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7 ways to spot a scam website

The red flags to look for to avoid being scammed online.

how to spot a scam looking at laptop lead
Last updated: 19 May 2021
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Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Increasingly sophisticated scammers continue to devise impressive retailer websites to dupe consumers into believing they're purchasing goods online from legitimate businesses. And once you've been fooled, it's unlikely you'll ever see any trace of your purchases or your money again.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC)'s Scamwatch website reveals online shopping scams are on the rise. As of March 2021, this year alone they had already received over 4000 reports to their website representing losses totalling over $1.7 million. 

We sought the advice of Delia Rickard, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) deputy chair, and Scamwatch to put together this list of seven ways you might be able to recognise – and avoid – a scam website. 

1. The URL name is unusual 

Imagine you're shopping online for a specific pair of designer sunglasses and you stumble upon a website called, let's say, 'www.cheap[insert brand name here]sunnies.com.au'. 

Clicking on it, the website name suddenly changes to something else entirely, perhaps 'r.54mshop.online'. While the website may look legitimate with the brand's logo at the top, products featured and secure payment options available, the reality is it's likely a scam or the sunglasses are fake. 

Scammers may use a URL that is very similar to a known legitimate website but with small, easy-to-miss differences

Delia Rickard, deputy chair, ACCC

According to Scamwatch, a legitimate retail website always has a clear and common URL name, without variations in brand or company spelling. 

"Scammers may use a URL that is very similar to a known legitimate website but with small, easy-to-miss differences such as an extra dash, underscore, a capital I instead of lowercase L or an extra letter – so pay attention to detail," Ms Rickard says.

price too good to be true scam

2. The price is too good to be true

We all love a good bargain. But before you press the 'buy now' button, consider the possibility that your cut-price dream item might just be too good to be true. 

From expensive jewellery to in-demand electronics, brand clothing to designer sunglasses, there's no bargain in losing your money or disappointingly receiving inferior counterfeit products.

So, how can you tell whether that unreal deal is actually 'unreal'? 

"Red flags for deals that seem 'too good to true' include product advertising at an unbelievably low price or which feature amazing magical benefits, as well as the seller creating a sense of urgency to purchase the product as it's a one-time only offer so you don't miss out," says Rickard.

3. It's missing information and has spelling errors and poor phrasing 

A website may look like the real thing, but how does it read? Scam websites are often riddled with poor grammar and spelling errors. 

In addition, essential user privacy information, the website's terms and conditions of use, and seller contact details may appear generic, very limited or missing entirely. 

Check if the website has a 'Contact us' page and if it does, that the information is actually provided

Check if the website has a 'Contact us' page and if it does, that the information is actually provided. Consumers need to be cautious when a website only offers customers an online contact form – businesses offering goods or services should list a phone number or email address and a place of business where consumers can contact them.It's also worth checking they have a returns policy and that it sounds fair – if not, it could be a red flag. 

A legitimate company would never publish copy on their website that is sloppy or filled with errors. So if you read the fine print and discover it's not as professional as it should be, it may be wise to steer clear.

4. It has damning reviews 

Before you buy anything from an unfamiliar website, check out the reviews previous users have left about their experiences. If there are regular issues around a website's customer service or legitimacy, it's more than likely someone has already been burned – so you may be able to learn from their mistakes to save yourself the hassle.

Websites such as Trustpilot, ProductReview and Google provide user reviews on businesses and websites. If the website has social media channels, you can check for reviews there, too. 

Websites such as Trustpilot, ProductReview and Google provide user reviews on businesses and websites

However, not all the reviews you read online will be legitimate. Reviews are also highly subjective, which may not be reflective of the experiences of the majority of consumers who have not bothered to share an online review.

"[Check out] Google reviews of the website to see what others have had to say about it," suggests Rickard. 

"But also watch out for fake reviews. Some tell-tale warning signs are, if multiple reviews are written word-for-word or by the same user it could be a sign of a scam. If the review is not describing the product that is being sold, it may not be legitimate."

Also look at how old the reviews are – if they're all relatively recent and are overwhelmingly positive or lacking in information, they could be fake.

5. It has unusual payment methods

Scamwatch states that one of the biggest red flags for a scam website is how it accepts payment. 

If a website demands you pay using a money order, preloaded money card, virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, direct bank transfer, wire transfer or direct debit to an unusual account, alarm bells should start ringing.

Scammers sometimes steer you to pay using unusual methods such as money order, pre-loaded money card or wire transfer

Delia Rickard

Some scammers will use traditional payment options, and if this is the case, you may be able to claim your money back. However, this depends entirely on which payment option you used. Generally, debit cards don't offer the same level of buyer protection as other payment methods such as credit cards or PayPal, which has a buyer protection system in place.

"Be sure to use a secure payment method such as credit card or PayPal," Rickard warns. "The biggest tip-off that it's a scam is the payment method. Scammers sometimes steer you to pay using unusual methods such as money order, pre-loaded money card or wire transfer. If you make a payment this way to a scammer, you're highly unlikely to see that money again."

look for spelling mistake in URL

Look for a padlock on the top left of your browser, as well as the prefix 'https"

6. It's missing a padlock and trust seal

There should be a padlock icon on the URL bar at the top left of your browser window. If it's not there, it's not a secure site and you should not provide your personal or financial details. 

The padlock is there to advise users of the website's coding and security. Webpages that have a secure sockets layer (SSL) properly installed have a green padlock next to the URL and also have the more secure https:// prefix instead of http:// (without an 's').

But that's not to say that all websites with that little padlock can be trusted. Scammers are incredibly smart and have ways to get fake security certificates and get those little URL padlocks on their websites, regardless. So even if it's there, you should still remain sceptical.

Webpages that have a secure sockets layer (SSL) properly installed have a green padlock next to the URL

While the padlock is an important check to ensure the site is secure, it can't be relied on completely and you'll also need to do additional checks to determine whether it's legitimate or not.

You should also check the payment options at checkout stage to see if it has a trust seal – this symbol means the payment and brand are legitimate, and safe to do business with.

7. It's an Australian site with no ABN 

Australian websites should provide users with an Australian Business Number (ABN) which you can use to check that it's a legitimate number. 

"ABNs are a possible sign of legitimacy but ABNs can be misused or stolen. You can check ABNs online at abr.business.gov.au," Ms Rickard advises.

How to report a scam

If you've been scammed, you can help warn others by reporting it to the ACCC's Report a scam webpage.

Depending on the type of scam, you may need to contact other authorities such as the police or your bank.

Scamwatch has a detailed guide on how and where to get help. 

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