What you order v what you get: Rise in social media scams sees Aussie victims sent bizarre items in the post
Exclusive Fed-up online shoppers are sharing their stories of being ripped off by sellers on sites such as Facebook and Instagram amid a rise in so-called “bait and switch” scams on social media.
Earlier this month, 9news.com.au reported on the case of Marie Armitage who bought an elaborate Christmas tree advertised on Facebook for $32, only to be sent a sticker in the mail.
Since the article was published, 9news.com.au has received a flood of emails from readers who have also fallen victim to similar scams – receiving often strange, unrelated items instead of what they actually purchased.
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Sydney mum Daniela Coulstock couldn’t resist snapping up a bargain when she saw an ad pop up on her Instagram feed for a quad bike.
The 4WD quad bike touted in the ad featured a 449cc fuel-injected engine and a lightweight aluminium chassis.
Keen to get a start on her Christmas shopping, Ms Coulstock bought the $150 bike for her kids.
“Everything was so cheap on that shop, so I also ended up buying a hanging outdoor chair for US$59 and a tool chest with tools for US$39,” she said.
A month later, Ms Coulstock was puzzled to receive a small package in the mail from China.
“I opened it and inside was a cheap gold necklace with a gold leaf … I thought that’s not what I ordered,” she said.
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A few days later, another tiny parcel arrived, this time it contain a necklace with a heart-shaped pendant.
A tracking number on one of the parcels matched that of the quad bike, while the other necklace appeared to have been sent in place of the hanging chair and tool chest, Ms Coulstock said.
“It’s just weird, very weird,” she said, adding that after lodging a complaint she managed to get refunds for the chair and tool bench from PayPal but was still fighting to get her money back for the quad bike.
Marissa Hadland helps runs the popular “Facebook Ad Scambusters!” page on Facebook, which has more than 8000 members.
Ms Hadland said the same scams, such as the Christmas tree and sticker pairing, had been cropping up over and over again for years.
“There are billions of dollars in ads being bought by China-based scam rings to rip off Aussies and Americans,” she said.
“It’s the worst kept secret on Facebook, and honestly we’re hoping negative stories will finally stick in the news cycle.”
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The scammers often stole photos of items being sold by legitimate businesses to use in their ads, then offered the products at ultra-cheap prices as a way to lure customers in, Ms Hadland said.
Sending a cheap item, rather than nothing at all, tended to make it harder for victims to get refunds, she added.
“They do mostly send something because PayPal tends to reject claims when there is real tracking,” Ms Hadland said.
“The scammers are also able to gaslight people by sending a cheap copy – telling people that is what they ordered.”
Often customers were told to post the item back to China at their own expense, leading some people to give up, Ms Hadland said.
The number of Australians reporting bait and switch scams is growing.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch program received almost 1800 reports of online shopping scams originating on social media from the beginning of this year to October 24, with over $794,000 in losses.
During the same timeframe, it received 119 reports where customers tried to purchase a particular product and were sent completely different goods of a lesser value.
Some replacement items mentioned in the reports were “face masks” instead of kitchenware, a “notepad” instead of an iPad and “sunglasses” instead of shoes.
Perth security guard Paul, who asked for his surname to be withheld, similarly fell victim when he bought an $80 tool bench advertised on Facebook.
What came in the mail was a cheap toolkit worth about $5, he said.
Since then, Paul has made something of a sport of trying to catch other scammers out, ordering items and reporting them to PayPal when the wrong product shows up. Paul said he also reported the sellers to the companies whose goods they purported to be selling.
Paul said it was easy to spot the ads belonging to scammers.
“They will often come up as sponsored ad, and they usually offer outrageous discounts,” he said.
Power tools and tool benches were popular items for scammers to tout, Paul said.
Scammers often posted a video of a person using the item they were advertising, sometimes the person’s face was blurred, he said.
One common scam involves advertisers selling pallet loads of goods. The scammers fraudulently claim the pallets are made up of returned or excess stock from retail giant Amazon.
Often sold at dirt cheap prices, the advertised pallets represent a bargain many find hard to resist.
Looking to expose the scam, Paul bought a so-called “Amazon” pallet load of goods, containing tools and equipment.
Instead of a bulky delivery arriving on his doorstep, he received four small items – a mini wireless speaker, a keyring, a watch and a recharging cable.
In another scam, Paul ordered a deluxe tool chest including tools for $80 and was sent out three small plastic rods in the post.
“I reported it to PayPal but the company asked me to send it back to China. It cost $20 to send the sticks back to China via Australia Post,” Paul said.
Paul said Facebook needed to be held accountable for its lack of action on scammers using its platform.
“Personally, I see Facebook doing little to stop these fake sponsor adverts,” he said.
“They should be held accountable under Australian law as they are financially reaping the proceeds of crime and are responsible for the lack of content control on their platform.”
When asked about the bait and switch scams, a spokesperson for Facebook – which also owns Instagram – told 9news.com.au the social media giant took the problem seriously.
“We do not allow scams on our services and we take swift action to remove them as soon as we become aware,” the spokesperson said.
“We encourage people to report pages or profiles that violate these rules by promoting products, services, schemes or offers that are deceptive or misleading.
“We work to get ahead of scammers and that includes making investments in our enforcement and putting in place real world consequences, including taking legal action.”
How the scam works and tips to protect yourself
· Online shopping scams involve scammers pretending to be legitimate online sellers with fake websites, fake ads on genuine retailer sites, or through the use of social media platforms by creating fake stores or posting ads on social media.
· If a product is too good to be true, it probably is. Look out for sellers offering items at extremely low prices.
· Be suspicious of sellers that insist on immediate payment, or payment via bank transfer. Only pay for items using a secure payment service – look for a URL starting with “https” and a closed padlock symbol, or a payment provider such as PayPal.
· If you’ve bought something online and there is a problem, you should try to contact the retailer as there may be a legitimate reason for the problem.
· If you are not satisfied with the response and suspect you may have been scammed, you may be able to arrange a charge-back through your bank if you paid by credit card.
· You can also report a scam to the ACCC through the Scamwatch website.
· Tell your friends and family about the scam so you can help protect others.
Contact reporter Emily McPherson at email@example.com.