Online shopping scams and COVID-19: What to watch out for and how to avoid them

As many Canadians continue to stay home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, online shopping has risen in popularity.

From grocery stores that offer online ordering and pickup or delivery services, to smaller local businesses that are working hard to pivot to online sales during the pandemic, there are nearly endless opportunities for consumers to shop online.

However, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre is warning Canadians that fraudsters are exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to facilitate fraud and cybercrime.

Tammy McKinnon, Head of the Financial Crimes and Fraud Management Group at TD, said a recent study conducted by TD indicated most Canadians surveyed believe that social isolation may increase vulnerability to fraudsters. 

"While it's extremely important to follow public health guidelines to stay home during this pandemic, we must also stay vigilant and do our diligence to protect our personal and financial information when making online purchases," McKinnon said.

Whether you're new to online shopping or are a seasoned e-shopper, here are a few key tips McKinnon recommends you keep in mind to help protect yourself from fraud.

Woman seated looking at phone and holding credit card

Shop with familiar vendors

If you've never shopped online before, a good place to start is with an established retailer you are familiar with.

"Established retailers are more likely to have proper shopping and payment protocols, as well as customer service channels, so they are a good test run for new online shoppers," McKinnon said.

But just because a retailer isn't a larger, more established business doesn't mean they shouldn't be trusted with online purchases.

"Many Canadians are looking for ways to support local businesses right now," McKinnon said.

"If your local businesses have secure e-commerce channels or websites, shopping online with them could be an option. The key takeaways are that the retailer – whether big or small – should be a trusted and familiar source to you and that the website should display as a secure site."

READ MORE: How to protect yourself from COVID-19 fraud scams

Read the reviews

"If you’re shopping for a product, be sure to read customer reviews if available – they can help you make your purchase decisions. But take them with a grain of salt, as reviews are not always what they seem," she said.

If the reviews seem poorly written, or are all very short and similar, they may not be legitimate reviews, she said. They could be an indication the retailer is trying to sell poor quality goods.

"Scammers selling poor quality goods have been known to post countless fake online reviews to help sell their wares," McKinnon said.

woman holding a red "Sale" sign

Be price aware

Saving money is often a consideration, and online shopping allows you to compare prices easily. But be wary – rock bottom prices that seem too good to be true usually are.

"There are fraudsters who post items for sale at unbelievably low prices with the fraudulent intention of capturing a customer's payment credentials, rather than actually selling the item," McKinnon said.

McKinnon recommends TD customers utilize tools like TD MySpend, which enables TD customers to track transactions made via TD Debit and credit cards in real time, and TD Fraud Alerts, which notifies customers by text message if suspicious activity is detected on personal banking accounts.

"It's important to remember that fraudsters don’t discriminate, and absolutely nobody is immune to being targeted by a fraudster,” McKinnon said.

"We all have a role to play in helping to prevent fraud, and one of the best ways to protect yourself is to regularly check your transactions for fraudulent activity."

Be smart about how you pay

Small local vendors or independent sellers that haven't established a fulsome e-commerce site yet may be offering to sell and deliver goods and accepting Interac e-transfers for payment. 

"Customers must be vigilant and only send funds via email money transfers to people – or in this case, retailers – that they know and trust," McKinnon said.

"Once an email money transfer is completed by the recipient, it cannot be retrieved by your bank.  For online shopping, it's always best to use a credit card or debit card to pay through a secure e-commerce channel if you can," she said.