More sinister than bait & switch
This guide tells you how to recognize fraudulent web-shops that has pretended to sell electronics and photographic equipment (usually at very low prices), but whose sole purpose is to steal money and personal information.
Almost anyone who buys photographic equipment online has at one point had to deal with “bait & switch”. This is a ploy were a shady web-shop uses an unrealisticly low initial price to attract customers, and then uses various tactics to trick that customer into buying “upgrades” and accessories at grossly inflated prices. Victims of “bait & switch” artists find themselves in the end paying a lot more for equipment than if they'd bought from a reputable high-street shop – but they do at least get the stuff they buy online delivered.
There are worse online shopping experiences than the bait & switch. One of them are scam sites that trick you into parting with both money and personal data, and delivers absolutely nothing.
How they operate
A fake web-shop is probably a web-shop that you've never heard of before. It offers a very wide choice of popular premium brand products at very low prices.
(Of course: Not every unknown web-shop is a fake. All legitimate businesses were at one point brand new and unknown. But when a web-shop has no real track record, you need to approach it with caution. Don't let your greed come in the way of caution when you spot some expensive product you want for sale online at what appears to be a bargain price.)
You may first hear about such a store through a recommendation made by another person in some online forum, through text or banner advertising, or you may stumble over it yourself while doing online shopping and searching the web for bargains.
When you visit the site of a fake web-shop, you will see something that looks exactly like any other web-shop. It will have a search field to let you browse through a database of products for sale, and there will be buttons labeled “add to cart” and “check out”, etc. It will usually have a lot of clever details to give you confidence. You may find a “live video feed” showing activity in a busy warehouse, pictures of key staff members, “testimonials” from very satisfied customers, logos and trust seals belonging to BBB, respected security companies and credit-card companies, etc. Fake web-shops sometimes “adopt” the name of some well-respected brick&mortar business and even link to a Google street-view panel that shows this company's store-front to produce an illusion of having a real-world existence. But a fake web-shop only exists on the web. Its URL is real. Everything else, including its name, address, video, logos, security seals, pictures and video of staff, is just props that are carefully arranged on that URL to deceive. Getting such props in place takes little effort. Usually, they are just copied from some other, legitimate web-shop.
If you stumble across a fake web-shop – leave immedately. Interacting with such a site is not a good idea. It may be rigged to plant malware on your computer and have forms designed to steal personal information. Your firewall and anti-virus program should block the malware, but no software can protect you against your own stupidity.
For instance: If you go through the motions and buy something, and you then use a credit card to pay for your purchase, the operators behind a fake web-shop will simply capture any information you part with during the check out process, and use this personal data for indentity theft and for putting fraudulent charges on your card.
What most of these fake web-shops will try to do, is to persuade you to pay for your purchase in advance using some untraceable and unrecoverable payment method. A lot of methods are used, but the most popular ones are wire transfer (e.g. MoneyGram, Western Union), PayPal, E-gold or direct bank transfer. And to stop the clerk at Western Union, etc. from warning you about known scammers, they almost always instruct you to wire the money to some individual using their personal name (not the company name). When you pay in advance, their operation is set up with so-called “mules” to convert the payment into cash minutes after it has arrivied, and then to transfer it to some offshore bank from were it cannot be recovered.
Some of these fake web-shops may send you a fake invoice, a fake tracking receipt, or even refer you to a fake shipping agent or fake escrow agent, just to buy some time. But most of them doesn't bother. As soon as they've received your money, they can safely ignore you. And of course they never ship your order.
When you get to the point were you suspect that you've been scammed, you have very little recourse. The money is obviously gone. There is nobody you can sue, because their web site is registered in the name of some poor victim of identity theft, and there are nobody connected with the operation that ever resided at physical contact address or worked for company listed on the fake website.
Case story: DexDigital.co.uk
Below is just one example of this type of shop. I think it is an interesting one, because it shows how its operators go to great lengths making a fake web-shop appear legitimate. They've even managed to make it appear as if its payment page has a valid security certificate. Don't bother trying to find it. It was only on the web for about twelve weeks, in the fall of 2006.
Dexdigital.co.uk lists their address as “London Business Center, 203 Edgware Road #03-32, W2 1ES - UK”. This address is just in the middle of a part in London were you will expect to find a shop selling consumer electronics (but if you actually pay a visit to that particular address, you'll find a shop selling light fittings and fine furniture).
Here is how my shopping cart appeared when I used their web-shop. Notice the number of “trust seals” accumulated on the page. Of course, a “trust seals” does not guarantee that the site is trustworthy. It is just a embedded gif-file that can be copied from any legitimate page.
To appear as similar as possible to a “real” web-shop, Dexdigital.co.uk let you pay by a regular credit card. Below is the “Secure Payment Page” that appears during check out. Notice that there a padlock with a pink background is displayed as part of the address field. This is your browser's way of telling you that the page you see has a valid security certificate. The order number (“#735315”) and name of company to receive payment (“DexDigital.co.uk”) matches the order number and company name of the fake web-shop. There is really no reason to suspect that this page is not part of a legitimate check out process.
As it turns out, the secure payment page is part of an e-business solution operated by WorldPay – which is a subsidiary of the reputable Bank of Scotland:
Bad design on WorldPay's part (and/or lax security at a website operated by a legitimate WorldPay merchant) has allowed the fraudulent web-shop to “hijack” the merchant's secure payment page.
What I think this shows, is that you should not automatically trust the visual clues embedded in browser technology to tell you what is “secure” and what is not. You really need to carefully evaluate the security of an unknown web-shop yourself, before you expose sensitive data such as credit card numbers or other personal information to the site.
The domain names these outfits keep changing every three months or so. I tried at one point to keep track of their names by searching for them and reporting them below. However, it just became too time consumimg.
So don't rely on the domain name to identify a fake web-shop, learn to recognise it on sight. The telltale sign of a fake web-shop is that it lives on a website nobody has ever heard of until very, very recently, selling popular premium brand products at prices are much better than the competition (too good to be true if you take the time to think about it).
And for some additional advice on how to recognise online fraud, please see this page about spotting web scams.
For the record, these are are domain names of fake photography web-shops that we have managed to identify: aigars.co.uk, alldigitaldreams.com, anvidirect.co.uk, axcor.co.uk, axusdigital.com, calemet.co.uk, camerapot.com, carsaudio.co.uk, cendice.co.uk, cendicestore.com, chembiotin.com, cherry-computers.com, compcworkshop.com, compteh.co.uk, computerunix.com, cxmusic.co.uk, dexdigital.co.uk, digibest.com, digiequip.co.uk, digitaldale.co.uk, digitals365.com, digitalsys.co.uk, directinc.co.uk, djenterprisesltd.webs.com, djonlinestore.co.uk, drumteh.co.uk, eastelectronics.co.uk, electrodomi.com, elemobi.com, elenot.com, elsider.com, escgate.com, euden.co.uk, evadis.co.uk, finetronics.com, firstcameras.net, gearxs.us.com, gonex.co.uk, holater.co.uk, instrum.co.uk, inteh.co.uk, kellocity.com, keydigital.co.uk, mobice.co.uk, mobicestore.co.uk, mobileinc.co.uk, mobiteh.co.uk, mooushop.com, mostransit.com, netconsumerelectronics.com, newcamerashop.com, nexline.co.uk, nexline.eu, nexton.co.uk, onixstyle.com, orvisinc.co.uk, pactelect.co.uk, pcdale.co.uk, pcdigital.eu, ruspromsnab.com, sa-electronic.com, starkdigital.co.uk, sunlightics.com, suntobay.com, tengdamall.com, the-camera-world.com, tonexshop.com, tonexstore.co.uk, wizmusic.co.uk, wlogic.co.uk, wmusic.co.uk, wxcomputers.com, yorkshire-cameras-online.com, xdigi.co.uk, xenosworld.co.uk, and xenosworld.com.
Now, Artists against 419 runs a fake sites database. which is more up to date than the list above. There you can search for the name of a suspect site to check whether the site is already known to be fake. Please report new incarnations of fake web-shops to the artists for inclusion in their database as soon as you see them. If you know how to trace an IP-address, you should also report perpetrators to their ISP hosting company.