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Internet shoppers young and old are falling for fake websites—here’s why

Fake websites are now being targeted at different age groups. The most at risk? Millennials and Gen Z. Here’s what to watch out for so you don’t fall for an online scam.

8 min read

Whether you’re a Gen Zer, Millennial, Gen Xer, or a Baby Boomer, fake e-commerce websites target your age group. A fake shop is a legitimate-looking fraudulent online shop that appears to offer popular brands at bargain prices. The scammers behind these sites use a range of sophisticated techniques to ensnare their victims, often adapting their approach to match their targets’ age demographic.

As a digital bank, we see thousands of customers fall prey to fake shops every year. Unfortunately, it’s the individuals that are the least informed about fake shops that are most at risk. But Chelsea Hutchinson, a Security Analyst on our Trust and Safety team, believes it doesn’t have to be this way. Delving into the data, she identified the key methods scammers are using to target different age groups. She hopes that by sharing her findings, you can better safeguard yourself against the financial and emotional stress of falling victim to online fraud.

How scammers use our behaviors against us

Scammers use an assortment of psychological tricks to attract targets to their fake shops. According to Chelsea, “experienced threat actors know what makes people tick and they find ways to exploit their targets without them catching on. That is, until the damage has already been done.” While our online behaviors tend to differ depending on our age group, we can all fall prey to similar manipulative techniques. One such technique is to create a sense of urgency around a specific product. Scammers do this by making an item seem as though it’s part of a limited special offer. 

Chelsea explains that this as a form of social engineering, “the purpose of which is to interrupt a target’s decision-making process. By framing attractive deals in just the right way, scammers are able to elicit a quick response.” And a quick response is often exactly what these scammers need. If a potential target spends too long browsing a fake shop’s website, they may start to recognize a few tell-tale signs that indicate the site may not be as legitimate as they first thought.

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Which age groups are susceptible to fake website scams? 

While we can all fall victim to an online scam, there are certain age groups that are more at risk than others. Breaking down the findings of our Trust & Safety team’s recent study, Chelsea discovered that the older the age group, the more wary consumers are of shopping online. “Luckily for them,” Chelsea states, “Baby Boomers are least likely to be caught out by fakeshop scammers. Having grown up during a time when there were no digital devices and no internet, they tend to prefer in-person interactions.” But, while only 54% of Baby Boomers said they felt safe shopping online, nearly 67% of Gen Zers said they felt comfortable buying items online. 

Chelsea maps this sense of online safety to the likelihood of each age group falling victim to an online scam. While 18% of Baby Boomers over 65 have been the victim of a website scam, roughly 27% of Gen Xers, 29% of Gen Zers, and a huge 34% of Millenials (one in three) have been scammed out of their money online. As Chelsea states, “of all generations, millennials are most likely to become victims of marketplace fraud. Financially savvy as we are, we’re always on the lookout for cost-effective investments. In other words, we like bargains. Sometimes, our excitement gets the better of us and we don’t check carefully before making a purchase. The end result: we get scammed.”

At-risk groups: A generational breakdown

Though Millenials are technically the most at risk, the fact that, on average, one in four people have been a victim of an online scam is staggering, “when I hear stories of people who’ve been targeted by scammers, it makes my blood boil,” Chelsea states. “In those moments, I want nothing more than to take action. People who defraud others for their own personal gain are violating the most basic moral principles and I consider it a moral duty to stop them.” 

According to Chelsea, one of the best ways to protect yourself against fraud is to understand how scammers operate. As the results of the study show, scammers change their tactics depending on the age group they’re targeting, often very successfully. They do this by leveraging channels and mediums most familiar to each generation and luring them into a false sense of security before scamming them out of their money. Here’s how they do it. 

Gen Z (18–24)

Having grown up with the internet, Chelsea identifies Gen Z as the most technically savvy of all the generations. However, this makes them uniquely vulnerable to a particular type of online scam. As Chelsea puts it, “[Gen Z] don’t have to think about how to interact with their devices—it’s second nature to them. The downside is that this can sometimes equate to a decreased awareness, a vulnerability that can be exploited by threat actors.”  

Because the internet is so familiar to them, her study indicates that Gen Zers are more likely to trust it and to feel that social media platforms are safer than they may actually be. This obliviousness can lead them to overlook key red flags that might be picked up by older generations. As a result, Chelsea contends that Gen Zers are more likely to be targeted via social media scams such as fake shop ads or to become money mule recruits on peer-to-peer platforms.

Millennials (25–40)

Most Millennials became adults during the Great Recession. Consequently, they’re often caught juggling a conservative mindset imposed upon them by their parents on the one hand, and the Recession’s financial fallout on the other. This means that they’re often “looking for ways to either save or generate money.”. Scammers know this and so often target Millennials “via email, SMS and social media.” Additionally, Millennials are “most likely to become victims of purchase, advance-fee, debt-relief and job recruitment fraud, significantly more so than any other generation.” 

So, ironically, it’s often Millennials’ financial conservatism that can set them up for a scam, “many of us [Millennials] are sensible where our finances are concerned and good quality is of great importance to us. When we see something that fits the bill, we want to snatch it up quickly,” Chelsea states. So, when a fake shop or debt relief claim seems to offer a financially smart investment, a Millennial may be more at risk of falling for it. “A good rule of thumb: if an offer seems too good to be true, take a moment to stop and think about it. Always proceed with caution.”

Gen X (41–56)

While Gen Xers aren’t as tech-savvy as Millennials or Gen Zers, they are frequent internet users. However, “ the platforms with which they're most familiar tend not to be mobile apps but things like email and SMS,” Chelsea states. “Having grown up during a time of revolution and innovation, many of them [Gen X] developed a strong sense of self-reliance and an anti-establishment attitude, which means they're typically less vulnerable to scams that leverage threats made by government authorities as a result of non-payment.” However, Chelsea’s findings show that while Gen X are less vulnerable to scams masquerading as governmental threats, they’re the age demographic most likely to fall for loan, lottery, and parcel pickup scams. 

Baby Boomers (57–75)

As Baby Boomers were introduced to the internet quite late in life, “they have a penchant for written, in-person, and otherwise verbal interactions”rather than interactions on a computer or a mobile phone. When using the internet to purchase online goods, they’re usually much more skeptical, as Chelsea states, “many of them prefer to visit physical stores where they’ll (hopefully) be greeted by friendly faces and have the option to speak with somebody if they have any questions.” 

Thanks to their skepticism, Chelsea states, many Baby Boomers don’t fall for fake shop scams. Instead, scammers usually target them via phone or post. Even worse, “given that many elderly people are socially isolated and therefore lonely, attackers tend to prey on their emotional state. People of this generation are most at risk of tax, healthcare and romance fraud.”

How to protect yourself from online scams—at any age

No matter which age demographic you fall into, Chelsea suggests several tell-tale signs you can look out for to prevent yourself from becoming victim to a fake online shop:

1. If a shop only allows you to purchase an item by using a direct bank transfer, don’t trust it. “Trusted companies know their customers like to have a variety of options. Look out for providers such as PayPal, Mastercard and Visa. These companies are subject to strict vendor regulations and they offer buyer protection” Chelsea adds.

2. Usually, a fake shop will lack an internet presence beyond the shop’s website.“ Fakeshops typically have no online presence beyond the sites themselves. When searching for information about them, there will be no reviews, company profiles, or public interactions of any kind.” Do some research to see if you can find other websites that point to this site, giving it more legitimacy. Chelsea suggests checking to see if the shop is listed in Watchlist Internet’s, fake shop repository, keeping in mind that people shouldn’t solely rely on this resource.

3. Check a fake shop’s social media links. “One thing to look out for is dead social media links. If you click on them, they’ll likely just loop back to the page you’re on.” 

4. Look out for signs of a poorly constructed website. “ There might be uneven spacing between words, misplaced objects, and orthographic errors. Don’t be fooled by return and privacy policies either! Scammers add these to make their sites look like legitimate companies but it’s nothing more than a ploy to deceive targets. It’s all for show, nothing more.”

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