers coming to them through ads on social media, dealing with these sites can feel like a never-ending task. As soon as one site is flagged and shut down, another one pops up promising a new, eye-popping discount.

In 2022, Bombas documented more than 9,000 instances in which customers encountered impostor sites, said Mr. Heath, the chief executive. It found 900 different sites claiming to be Bombas, many of them offering discounts.

Some of the fake sites completely mirror Bombas. In at least one instance, an impostor site for the luxury brand Paul Smith listed marked-down copycat Bombas socks. On TikTok, an account called @BOMBASS pushed a 50 percent discount for Cyber Monday. Some shoppers have received texts about flash sales with discounts of 80 percent.

The steepest discount Bombas offers is 25 percent off, and it runs one promotion from Black Friday through Cyber Monday, Mr. Heath said.

To try to tamp down on the fraud, Bombas has trained workers in its customer service department on how to advise affected shoppers. The company sometimes sends duped customers a free pair of socks, as it did for Ms. Lee, who wrote a long email to Bombas explaining why she thought the fraudulent site was real.

“We’re really at the mercy of the technology companies that we’re advertising on because they’re the ones who kind of can control the flow of whether the sites get posted,” Mr. Heath said.

Meta said that it takes the threat of scams seriously, removing any offending ads when it finds them.

“We’ve created tools that people can use to report suspicious businesses, ads and product listings on Facebook and Instagram, as that information can help us improve our ability to combat fraudulent activity on our platforms,” the company said in an emailed statement.

TikTok said that advertising needed to pass through “multiple levels of verification” before being approved.

“We have measures in place to detect and remove fraudulent ads,” the company said in an emailed statement. “We regularly review and improve our policies and processes in order to combat increasingly sophisticated fraud attempts and further improve the experience for our community.”

But customers remain vulnerable. After Jill Winkky, 56, realized she had ordered from a site called socksalevip.com instead of the official Bombas site, she spent about 15 minutes a day for a month trying to get her money back. She had spent $224 on 34 pairs of socks for herself and her sons — about what she would earn officiating three swim meets, one of several jobs she has.

She sent an email to a customer service address, but the person who responded kept sidestepping her request for a refund. At one point, Ms. Winkky received an email saying “due to the Hot sale overload ordering and the impact of the pandemic, the express delivery speed will be delayed, please be patient.”

Eventually something did arrive: a package wrapped in a material similar to a garbage bag. She sent it back to the post office unopened, hoping she might get her money back.

“I really wish I could have talked to Facebook and said, ‘Why do you let these people do this?’” Ms. Winkky said. “This isn’t Bombas. You have to know this isn’t Bombas. You have it all over. It still pops up for me every time I get on Facebook.”

Click Here For The Original Source

. . . . . . .