• Unavailable customer care numbers, suspicious email addresses are red flags
"I've found a good laptop online," Gideon Muriuki told his friend Gray Kassich. "I'm planning to buy it."
"You may get something different from what you selected," came the reply from Gray, a computer networks specialist. "Better check it out physically before you make your order."
In Gray's statement lies the biggest concern in online shopping: not knowing whether the item you bought will be delivered or whether it will be of the same quality as seen in the pictures.
Major e-commerce brands have established a good reputation by delivering the goods, but there are lots of online vendors giving the industry a bad name. So serious is the problem that the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) has warned Kenyans to be careful when shopping for goods online.
“We have received numerous reports from clients who ordered goods advertised on social networking sites, especially on Instagram, but the goods were either not delivered or the quality not similar to what was advertised,” the DCI said in December. “We, therefore, advise the public to take precaution while engaging in online business dealings, to avoid falling prey to online scammers and fraudsters.”
The DCI noted that women were particularly hard-hit by online fraud as they looked for trendy outfits and jewellery. The DCI advised shoppers to check the identity of the sellers and their addresses.
LOOKS CAN DECEIVE
A common tactic used by fraudsters is to create social media pages that resemble those of credible brands. Starting an online page on social media is free, and advertising fees to promote the page are affordable to anybody with a bank card. The fraudsters change the name of the brand they are copying slightly enough to confuse potential customers.
One such devious scam was Amazon Web Worker of 2021. The scammers swindled hundreds of millions of shillings from unsuspecting Kenyans, who genuinely believed they were dealing with the real Amazon, the famous online shopping giant.
Advertisements on social media enticed victims to download a mobile phone app from which they would start earning thousands of shillings within minutes. Of course, to start earning the money, the victims were convinced to deposit their own cash. A woman was arrested in May 2021 in relation to the scam to answer charges of money laundering, computer fraud and obtaining money by false pretences.
Still in May, the DCI arrested a man for running Instagram pages where he marketed himself as a dealer for iPhones and other products from Apple. DCI said it acted following complaints from victims who claimed to have lost hundreds of thousands of shillings to the man. The suspect was to be charged with obtaining money by false pretences. Several other Kenyans have been arrested for running fraudulent online shopping schemes.
The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics indicated in the 2021 Economic Survey that online fraud had increased from a reported 51 cases in 2019 to 270 cases in 2020. Apart from fake online shopping, other types of Internet fraud include fake employment agencies, online forex traders and fake real estate agencies, which make money by offering non-existent homes and land.
Despite the growing number of fake pages, social media remains the most important method online shopping companies use to reach customers. A survey on consumer spending conducted by Mastercard found that 78 per cent of respondents discovered new sellers through Facebook. The figure for Instagram was 56 per cent. Indeed, lots of small businesses have an advertising presence on the two social media platforms. Twitter is not very popular as a marketing site for e-commerce because it limits the amount of text to 240 characters.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
The first sign that you may be dealing with scammers is the price. As the saying goes, if it's too good to be true, you are probably getting scammed. Online shopping fraudsters tend to post unusually low prices for the items they are offering. A high-end phone selling for Sh30,000 elsewhere might be posted at Sh15,000 on the fake online site. As with shopping in physical markets, whenever you are interested in buying anything online, look at different online outlets to get an idea of what prices to expect.
The lack of information about the vendor is a red flag. Whether on social media or a website, online shopping fraudsters usually do not post much information about their operation. The email and website addresses look suspicious. Phone numbers don't work. The social media page or website has very little information. In many cases, the pages seem new, are poorly written with lots of spelling and grammatical mistakes. Furthermore, there is no information on what to do in case of a dispute with the vendor that may require them to take back the product or make refunds.
Searching for online reviews about a particular shopping site could reveal complaints that may shed light on whether you are dealing with genuine vendors. The presence of too many complaints is a red flag. However, like everything else on the Internet, fake reviews exist for purposes of portraying online shopping platforms in a good or bad light.
The Communication Authority (CA) has on previous occasions advised consumers to watch out for online shops that do not have a registered physical address, unavailable customer care numbers and suspicious email addresses and websites. CA advised against installing mobile phone apps from questionable sources, urging consumers to check with family and friends to confirm that the online shopping platforms work.
Do not get enticed by offers of huge rewards as Amazon Web Worker did in 2021. We could all use more money in our lives but there's no legitimate business that can double or triple your money within a short time.