Online Shopping Scams Have Been on the Rise Amid the Pandemic

The past few months have seen the highest number of consumer complaints

a person looking into an empty mailbox
Most of the complaints the FTC has received concern no-show orders. Getty Images
Headshot of Robert Klara

“I ordered online,” said one claimant. “Never got the order. No longer an address or phone number to contact anyone.”

“Ordered a pillow,” posted another. “After two weeks, checked order and the website is no longer available.”

“I was served an Instagram ad for a clothing company,” relayed yet another. “There are no updates to my order in a month and it still hasn’t even shipped.”

These are just a sampling of consumer complaints filed with the Scam Tracker of the Better Business Bureau. They cover everything from tapestries to cars, pride flags to Maltese puppies. What they have in common, of course, are furious buyers and the varying amounts of money now missing from bank accounts. Another thing they have in common is that these—along with at least 160 other complaints—have all been filed since Wednesday.

The novel coronavirus period has witnessed an exponential rise in online shopping scams. In fact, according to a bulletin from the Federal Trade Commission released just before the July 4 weekend, online shopping in 2020—and specifically, transactions made during the months of April and May—appears to be more rife with scams than at any other time in internet history.

For example, in December 2018, the height of the holiday shopping season, the FTC received just over 1,000 complaints about online transactions, while in May 2020 alone, it received upward of 2,700. A significant number of complaints have been about no-show orders. And though some of the problems may have come from supply-chain issues and shipping delays associated with the high volume of packages, the root cause is often criminal behavior.

“Scammers have honed their ability to put up remarkably polished looking websites in recent years,” the FTC’s statement read. “They’ve learned to work social media and online advertising to their advantage and to peel off negative reviews by simply disappearing and popping back up under a new name. This is a global problem since the web gives scammers cheap access to consumers worldwide.”

Early on in the pandemic, the agency began seeing an increase in complaints related to the non-delivery of items such as thermometers and hand sanitizer, items that millions of Americans needed but could no longer be found on the shelves of brick-and-mortar stores.

But the problem with orders also extended well beyond these essentials. As millions of Americans stayed home and took their leisure shopping wholly online, they purchased everything from electronics to clothing to cat food—and much of it never showed up. Complaints to customer service frequently resulted in responses blaming Covid-19 for the delays, after which the vendors simply ghosted their customers.

The FTC’s findings are consistent with news reports in recent weeks documenting a rise in consumers who, forced to transact all of their business online, have fallen prey to unscrupulous vendors that saw this extended period of social isolation as an opportunity to defraud buyers. Informed that they cannot inspect goods in person because of Covid-19 restrictions, consumers have paid upfront for purchases as large as houses, only to learn that the goods never existed. Last month in the U.K., The Guardian reported on a scam related to sales of hot tubs, which had enjoyed an unexpected surge in sales as consumers stuck at home sought new ways to relax.

The Better Business Bureau has advised consumers not to purchase goods from what it terms “unknown websites”—i.e., if it’s a brand you’re never heard of, think twice.

“Investigations by BBB show that most of these websites are newly created within the last couple months,” the bureau said earlier this summer. “And as quickly as they surface, many quickly disappear.”

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@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.