American Greed

Online shopping can be a minefield of scams. Here’s how to protect yourself

Watch out for online vendors looking to blindside you with crazy low prices
Watch out for online vendors looking to blindside you with crazy low prices
Watch out for online vendors looking to blindside you with crazy low prices
Watch out for online vendors looking to blindside you with crazy low prices

How much has the internet changed the way we shop? Nearly one in every ten dollars we spend on retail goods is now spent online, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That percentage has nearly doubled in just the last five years. But even as we become more and more comfortable with the process, experts warn the internet is still fraught with risks.

"Most online shopping scams are essentially ordering a product and never receiving the product, so you've paid money and you've received nothing in return," said Melissa Trumpower, Director of Programs and Operations at the BBB Institute for Marketplace Trust, the educational arm of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

She says some of the most common items involved in scams include pets and pet supplies, cosmetics, clothing and health care.

Then there is the counterfeit eyewear sold online by New York businessman Vitaly Borker, who pleaded guilty in 2011 to running an $18 million scam, only to continue running the scam from prison, as well as after his release in 2015. Borker pleaded guilty to three additional fraud counts in March.

But Borker went beyond just selling knockoff glasses. Some customers never received their orders even though their credit cards had been charged. Those who dared to complain or ask for a refund found themselves on the receiving end of exorbitant "restocking" or "cancellation" fees. And if they objected, things got even worse.

"Right after I sent that last e-mail saying I didn't want to pay that cancellation fee, my cell phone rang," New York customer Maura Selneck told CNBC's "American Greed". "He started insulting me as soon as I answered the phone. He proceeded to call me a f**king valley girl, telling me that I was just a stupid bitch."

In Boston, customer Shonnett Sisco became concerned when the designer glasses she ordered arrived without a promised certificate of authenticity. When she sought to return them, Borker demanded a $50 restocking fee, to which Sisco objected.

"He stated in an e-mail to me that he was giving me the finger," she told American Greed. "I stated, 'God bless him," because in my mind he was just a miserable person. And then he just started calling me a Jesus freak."

Sisco eventually paid the fee, but Borker would not let up, e-mailing her at all hours.

"Then he started stating that he knew where I lived, and I was just terrified," she said.

Maura Selneck tells a similar story.

"He told me I shouldn't have f**ked with him because he has all my personal information and my credit card information. He said, 'You don't know who you screwed with. I'm going to get you.' By the time I got off the phone, I was in tears, shaking," she said.

While most of us can look forward to perfectly uneventful online shopping experiences, experts say it is important to take precautions against the likes of Vitaly Borker.

Check it out

Just as you would not want to buy a designer watch from the back of a van in a dark alley, do not buy items online from a seller you have not checked out.

One place to start is by searching the Better Business Bureau's online directory, which can tell you if the business is accredited, and whether the BBB has received complaints.

"You can check to see if they're even in the database," Trumpower said. "If not, that's a concern. You can also do a general Google search which will pull up a lot of information about that company and that website."

But take search results with a grain of salt.

Borker initially benefitted from a loophole in Google's algorithm—which the search company says it has since closed—in which even negative reviews boosted a business' search results. The more traffic—good or bad—the higher his company would show up on the page. Even though Google says it changed its algorithms after the New York Times exposed Borker in 2010, you still should not simply go with the first link that comes up in a search for a product category.

Similarly, beware of online reviews, which can be gamed.

"If there's all positive feedback and nothing negative, that may be a red flag," Trumpower said.

In addition to checking the Better Business Bureau listings, the Federal Trade Commission says to make certain the web site includes a physical address and a phone number, and verify them. That way you have a place to contact should things go bad.

"Anyone can set up shop online under almost any name," the agency says on its web site.

And if you get a pop-up or e-mail while browsing asking for your financial information, stop right there, the FTC says. "Legitimate companies don't ask for information that way."

Credit where credit is due

Experts agree that one of the best ways to protect yourself when shopping online is to pay with a credit card.

"It's traceable," Trumpower said. "If somebody comes to you and asks you to wire money or to use a prepaid gift card that's a huge red flag and I would not do that."

Most credit card companies will protect you in a dispute with a seller. And the federal Fair Credit Billing Act protects you against things like unauthorized charges, or charges for items you did not receive. Under the law, your credit card company can generally only hold you responsible for the first $50 in charges you did not authorize. Many companies will not hold you responsible for any unauthorized charges, and most offer protections if you are not satisfied with your purchase.

Sense of security

Once you are satisfied that the business you are dealing with is legitimate, do not let your guard down. Be sure to protect your banking and credit card information when purchasing online. Never enter credit card information on a web site that does not have the letters "https" at the start of its URL or address.

"That indicates that it's actually a secure transaction and they're protecting your information," Trumpower said

And never provide payment information via e-mail, the FTC says.

"E-mail is not a secure method of transmitting financial information like your credit card, checking account, or Social Security number," the agency's web site cautions.

Not that you should be sharing your banking information, your Social Security number, or your birthday with any online merchant.

"Those are things that are not typically needed by a business and you should be very wary if they ask for that," Trumpower said.

It is the same reason you should avoid the temptation of posting on social media about your purchase.

"A lot of scammers are going to several different sites and they're gathering information to understand who you are, who your friends are, what you like to do," she said. "The more that they understand about you, the more powerful it is later for them to come back and try to follow up and do a scam."

Complaint department

If you still find yourself the victim of a scam, or even a purchase you are unhappy with, do not hesitate to complain.

"People are embarrassed when we get scammed, and you shouldn't be embarrassed," Trumpower said. "If you are the victim of a scam, be sure that you take the time to go online and report it, because what that does is it gives us a lot more data so that we can prevent this from happening to other people."

The Better Business Bureau has a special web site that allows you to report and track scams and learn about new ones in real time.

You can also file a formal complaint with the FTC, which regulates internet commerce. Or contact your state's attorney general's office. Each has a consumer protection division or can direct you to the appropriate agency in your area.

Doing your own due diligence—and alerting others if you see a problem—can stop the next Vitaly Borker from robbing you blind.

See just how far Vitaly Borker would go to avoid giving customers their money back, on an ALL NEW episode of "American Greed", Mondays 10p ET/PT only on CNBC.