The Metropolitan Police has busted more than 1,000 scam websites selling everything from fake Ugg boots to supposed Tiffany & Co jewellery.
In the run up to Christmas, the police’s e-Crime Unit have taken down 1,219 of these fake designer websites, which are run by organised criminal networks. Websites included those purporting to sell Ugg Australia Boots, ghd hair straighteners, and jewellery from Tiffany & Co and Links of London.
Million of pounds has already been lost by consumers to fake designer websites, with the money used to fund other illicit activity. Shoppers duped by such websites end up holding counterfeit products or are left completely out of pocket when their ‘purchases’ fail to turn up. Victims also ran the potential risk of the criminals stealing their identity for misuse elsewhere.
"Fraudsters target the victim's desire to buy designer goods at reduced prices, particularly at this time of year,” says detective superintendent Charlie McMurdie. “The risk begins when your desire to purchase blinds your judgment or leads you to illegal websites. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is."
The majority of websites closed down by the police operation, known as Operation Papworth, are registered in Asia, but boast UK domain names that help to trick unsuspecting British shoppers.
The police have been working with Nominet - the body responsible for UK domain name registrations and one of the world's largest internet registries – in order to take down fake websites at the registry level to prevent re-registration.
Lesley Cowley, chief executive of Nominet, says: “The vast majority of .co.uk domains are legitimate, but where there are investigations about improper or illegal activity, we work with law enforcement bodies such as the Metropolitan Police to help identify and then limit the number of illegal or fake websites."
Despite the success of Operation Papworth, it is likely that new fake websites will spring up to replace those taken down.
An estimated £132 million will be spent by British shoppers on ‘black market goods’ this Christmas, with many putting discounted price tags above the legality and legitimacy of purchases, according to research by LV=.
Innocent shoppers are also putting themselves at risk by not carrying out background checks on websites.
Items commonly sold on by thieves include mobile phones, laptops and iPods, as well as counterfeit DVDs, computer games and perfume – which could be unusable or unsafe. China, Romania and Nigeria are the most common online black market hotspots.
John O’Roarke, managing director of LV= home insurance, warns that shoppers who turn a blind eye to counterfeit or stolen goods could end up out of pocket, especially as such items won’t be covered by their home insurance.
“Anyone purchasing these goods is also encouraging further crime such as burglary and theft,” he adds. “We urge shoppers to think twice and take steps to ensure they are not buying stolen or counterfeit goods and thereby encouraging the black market.”
How to beat the Christmas scammers
If a designer item or latest must-have electric gadget catches your eye online, make sure you check the price with competitor retailers. If it is significantly cheaper than elsewhere on the web, then don’t just assume this is your good luck as it may well be fake or stolen.
Check the description and the photograph of the item carefully, and again compare this with other examples elsewhere on the web. If possible look at established retailers’ websites and the manufacturers own description to see if it matches.
You should also look carefully at the website you intend to buy from – don’t just assume it’s legitimate because it looks professional or flashy, as it’s relatively easy to steal other people’s web pages and designs.
GetSafeOnline.org – a joint initiative between the government, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and Ofcom – recommends people look for evidence of ‘real-world presence’. This includes a postal address and phone number as well as an email contact. It’s worth contacting the site by calling it up or sending an email to see if you get a response.
You should also do a web search on the website or retailer, to see if anyone has had any problems with it.
Spelling mistakes are a classic giveaway that a website might not be all it purports to be.
If you are asked to enter private information and there is no padlock in the browser window (or the web address does not start ‘https://’) then it is more than likely that the site is not what it says it is. Websites that ask for all your personal information – for example, user name, password or other security details – should also be avoided.
Finally, if buying expensive items, avoid private sellers and buy from registered UK businesses, which are, by law, required to provide an address and phone number. Before you pay, check if there’s a refund and returns policy – all legitimate UK businesses have to offer refunds and returns.
If possible pay by credit card as purchases between £100 and £30,000 will be protected under the Consumer Credit Act if the goods do not arrive or turn out to be fakes (see below).
If you do buy from a private seller, make sure you ask for a name and check their contact details before you part with any money. On websites such as eBay, you can also check their online ‘feedback’.
Any private seller who asks for payment by cash only or by Moneygram type services should be kept at arm’s length.
One of the biggest risks of ending up with stolen or counterfeit goods is when purchasing from abroad. Be particularly cautious when buying from China, Nigeria and Romania.
What to do if you fall victim
If you spot a fake website then you should report it to Consumer Direct on 08454 04 05 06.
If you paid by credit or even debit card, then contact your provider as soon as possible to find out if you can claim your money back.
Purchases more than £100 (but less than £30,000) made by credit card, are covered under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. This means the card issuer is jointly liable for the failure to provide goods or services.
Debit card payments are not covered by section 75 so there is no legal obligation for the card provider to reimburse you. However, you may be able to get some or all of your money back under the Visa and MasterCard chargeback schemes. Speak to your bank to see if this is possible.
You should also check your bank statements and your credit record to make sure your details haven’t be used to steal your identity. If you suffer losses as a result of this or any other card fraud and you are the innocent victim, you should be able get your money back.
If you have purchased and received an item that you is counterfeit, then be aware that it could potentially be unsafe – especially electrical goods.