During busy shopping periods, it's all too easy to fall victim to a growing number of online scams. When it comes to how to save money for Christmas (opens in new tab), this year, more than ever, you might be tempted to embrace Black Friday discounts to pick up some bargains (make sure you have a battle plan (opens in new tab) to avoid overspending). But amidst all the hysteria, Black Friday (opens in new tab) also provides rich pickings for fraudsters.
Jane Hawkes (opens in new tab), independent consumer champion and founder of the Lady Janey customer service blog , warns: “As the cost-of-living crisis worsens, so do the scams, with bargain-hunting customers being the ideal prey. Even the savviest shopper can be caught out by scammers, so don’t think for one minute it won’t happen to you.”
Personal finance analyst Sarah Coles (opens in new tab) from Hargreaves Lansdown agrees and says that come Black Friday, the desire to save some much-needed cash can make us all drop our guard. “The fact that deals are only available for such a short period of time can make us rush into purchases and miss the signs of a scam. This means that before you go near any Black Friday sale you need to be aware of the risks and make sure you’re alert.”
Online scams to watch out for on Black Friday and beyond
Over the last 12 months, the number of searches for online scam support has surged, with research from Lottie (opens in new tab), the later living marketplace, reporting a 300% increase in Google searches for fake shopping websites and a 200% increase searches for ‘Black Friday Fraud’.
Fraudsters might be becoming increasingly sophisticated but by familiarising yourself with some of the most common online scams, you’ll find it easier to spot when your money is at risk.
We spoke to a cyber security expert to see what kind of scams we should be looking out for.
However much you want that Playstation 5 or iPhone 14, be wary of retailers you aren’t familiar with. Personal finance analyst Sarah Coles says: “Criminals will target shoppers by offering unmissable deals on the most popular items. They don’t have these items to sell, they just take payments and scarper.”
Cyber security expert Christopher Bluvshtein (opens in new tab) at VPN Overview adds: “If you come across lesser-known websites, do your research first. Check out websites like Trust Pilot and look for social proof [other people who have shopped with the retailer and left positive reviews]. If there’s very little information – or bad reviews – on the company, look elsewhere.”
Phishing is when fraudsters send emails or texts where they purport to be from a legitimate business and ask you to share information that enables them to steal from you. “It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book but it still works,” warns VPN Overview (opens in new tab)'s cyber security expert Christopher Bluvshtein.
Common examples of phishing that target online shoppers include ‘failed transaction’ or ‘failed delivery’.
“Expect to see emails from Amazon asking you to update your payment information, for example. You might also receive emails that look like a genuine delivery notification with pending delivery charges. It’s rare that these are real,” Christopher adds.
The Anti Phishing Working Group (opens in new tab) says phishing tripled between 2020 and 2021 and in the first half of 2022 there have already been one million attacks.
Malicious browser extensions
Browser extensions are small bits of software that you can add to your internet browser window that customises how it works. There are legitimate browser extensions available that scour for the best discounts automatically when you shop, but some malicious versions could hijack your device.
“If you’re anything like me, you probably hunt coupons before checking out. You need to be careful, though, about which websites you use,” says Christopher Bluvshtein. “At best they could change your browser settings and fill your inbox with spam or phishing emails. At worst they could install malware that compromises your accounts.”
Fake price reductions
If you’re shopping for specific items, it’s sensible to check their price history in the run up to Black Friday to ensure the discount is genuine.
Christopher Bluvshtein says: “Be aware that in some cases, Black Friday is the scam.” Some products may have an artificially high price initially enabling retailers to offer attractive discounts later on. “In reality, the product could be equally as expensive as it was before the sale began, except now it has an appealing discount sticker. We’ve even seen products cost more during Black Friday than they ordinarily would have before the sales started.”
To avoid being duped by a false discount, make a list of what you are looking to buy in the sale ahead of time, and write down it's current price. Not only does this give you something to refer back to when the sales start, but it also helps you to avoid getting caught up in the hype and buying more than you need to.
For items on Amazon, you can use the price tracker Camel Camel Camel (opens in new tab) to see the price history. Check out these other ways to save money when shopping with Amazon (opens in new tab) to amp up any discounts you might get.
It's also worth familiarising yourself with your consumer rights (opens in new tab) and knowing how to get a refund should you need to.
How do I report an online scam?
If you encounter an online scam you should report it to Action Fraud, the UK’s reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime. The Action Fraud online reporting service (opens in new tab) is available 24/7. The tool asks simple questions to establish what has happened and web chat advisers are online if you need assistance.
Alternatively you can also report an online scam to Action Fraud over the phone on 0300 123 2040. This service is available Monday to Friday between 8am and 8pm.
Action Fraud will not investigate online scams directly but information will be passed to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. You may also be given a police crime reference number.
What should I do if I think I have been scammed?
If you’re the victim of a scam, unfortunately, you may not always be able to get your money back. But there are steps you can take to limit the damage and help protect future victims.
- If your card details have been stolen contact your bank straight away
- Report the crime to Action Fraud
- For phishing attacks, send details to the company, fraudsters are purporting to be from
- If you’ve been targeted on social media, report it to the relevant platform
- Change your account passwords – use a combination of letters, numbers and special characters like !, % and &.
How to safely shop online
- Be careful clicking on links on emails – it’s safer to enter the retailer’s web address into your browser directly
- Watch out for spelling and grammatical mistakes in emails - these can be signs of a scam, even if the email looks legitimate
- Check websites are secure before you submit any card details or personal details – look for a locked padlock by the URL
- Pay with your credit card for Section 75 protection (this makes your provider legally responsible for the payment if something goes wrong). Just make sure you remember to pay it off
- Set up payment alerts on your cards - that way you can be notified of any spending and respond quickly if you see something suspicious
- Don’t use public wi-fi to shop online
- Don’t use any browser extensions you aren’t 100% sure are safe
- Use a password manager to create and store all your passwords and make you aware of potential data leaks
Consumer expert Jane Hawkes adds, that it’s always best to stick to the old adage ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’.
She says: “To avoid falling victim to online fraud, park your FOMO [fear of missing out]. If there’s a sense of urgency about making that purchase you could end up missing a whole lot more than just the opportunity to pick up a bargain. Check the legitimacy of any correspondence you receive and contact the retailer directly if you have any concerns or queries.”
Christopher Bluvshtein is a tech journalist with many years experience in covering online privacy and cyber security issues. He's also worked as a project manager for multiple software development companies.
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