Beware of These Online Shopping Scams Before Placing Your Next Order

Around 62 percent of Indian consumers are likely to face online shopping scams during the holiday season, as per a survey conducted in 2022 by Harris Poll on behalf of Norton LifeLock.

In this multimedia immersive guide, we will explain:

1. The amazing tactics that scammers apply to try and dupe you
2. How to safeguard yourself from them

This is part of our series of guides – Scamguard – that aims to raise awareness on online scams.

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Here are the mind-blowing tricks that scammers apply to try and dupe you

Courier Stuck in Airport Customs? Not Really

"About three months ago, I got a call early in the morning saying that my delivery was stuck and they (person posing as executive of the courier service) need some information from me to make sure that the delivery belongs to me...The guy on the call said that the parcel delivery is stuck at Taiwan Airport customs because it carried some illegal stuff," Glenissa Pereira, a media professional, told The Quint.

Pereira got scared because she thought that somebody had used her Aadhaar details to send something illegal. The caller said that the illegal package contained several laptops, drugs, cell phones, and some clothes.

She was then asked to get in touch with the cyber cell. When Pereira asked how the caller offered to connect the call directly to the cyber cell. This is where she first got suspicious of the caller.

However, she continued speaking to the person and got connected to a lady who asked for all the details. Pereira was asked to share reference IDs and other details, and then the lady said that they would need to file an First Information Report (FIR). When Pereira questioned a few things, the scammers said they would call back but they didn't.

Later when she contacted the FedEx customer care (the courier service that scammers were impersonating), she got to know that it was a scam and was asked not to entertain such calls.

A few questions saved Pereira from being duped of her hard-earned money. But there have been several alarming cases where people lost hefty amounts of money.

A report in The Indian Express said that a doctor was cheated of Rs 4.47 crore by scammers who posed as employees of FedEx and Mumbai Police officers.

  • Following the same script, the doctor's call was transferred to a woman who claimed to be a police officer. The "police officer" asked the doctor to download Skype on her mobile to file a complaint online.
  • The victim received a call on Skype from a person who was supposedly an officer from Mumbai Police Crime Branch. The doctor was asked to produce screenshots of her bank balance for verification or she would be arrested.
  • The victim was directed to transfer the amount to an RBI stipulated account and was informed that the amount shall be returned after verification.

According to Deccan Herald, Bengaluru police registered around 163 cases of FedEx courier scams in 2023. More than Rs 5 crore have been lost in these scams.

FedEx has also warned people not to share personal information when they are being connected to law officials by some posing as the company's customer care executive.

How Selling ITEMs on online market places Might Attract Scammers

In a Facebook post, one user named Deelip Menezes explained how a scammer tried to dupe them while trying to buy some gym equipment which Menezes advertised on an online market place.

Within 30 seconds of listing his equipment on sale, he received three offers from people agreeing to pay the listed price. No bargaining whatsoever.

He decided to engage with one of them.

The person offered to pay the amount via Google Pay UPI. The person said that she would first make a payment of Rs 2 to do a transaction check.

But when Deelip didn't receive that money, she said she will send a QR code, and asked him to scan it on his UPI app and accept the transaction.

When he scanned the QR code, he received Rs 2 in his bank account.

Thus, a token of trust was built.

Next, she said that she would send another QR code to pay the balance amount.

Interestingly, when he took a closer look, the new QR code was for Dileep to make the payment of Rs 2,000, unlike the previous QR code which was to receive the payment.

Dileep saved himself from getting duped because he was mindful of the UPI transaction he was about to make.

"I laughed and said, "Nice scam" and disconnected the call. She tried calling me again to explain that I had misunderstood. I used the opportunity to pay attention to her surroundings. From the ambient noise, it seemed to me like she was in a call centre setting. Also, the way she walked me through the process was well-rehearsed and perfected. This was a professional scamming operation."
–Deelip Menezes

We also came across a peculiar version of the scam in which scammers approach as officers of the armed forces.

There have been a lot of cases on online market places (like OLX, Quikr, Facebook marketplace, etc) where scammers used fake identification cards of uniformed officers to create a small trust value with the victim.

Rakshat Tandon, a cybersecurity expert, told The Quint that these scammers follow a similar pattern.

"After sending a small amount to check with the victim if they received the money, the scammer sends a QR code saying that this is a special account as we work in the armed forces. When the victim scans the code to receive the money, they end up losing money."
Rakshat Tandon, cybersecurity expert, to The Quint

Several versions of this scam

Scammers impersonating army personnel and duping people of their money on online marketplaces is not new.

The Quint published a report in 2018 where Talha, a dentist in Hyderabad, was cheated of Rs 21,000 by a seller who identified himself as an army personnel.

The scammer used a leaked Aadhaar card and an Army identification card to gain the trust and then dupe people.

Customer Care Executives

Scammers often identify themselves as customer care executives and trick people into revealing sensitive information under the guise of offering help and resolving issues. These fake executives ask people to download some third-party screen sharing applications or share malicious links on WhatsApp to dupe people of their money.

"I could not receive my package, so I looked for Urbanic's customer care number on Google to find where my order was. I found a number from Google and called that number...They asked me to download the AnyDesk application, and then they asked me to put in my UPI pin."
Diksha Sharma, a journalist

Sharma said that as soon as she entered her UPI PIN on her screen, as the "customer care executive instructed, " the call was disconnected. Two days later, she lost around Rs 5,000.

For the unversed, the AnyDesk application provides the host (in this case the scammer) remote access to a user's personal computer or any other devices.

How do scammers ensure their fake numbers rank higher on search?

The perpetrators use search engine optimisation (SEO) to rank their websites higher in the Google search results when certain keywords or businesses are searched.

"You think that you are calling the airline company or grocery chain or whatever, but you are actually calling them [scammers] and then they might answer the call and kind of convince you to download some software on your phone."
Sandeep Kumar Shukla, a professor at IIT Kanpur

We came across a different version of the scam where fraudsters claim that the company is offering free gifts if they are willing to pay a comparatively small amount.

  • A user on X named Ravishankar said that he received a call from a person claiming to be from Decathlon and was offering gifts such as Dell laptop and Voltas air conditioner.
  • The user received the call after placing an order on Decathlon's website.

Impersonating Delivery Partners

This is one of the most popular scams, where fraudsters pose as delivery partners of e-commerce platforms such as Amazon and Flipkart. These fraudsters reach the doorsteps of customers and claim that the order was cash on delivery.

However, when the customers refuse to accept the order, the fraudsters ask for an OTP to "cancel the order." As soon as the customers share the OTP, their accounts are comprised and end up losing money.

The official X account of National Informatics Centre (NIC) had also shared a video to warn users against such scams.

Another variation of this scam

Another variation of this scam is sending a fake order message on a customer's phone number and then asking for the OTP to cancel the order.

  • An X user named Amit Singh shared his experience when he received a link for an order that he didn't place.
  • The delivery executive then asked the user for an OTP to cancel.
  • The video shows the user clicking on the link. However, it does not reflect anything on the application.

Paid for the Order but Did Not Receive It?

These types of scams are the most common ones.

Fraudsters create fake Instagram pages and upload advertisements at lower prices to lure people into buying products from their pages. However, after the payment is made, the customer never receives the product.

Rahila Anjum, a victim of online shopping fraud, said that they came across one such advertisement on Instagram where the supposed company was offering products at cheaper and affordable prices.

Anjum placed the order and received a text as a confirmation. The link shared in the message did not open and Anjum never received the product.

A user named 'Kaushik Maiti' on X shared several images mentioning that Facebook Marketplace has become "a place for scam and fraudulent activity."

  • The screenshots shared by the user shows them purchasing a kids cabinet on Marketplace by paying a sum of Rs 1,600.
  • However, the user added that the product was not delivered and nobody responded after the payment.

How the Trap Is Laid?

Let's understand how the fraudsters set up their elaborate scams and dupe people. We spoke to Sandeep Kumar Shukla, a Computer Science and Engineering professor of IIT Kanpur, who said that the trap is laid in four stages-

1. Reconnaissance:
It is the first stage where scammers find information about a potential victim, their contact details, and other details. These data can be leaked through various data breaches and details like phone numbers can be found by crawling social media platforms.

2. Weaponisation:
Scammers identify the things a particular person falls for. This process usually entails the fraudsters looking through the person's social media activities and their online presence. The scammers also look at people's buying habits and then approach them through social media or phone calls.

3. Initial access:
The victim receives an offer that is too hard to resist. People usually believe that they are being provided these offers by some store they recently visited, but that is not the case.

4. Execution:
Scammers ask the victim to download some third-party applications or click on a link to avail the offer. This leads to the victim being duped of their money.

How To Safeguard Yourself From Such Scams?

As we saw in the case of courier scams, one should remember that no company will directly connect you to a cyber cell official under the pretense of your parcel containing some illegal items.

We should be careful of ordering products from unknown websites, or those platforms that have lower reviews.

Do not be in a hurry to make a purchase or sale, because scammers latch on and benefit from the impulse of the victims.

Professor Shukla too listed out few measures one can undertake to escape the elaborate trap laid by the scammers.

  1. Always be on guard and never trust unsolicited calls or texts.
  2. Even if you respond, do not reveal anything about yourself such as your profession, financial conditions, and so on.
  3. Not to fall for lucrative offers or easy money, because in most cases they won't be genuine.
  4. Do not download an application just because the "customer care executive" is instructing you. Always check about the applications before installing them.
  5. Be wary of strangers on social media platforms. Do not click on any link sent to you by people whom you don't know.

The Quint contacted Smriti Joshi, Chief Psychologist at Wysa, to understand people's cognitive biases after their decision-making when contacted by scammers.

Joshi said that cognitive biases such as confirmation bias or authority can significantly influence individuals. While confirmation bias can cause people to favour information that confirms their existing beliefs, the authority bias involves a tendency to trust authority figures like police or customer service representatives.

Why do call scammers call at irregular hours?

Joshi said, "Calling at irregular hours disrupts a person's emotional equilibrium and exploit the vulnerability of being caught off guard. This emotional manipulation impairs clear thinking, and decision-making, and pushes the individual to act impulsively or to resolve the perceived threat issue.

"It is crucial to remain calm and not act in an impulse or act hastily. If one tries to dig out information from the caller and ask several questions about their identity, chances are they might hang up the phone."

Joshi added, "One must understand that nothing is going to happen if you delay a certain payment or say no to a certain payment at that point in time or avoid giving your information at that point in time. And you can always go and verify and start asking those individuals about their background, who's authorised them, etc."

Sure, you may not have faced the misfortune of being scammed yet, but online scams are becoming more sophisticated. It's just a matter of a new scamming tactic that you become one of the victims.

Save this guide and share it around to aware your closed ones about the growing menace of these scams.


Abhishek Anand

Midjourney, directed by Kamran Akhter, Naman Shah

Naman Shah

Abhilash Mallick

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