That Facebook ad may be a scam. Here’s how to avoid fraud when shopping for holiday gifts.
Online scams are wide ranging; some people report receiving screwdrivers after ordering cordless drills, another person ordered a rattan sofa but instead received a burlap bag.
Dennis Creedon was scrolling through his Facebook feed when he saw a sale on stamps.
The social media website showed an ad offering 100 regular U.S. postage stamps for $46, lower than their $58 face value. The ad noted that stamp prices had jumped in August and warned they could rise again. With the holidays approaching, Creedon decided to buy them.
But Creedon, who lives at the Pier 5 condos near Penn’s Landing, soon grew suspicious. The stamps didn’t arrive until a month after his September order. When they did come, they were in an envelope postmarked from China that called the stamps “stickers.” These are signs that they’re likely fake, postal inspectors later said.
Meta — the company formerly known as Facebook — initially told Creedon the online seller did not violate its rules, according to a message it sent him. But after The Inquirer asked about his case, Meta removed the advertiser from its platform. Creedon, 67, also got a refund from PayPal after The Inquirer’s involvement.
“These pages have been removed from our platform after repeatedly violating our policies against deceptive and misleading practices meant to scam people out of money,” a Meta spokesperson said.
Creedon appears to be the victim of a growing number of online shopping scams made worse by the pandemic, which has pushed people to buy more goods online. Many online fraud reports originate from ads on Facebook and Instagram, according to experts. One of the popular grifts lately is selling counterfeit stamps as consumers send holiday cards to loved ones.
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, prohibits advertisers from making misleading product claims. But critics say tech giants like Meta aren’t doing enough to police their platforms. Consumers and companies impersonated by scammers have a hard time getting fraudsters removed from Facebook, said Jason Thatcher, a Temple professor for management information systems. He said platforms skirt responsibility by claiming they aren’t legally responsible for the conduct of their users.
Social media scams
Online shopping fraud has grown for years but has drastically increased during the pandemic, according to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), a nonprofit that receives tens of thousands of consumer complaints per year. About 40% of those reports involve victims of online ads found on Facebook and Instagram. The BBB noted that while there are many legitimate businesses from China, it had received thousands of online shopping complaints mentioning that country.
The number of online shopping fraud reports that the BBB received nearly doubled from 9,050 in 2019 to 17,942 in 2020.The nonprofit projects it will receive 16,892 reports by the end of this year.
That’s consistent with findings from the Federal Trade Commission, which last year said nearly one in four online shopping complaints mentioned social media. People cited Facebook or Instagram in 94% of reports that identified a specific platform, with many saying they were hooked after seeing an ad.
In 2019, total reported losses to frauds starting on social media reached $134 million, according to the FTC. According to the latest figures available, reported losses were on pace to reach record highs in 2020, with nearly $117 million in just the first six months of that year.
The scams are wide-ranging, from sales of nonexistent vehicles to items that are dramatically different than promised. For example, people order cordless drills but only get screwdrivers, the BBB reported. One victim told the bureau she ordered a rattan sofa for her patio and instead received a burlap bag.
Consumers may feel comfortable clicking ads on Facebook since it’s the world’s largest social media platform, a BBB study released this month noted. In reality, it’s quite easy for scammers to buy Facebook ads that show up on your feed, experts said.
“They have to do some paperwork. Show that they’re a registered business,” Thatcher, the Temple professor, said of Facebook advertisers. “Then Facebook gives them access to tracking data of what people are interested in.”
Meta says it reviews all ads that appear on Facebook before they go live, but that system primarily relies on automated technology. It also collects user feedback and takes action when it sees a high volume of negative feedback.
Creedon, the Philadelphia resident, said he wasn’t interested in stamps before seeing the ad. But since placing the order, he has seen his Facebook feed inundated with suspicious marketing for stamps. Some try to impersonate the Postal Service by making accounts with minor modifications to the authentic Facebook page, such as adding a period between “US.”
“The Postal Service is encoded in our Constitution,” Creedon said. “And here we have a major American corporation aiding and abetting subversion to a constitutional item,” referring to postage stamps.
Postal inspectors have noticed the problem, too. The agency is aware of “an increase in suspected counterfeit stamps” offered for sale, with many on online platforms, a U.S. Postal Inspection Service spokesperson said in a statement. The agency did not share specific figures or estimates. It believes many fake stamps are produced outside the United States and is working to identify shipments entering the country.
Creedon and The Inquirer showed Philadelphia postal inspectors the “stamps” he bought. They couldn’t confirm they were fake at first glance but said the stamps’ being shipped from overseas, sold for below face value, and offered by an obscure seller were red flags.
“I think the biggest one is the social media location where he bought them from,” said George Clark, a postal inspector. “There’s not going to be too many trusted partners that are going to be small third-party sellers on Facebook.”
The Postal Service partners with companies who resell stamps, but they are typically major retailers.
The FTC says consumers should check out a company before buying something from a social media ad or post. The agency suggests typing the firm’s name in a search engine with words like scam or complaint. You can also see how long a company’s website has been in operation on scamadviser.com. Scammers create and shutter websites regularly, the BBB says.
“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” Thatcher said, adding that scammers often make their money on smaller transactions. “Consumers need to look for related products and see what the normal pricing is, and maybe they need to call a company to find out if it’s real.”
Credit cards often provide more protection against fraud than other payment methods, the BBB says. Consumers should take a screenshot of the item ordered in case the website disappears or the item received differs from what was advertised.