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The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

The Student News Site of Walt Whitman High School

The Black and White

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April 18, 2024

Consuming in a digital world: The battlefield of online shopping

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Vassili Prokopenko
Today, consumers cannot trust that deals and discounts are saving them money — blurring the lines between tricks and genuine sales. 

Shopping was once a stress-relieving way to treat yourself and others, but when online shoppers hit the checkout button, most are unaware of the perfectly orchestrated trap they’ve fallen into. From highway billboards to pop-up ads, companies constantly bombard people with the encouragement to purchase and consume. Today, consumers cannot trust that deals and discounts are saving them money — blurring the lines between tricks and genuine sales. 

Companies often use discounts, like 50% off, 25% off and buy-one-get-one free, to encourage increased shopping, but these sales are often deceiving. Before major holidays and brand-specific sale events, companies often raise their prices, then put items on “sale,” ultimately selling the product for its original value. Consumers Checkbook tracked 24 major brands’ “sales” over 33 weeks and found that 22 offered false discounts half the time. Checkbook found deals on Amazon, Old Navy, Footlocker, Gap and Nordstrom that were misleading a majority of the time.

However, there are methods that consumers can use to keep tabs on these ever-changing prices. Websites like Camelcamelcamel track prices over time and help customers understand the value of a deal. But these platforms can’t track every deal, especially ones that only last a few hours. The most reliable way for consumers to ensure they’re getting the best bang for their buck is tracking these prices, a task most people don’t have the time for. 

The rise of social media and online shopping has opened up new opportunities for scammers. Each year, more and more people are turning to the online market and abandoning in-person shopping, sacrificing the security of seeing the products they purchase. Scammers sneak their advertisements into Instagram or TikTok feeds, posing as legitimate retailers. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported a 70% increase in reported fraud losses from 2020 to 2022, and Aura found that customers lost 27 million dollars to Amazon scams from 2020 to 2021.

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In addition to pretending to be company representatives, scammers create fake product listings with real reviews by finding five-star products and replacing the real item with a fake. For many consumers, reviews are a prime factor in deciding on a purchase, which makes this scam particularly effective. Forbes reported that 92.4% of online shoppers use reviews to guide their decision on whether or not to purchase something. Regardless of a brand’s size, sellers can easily buy fake online reviews; the FTC estimates that 30% to 40% of online reviews are falsified. 

Consumers who use sites like Amazon, eBay and Poshmark — which rely on third-party sellers — are particularly susceptible to these scams. Buyers are less likely to be familiar with these sellers, which forces them to rely on reviews when deciding if a product is legitimate.

Junior Hannah Skipper was disappointed when the sweatshirt she purchased off Poshmark was not what she had expected.

“The hoodie looked pretty good in the photo, it was in good condition,” Skipper said. “When I got it there were some stains and it didn’t look as nice as it did online.” 

The FTC has adopted new strategies to fight these practices and increase the severity of legal consequences. In June, the organization announced a new proposed set of rules to combat manipulative online reviews. If approved, the new rules would make it illegal to buy reviews — negative or positive — or replace products that have real reviews with counterfeit products. 

These measures would also prevent company employees from writing reviews, creating company-controlled reviewing websites and purchasing fake views or followers on company social media. The government’s previous approach to combating false advertisement was through lawsuits, addressing the problem one case at a time. The FTC is now threatening fines of up to $50,000, intending to make prosecution more efficient.

Fake reviews are not exclusive to retail stores and online shops — medical offices and rehabilitation centers have also indulged in similar falsifications. The risk has expanded beyond tangible products; people are concerned about whether or not they’re receiving safe, quality health care. 

In 2019, a Nashville woman was searching for a recovery center to help with her husband’s drinking problem. Like many others, she turned to reviews to choose a center and ultimately flew her husband to a treatment facility in Washington with strong recommendations. She was shocked to learn that her husband had been drinking the entirety of his stay, and further investigation found that all the positive reviews she had used to make her decision were fabricated. In another instance, a New York-based urgent care center settled for $100,000 with the New York Attorney General’s office after being found purchasing fake reviews. 

Consumers also cannot simply worry about singular product scams, as the websites themselves pose the threat of being fraudulent. Scammers create lookalike websites to those of established brands, with the only difference between the real and replica being a letter or two in the URL.

Techniques like fake reviews and copy-cat websites are forms of “astroturfing” — a term encompassing messages or promotions produced by a company that appears to be unbiased and customer-created. Brands use astroturfing tactics like offering gifts and trips to influencers and bloggers in exchange for a positive public review of their product. Since content creators don’t receive the negative reputation that paints classic salespeople in a bad light, they are seen as trustworthy, unbiased sources without ulterior motives.

Junior Reneé Miller was watching a YouTube video on finance when she saw a link to a book the influencer recommended. Wanting to learn more about taxes, she ordered it and was disappointed when it never arrived.

“I trusted the website because the influencer had recommended it,” Miller said. “It was a [lot of] work to get my money back, so it was kind of annoying.” 

Social media platforms have recently taken opportunities to the next level, with many incorporating an original shopping network into the app. Roughly seven in 10 Americans participate in social media, making it a primary target for advertising. In 2020, Instagram launched an in-app virtual marketplace resembling sites like Etsy, where users can order items from numerous sellers without ever leaving the app. Other platforms like TikTok and Facebook have also incorporated similar features. But sellers like Depop, Etsy and Amazon are third parties, making fraudulent shops easily accessible.

Junior Emily Crump is one of many Instagram shop victims. When she came across an Instagram reel of a customizable book embosser, she purchased it as a birthday gift for her friend. Nothing about the seller looked suspicious, but the order did not arrive.

“It’s illegal to sell people things and not give it to them, so why is Instagram allowing illegal things on their app?” Crump said. “I wasted 40 dollars — I feel tricked.” 

This new age of technology has also allowed companies to collect information about customer desires. Scammers use this, alongside shopping online preventing consumers from inspecting products to maximize profits. Credit card numbers, names and addresses are all required to buy online products, and this information is now accessible to every single company they’ve bought from. Hackers and scammers are fishing in a sea of data, raising privacy concerns while increasing the effectiveness of scams. 

Online shoppers have to pay attention to the quality of views, website URLs, “fake” sales and the classic deal scam to avoid losing money. 

Junior Claire Gerber was hacked on Instagram a year ago when a scammer impersonated a close friend asking for help. After the incident, Gerber learned she needed to take on new strategies when navigating today’s internet.

“I feel taking certain precautions before transferring your money on a link, just to make sure this person is who they are, or even just switching apps,” Gerber said. “Not everything is what it seems on these social media apps.” 

 

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About the Contributors
Annie DeLuca
Annie DeLuca, Feature Writer
Grade 11 Why did you join the Black and White? I love writing and journalism What is your favorite song of all time? August by Taylor Swift
Vassili Prokopenko
Vassili Prokopenko, Online Production Head
Grade 12 Why did you join The B&W? To improve my art and design skills. What is your favorite board game? Blokus

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