Watch out for fraud when shopping online

Watch out: Those popular Ugg boots you're buying online at 30 percent off are likely counterfeit.

And if your online retailer is asking for a money order instead of a credit card to pay for them, your chances of stepping into fraud are even higher.

Consumer groups are out in force, ahead of the biggest online shopping week of the year starting Sunday, to warn shoppers of some of the scams they are seeing and to teach them how to shop safely.

"Unfortunately there are scam artists who take advantage of online buyers," said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America.

Online general merchandise fraud tops the list of consumer complaints this year, Grant said. According to data from the National Consumers League, 37 percent of complaints revolved around Internet shopping scams, with one-third of those complaints coming from people who sent money orders to pay for items that were never received or were misrepresented, she said.

A money order, such as MoneyGram, "is just like putting cash in an envelope and sending it to a scammer," she said. "It's hard to trace and the scammers can use fake IDs to claim the cash."

Counterfeit merchandise sold online is a big problem right now, said Jeremy Gin, founder of, which offers reviews of websites for safe shopping supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

"There are tons of sites claiming you can get Uggs for 30 percent or more off, then when you get them they fall apart," Gin said. Other popular brands with counterfeit offers on the Web are Coach, North Face and Tiffany, he said. Poor-quality DVD boxed sets sold online are another popular fraud right now, he said.

The FBI recently shut down 82 sites for counterfeit merchandise and piracy, Gin said. "But with 200 million sites, there is no way law enforcement can keep up with the bad guys."

Figuring out which sites are legitimate is even harder for consumers, but more are becoming aware of the signs of online fraud, said Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. A recent study by the alliance showed that 64 percent of Americans reported not making an online purchase from a specific website because of security concerns, Kaiser said.

"A majority of them left the shopping site because they were worried about the information requested and thought the retailer was asking for too much," he said. "Sites that do a better job of explaining to people why they need it are going to be more successful with consumers."

Most e-commerce transactions don't require any more than a name, address, credit card number, e-mail and phone number for an online transaction, he said. Anything more is likely marketing information that is often used or sold.

The alliance and the Homeland Security Department are introducing a campaign called "Stop, Think, Connect" to consumers and schoolchildren to raise awareness of online fraud.

One easy way to check the legitimacy of an online retailer is simply to call them, Kaiser suggested. If there is no phone number, or the company cannot answer your questions thoroughly and professionally, consumers should avoid buying from them.

Safe shopping.

Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays. She can be reached at