This spring, the Better Business Bureau has been warning consumers against Pandorapick.com. The site boasts discounts of "up to 75% off" on jewelry such as charm bracelets, charms, beads and earrings.
Pandorapick.com closely resembles Pandora Jewelry's site, Pandora.net. Pandora is a legitimate Danish jewelry company with U.S. headquarters in Baltimore. But Pandorapick.com, the Better Business Bureau says, is selling "cheap imitations from China." They've received complaints through their Scam Tracker tool from users who've received low-quality items.
The two sites look similar at first blush, but a closer look at Pandorapick.com reveals red flags such as grammatical errors and a statement on the payment page saying the buyer may be charged international fees.
Pandora Jewelry writes on its website, "Pandora will continue to fight those who attempt to abuse our name and brand to sell counterfeit products and deceive our customers, and our Brand Protection team maintains the highest standards of brand protection."
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the global counterfeit trade industry is worth nearly half a trillion dollars a year. And cheap knockoffs are not the only problem. "There are a lot of websites that are not even shipping a fake product, they're just taking money and running," says David DeMille, a security expert with A Secure Life, a website that offers advice about all aspects of personal security as well as reviews of products such as home security systems and anti-virus software.
If you see a great deal online, it can be tempting to grab it right away — but first, protect your wallet by knowing how to spot some major warning signs.
If you see a deal on an item that seems a little too good to be true, do some price comparison shopping before you click "purchase." Visit websites of other retailers and see if you can find any similar deals on the same product. Usually, other retailers will try to compete if one is offering a big discount. DeMille recommends the website shopstyle.com, which is essentially a search engine for fashion products. "They vet the companies they're working with, so they're all legitimate," DeMille said. You can search for the type of item or brand you're looking for — and look for new sales and deals on that item. Let's say you see a handbag for $50 on a site you're not sure is legitimate. If you don't see any on sale for under $100 on shopstyle.com, the site you saw is likely a fake.
Poor website design and sloppy English
Fashion companies specialize in design — and most spend good money on perfecting the design of their site. "They're always going to want to have the best imagery of their products and it's going to be shiny and fancy," says DeMille. Poor-quality photos and cluttered, unprofessional-looking design are huge red flags that the site can't be trusted. Also, read the fine print carefully before buying anything. Look out for strange wording or spelling and grammar mistakes, as it's common for these sites to be run out of countries where English isn't the first language.
A suspect domain name
Most retail websites have simple URLs — like michaelkors.com, louisvuitton.com or calvinklein.us. If the company has a trademark on its name, its domain name typically matches that name. If you see extra words in the URL like "deals," "sales" or "super discounts," as well as extra characters, there's a good chance the website is a scam. You can also type an address into Google's Transparency Report to see the site's safety rating from Google.
The site hasn't been around for very long
With some exceptions, most established brand names and retailers have been on the Internet for years. If you're not sure about a site, check the Wayback Machine, an archive of the Internet found at archive.org. Users can look up a website and see archived versions of the website across time. "You can actually see what content used to be there, what design used to be there," DeMille said. "It could be a big red flag if within the past year the website came into being."
You can't pay with a credit or debit card
Beware if the seller is requiring you to pay by money order, bitcoin, cash, wire transfer or a prepaid gift card. Reputable sites will almost always allow you to pay with secure methods, such as credit cards, debit cards or PayPal. With methods such as wire transfers, you have little recourse to get your money back. Also, go elsewhere if a site ever asks you for information that seems too personal or unnecessary for the transaction, such as your Social Security number.
Shady contact information
If the contact email given is a yahoo email address, or if there's simply a form to fill out on the page instead of an address or phone number, watch out. Trusted retailers typically use their company name or the site's domain name in their email address. An international contact number is another major sign something is amiss. Try calling the number if you suspect something isn't right. If you don't get an answer during normal business hours or the number isn't in service, the site probably isn't legitimate. You can also look up the website on GoDaddy's WHOIS tool. WHOIS will show you the email address and phone number associated with the account, where the site is purportedly located, and the site's creation date. If the site is located in China and the brand is based in New York, this could be a major tipoff.
Unclear refund policy
A trustworthy retailer will tell you how and where to return a product you're unhappy with. Fake websites, on the other hand, will often have refund policies that are difficult to understand, hard to find or nonexistent. If you can't find the policy, try contacting the company to ask them directly. Stay away if you get a vague answer. Also, if they're shipping the product, they should give you an idea of when it will arrive. Be aware that the Federal Trade Commission requires sellers to ship items within 30 days of the order if no specific date is promised.
Of course, bad reviews from other users is one of the biggest signs that a website is fraudulent. Type the company's name and "scam" into Google and see if there are any complaints about the site. Also, you can check the Better Business Bureau for reviews or use their Scam Tracker tool to see if others have reported the site.
If you think you've been scammed
If you think you've already made a purchase from a fraudulent website, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, your state attorney general, or the Better Business Bureau.
Trust your instincts
Above all, go with your gut. DeMille says people are sometimes willing to suspend disbelief because they want the discounts they're seeing to be real. "I think a lot of people kind of know in the back of their head that they're on a website that's maybe a little less reputable," DeMille said. "If you have some hesitation, really dive in, do a little bit of research and try to determine if the website is official or not before putting in any of your credit card information."
CNBC's "American Greed" looks at the dark side of the American Dream. "American Greed" returns with all new episodes Monday, June 19 at 10P ET/PT.