Social media advertising is an effective way for small business to get the word out about their products. Unfortunately, the same goes for scams. BBB Scam Tracker has received thousands of complaints about misleading Facebook and Instagram ads. In fact, the 2021 BBB Scam Tracker Risk Report found that online purchase scams were the most common cons reported to Scam Tracker and the category with the most victims, and online purchase scams have spiked as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How The Scam Works
Look out for these common scams reported to BBB Scam Tracker:
Products that claim to support charity: As you scroll through your Facebook or Instagram feed, you see an ad from a small business selling adorable jewelry, t-shirts, or other merchandise. The best part? Some of the proceeds from the sale will go to a charity that helps rescue animals, foster children, or support another worthy cause. Some consumers even report getting direct messages from sellers promoting the products and asking them to spread the word to friends and family.
You make your purchase. But when your merchandise never gets delivered, the doubts start to build. When you contact the company about your purchase, they are suddenly unreachable or reply with an autoresponder. In reality, the product never existed. It was all a ploy to get your money.
Free trial offers: Many of these misleading advertisements tout celebrity endorsements and promise a trial of the hottest new skincare or nutritional supplement for the minimal investment of shipping fees. What consumers report is that once they agree to the terms and conditions of these offers, they realize they have agreed to multiple monthly shipments for products in excess of $70-$100 each.
Before you sign up for these “limited time offers” research the company online, see if there are any other consumer complaints, read the terms and conditions you are agreeing to carefully, and if you can’t find any terms and conditions, that is a red flag. Watch out for pre-checked boxes and make sure that you know who and where the company is that you are purchasing from.
Counterfeit merchandise: Name brand goods are prime targets for unauthorized duplication, from sporting goods to designer apparel and handbags. If you purchase any of these products you may run the risk of not only receiving a poor quality product, but it may not meet environmental and safety regulations either.
Look out for red flags. This includes items that are priced significantly lower than what other retailers are charging, spelling and grammatical errors in the advertisements, and poor quality images. These are all signs that the advertisement may be for a counterfeit product.
Engaging ads, poor customer service: This category covers a broad spectrum of complaints that BBB receives, from ads for beauty products to trendy clothing to kids' toys. The advertisements look great and the products are often inexpensive. This means that consumers purchase without doing any research into the website or the company behind it. However, weeks pass and the products never arrive. When the buyers reach out to customer service, they get a vague answer or they don't hear back at all.
Before buying, do a quick online search. Google the website name with the words “complaints,” “reviews,” and“scam” to see what other customers are saying. Check the “About Us” or “Contact Us” information on the company’s website to see if they contain actual contact details for the business. If the only way to contact the company is through a form this is a red flag.
Apps of unknown origin: While scrolling through your feed you may feel compelled to download the latest “free” app. Beware! By downloading this app, not only are you opening up your device to these unknown entities, you could possibly be signing up for recurring subscription fees. Victims report being charged fees as high as $99 every seven days.
Before you enter your username and password, read the reviews. Also, read the description of the app carefully and look for spelling and grammatical errors. Check that the developer's website is a working website and read the terms and conditions carefully ($99 every 7 days adds up quickly).
How to protect yourself from social media scams
• Do your research. Before making a purchase, do a quick search for the business in question. Do they have valid contact information? Don’t be fooled by professional photography or consumer reviews on their website. These can be lifted from other sites. Check BBB Scam Tracker to see if others have been duped.
• Search for previous complaints. Do a Google search of the business name followed by “complaints,” “reviews,” or “scam” and see what pops up. If you find other people have been cheated by this business, steer clear.
• Use good judgment. Many con artists play on consumers’ desire to help those in need. Keep this in mind and use your head, not just your heart, when supporting charitable causes. Go to Give.org to research organizations before giving.
For more ways to protect yourself from social media shopping scams, visit BBB.org to see BBB's tips for smart shopping online. You can also find more general tips at 10 Steps to avoid scams.
If you’ve been the victim of a social media ad scam, share your experience at BBB Scam Tracker. Your report could help other consumers avoid falling victim to similar scams.
Rick Walz is the President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Northern Indiana, which serves 23 counties. Contact the BBB at 800-552-4631 or visit www.bbb.org.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Consumer Advocate: Beware of misleading social media ads