The Ultimate Guide to Spotting a Scam Online

Not sure if that site or that email is a scam attempt? Having trouble explaining or understanding internet fraud? Learn how to identify common signs of fraud.

Is that offer a great deal, or a rip off? Sometimes, it can be hard to tell. Unfortunately, fraud is everywhere online. At Kijiji, we do our best to get rid of any fraud as quickly as possible; being a savvy shopper is the best way to protect yourself from being taken in. Not every site makes removing scams a priority, and not every site itself is legitimate. How can you identify a scam (on any site) before getting involved in the transaction?
  • Know the value of the item. If there is a huge discount compared to other comparable items, does it specify why? Obviously a used item will be cheaper than a new item, and a damaged item will be cheaper than both, but if the item is new or mint and there is no clear reason why (or the reason given doesn’t really make sense), that is a major sign of a scam.
  • Is the seller acting sketchy? Are you being pressured to make a deal quickly? Are they giving you a long list of reasons why things need to be done in a certain strange way (maybe using an escrow service, or moving a transaction outside of the website)? These are signs that the transaction is not on the up and up, and may be a scam attempt.
In the case of an unvetted ecommerce site, there are a few steps you can take if you aren’t sure about the legitimacy:
  • Check the google browse safe report. Just enter the URL into this page, and google will give you a report about the danger level of this site in particular.
  • Visit whois and look up the details of the site in question to see if the information they provide matches the report (the company, official contact information, length of time the domain has existed, etc.). If the website is very new, that can also be a bad sign – though every site is new at some point, fraudulent sites are more likely to show as new, as prior versions of the site may have been taken down.
  • If there is a payment feature on the site, ensure that the checkout or payment page is secure sockets layer (SSL) secured. You can tell if they are because the website URL will begin with “https” rather than “http” on those particular pages.
  • Search the company name on a search engine, and see what the results indicate. Are there people complaining about scams? The only relevant result is the website itself? Both of these are indicators that the site may be fraudulent.
  • If there is no way to contact anyone at the website, or if there is only a web form for entering your own details, these are both bad signs.
  • Look at the spelling and grammar. If the language is poor, this is a major red flag. Reputable websites will put the time in to ensure that the text on their site is professional.
  • Check the return policy. A reputable e-commerce site should give information on how to return a defective product, including an address to ship to.

When opening an email (or looking at a suspicious message on social media or messaging), watch out for the following clues that it may be fraud:
  • Sketchy or shortened links. If you get a message where the link is the main content, or all the text is hyperlinked, that is often a signed that it is a scam attempt (and if receiving it from a friend or colleague, that they may have been hacked).
  • Very vague or super generic subjects (or no subject line at all). If the message comes from an unknown sender, or is an out of character message from someone in your contacts, definitely don’t click any links contained in the email, and if it is coming from a friend, ask them in person or via a different communication method than the message came from if they actually sent it before opening (and delete it if they didn’t).
  • Extreme enthusiasm. If the message has a large amount of exclamation points or a lot of enthusiasm, this is often a sign of fraud (unless this type of language is typical of the sender who is known to you).
  • Weird requests. If you get a request for medical or financial assistance over email, this is often a sign of a scam attempt (usually it will be a contact that was hacked). Similarly, if you get requests for very personal information, such as your SIN, banking information, or anything else that might be used to impersonate you, this is a sign of fraud (usually these requests will come from what appears to be a legitimate company, but is not).
  • Emails that don’t match up. Many fraud attempts veil the actual email sender, instead appearing that the email comes from a legitimate company. If the email sender has been masked, this is a sure sign of fraud.
  • Guarantees. Promises of returns of investment, improved love life, or any other questionable guarantee as a sign of a definite scam.

When dealing directly with someone about a transaction, such as with classified ads, or online dating, watch out for these signs that they are trying to defraud you:
  • They have lots of reasons why they can’t meet you in person. They might even have a long, involved story about why they can’t meet you and the alternative they set up.
  • They direct you to an escrow or 3rd party “safe” payment service (spoiler alert: it is not safe at all).
  • They might have a reason they suddenly need money from you. Family illness, accidents, medical bills, a plane ticket, they were mugged, there is an abusive government official they need to bribe – the reasons can be quite creative. This is common with romance scams, so if you have been chatting with someone who seems fabulous but is suddenly asking for money, look for love elsewhere.

When presented with an investment opportunity, watch out for the following signs that it is a scam:
  • There is a guaranteed return. If you are investing in a company or project, there cannot be a real guarantee that you will make a certain amount of money. If you are lending money, you might expect a certain amount of interest, but there is always a chance the company will go bankrupt (especially if it is new).
  • The opportunity is complex, unique, or a new business model. They likely use a lot of jargon, buzz words, and might claim to have a patent for something amazing. If the opportunity is so great, why are they going to you rather than securing funding from traditional sources?
  • You are “referred”. This is a very common fraud technique – your friend or acquaintance may or may not be in on it, but you will not get anything once the fraudster gets what they want. Scams often use the power of social connections to defraud victims.
  • They don’t use 3rd party accounts, or pool your money with other “investors”. Don’t trust anyone who wants to put your cash in a common pooled account.
  • They impress upon you that the opportunity is urgent or time sensitive. The idea here is to get you to act quickly, before you have the time to consider your actions.
  • They are not registered, or provide horrible investment advice. No legitimate financial advisor is going to tell you to put all of your eggs in one single basket. Learn how to spot the signs of an unregistered financial adviser here.
Didn’t read all that? The bottom line is that if any transaction sounds too good to be true, it probably is! 
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