The Internet has totally changed the way we do our shopping. Gone are the days when we had to rely on nearby shops within our local town or city for the products we needed.
We can now search and shop for millions of products and have them delivered straight to our door via online companies.
However, just like with most things in life, there is a dark side to the Internet.
Online shopping has become safer over the years compared to what it was like in its early stages, but it's far from a 100% safe shopping platform.
One of the easiest ways scammers and their fraudulent websites lure you in, is by using Google AdWords. Google, are one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing companies in history, and have essentially made the majority of their fortune by selling ad space on their search engine.
Google AdWords essentially allows website owners to have their website appear right at the top of their search engine when anybody searches for a particular word/s. This of course, is great for legit website owners and companies as it allows them to attract visitors and sell products. The bad side, it also allows scammers and their fraudulent websites to do the same.
There are no rigourous background checks or special requirements to be accepted by Google AdWords, and you can essentially have your website appear via their ad network within minutes of signing up. There are, of course, terms and conditions you need to accept, but these are basic things like making sure your website doesn't sell nuclear bombs or has X-rated material.
Now, of course, Google doesn't want fraudulent websites using their ad network and will take action and remove them once they are made aware. However, Google doesn't display a big red scam button next to the ads it displays on their search engine, and the overall reporting process isn't particularly straightforward, especially for those who are not computer savvy.
That means that fraudulent websites can operate for weeks, sometimes even months before they are detected, meaning they can rip off hundreds or thousands of people.
I highly doubt if Google want to announce just how many fraudulent websites have used their ad network since their inception, but the number must be in the hundreds of thousands, if not the millions and continues to grow daily.
I was a victim of a fraudulent website that I found through Google AdWords around 10 years ago. The website looked extremely professionally made and contained a large range of computer games at very reasonable prices. However, that computer game I ordered never arrived, nor did anybody else get theirs.
Scammers and their fraudulent websites have evolved through the years. When I got scammed, I didn't get my product because it never existed, but now you will find that scammers actually have stock, but that stock is either stolen, defective or fake.
For example, a friend of mine recently got scammed when he was searching for "flea treatment for cats" and found what he thought was a great deal through a legitimate site he found on AdWords. That site, however, was completely fraudulent and selling defective flea treatment all the way from Bulgaria. The seller had somehow gotten hold of a batch of a well-known flea treatment brand which should have been destroyed because the packaging that the actual liquid treatment was located inside was defective and leaking and rendering the product useless. Upon trying to contact the seller and explain the situation they simply didn't want to know and ignore all communications.
Another example comes from a BBC programme about scams that I saw recently where a young man was a victim of a fake car insurance company. During the interview he said he did a Google search for "cheap car insurance for young drivers" where he found a website who gave him a very reasonably priced policy, complete with a certificate that was sent in the post. However, this was a fraudulent company who were taking people's money and then sending them a phoney insurance certificate so it looked legit.
The young man didn't say specifically whether he found the website through Google's organic search, or through Google's AdWords network. But considering it was a very competitive search term it was most likely found through AdWords.
Thankfully, if you do pay by credit card you have some level of protection and should be able to make a chargeback through your credit card company if you are scammed online. Though this will obviously vary from country to country.
Fraudulent websites don't last very long, so be wary of sites that have only appeared in the last month or two. You can check the age of a domain name and where it was registered by using the WHOIS database. The majority of fraudulent websites are also very basic, in that they only focus on selling a small amount of products at unbeatable prices, often from the same manufacturer. They may also use a trademark in the actual domain name, such as Appletablets(dot)com, which along with some official images makes the site look as if they are a legit seller.
You will also find on closer inspection that these websites aren't particularly well written and are full of spelling and punctuality mistakes, or have been copied like-for-like from another website. It also a good idea to pay close attention to their terms, return policy and contact page. If they are vague or missing important information this may be a sign of a fraudulent website.
The best way to avoid getting scammed by a fraudulent website through Google AdWords is to block those ads completely. Thankfully, there is a great free program called AdBlock Plus, which is compatible with the vast majority of popular web browsers. This program essentially blocks all advertisement, not just from Google but from other websites that are displaying Google ads. You can find a guide on AdBlock Plus at the following page.
Organic search results are essentially sites that are displayed below Google ads. These sites don't pay to have their site listed on Google search engine, but have appeared there naturally. Because it is not financially in Google's interest to give these websites a high ranking, they have to earn it through quality content and backlinks from other high quality websites, which essentially acts as a vote of trust. In most cases, it takes anywhere from 6 to 12+ months (if not longer) for sites to start appearing in the 1st few pages of Google's organic search results. Of course, this doesn't mean that those websites are 100% safe as they could also be fraudulent, but it's highly unlikely that they are.
Naturally, not all search results displayed via Google AdWords are scam websites. Many of the worlds biggest websites and those starting up use Google AdWords to increase sales. I wish I could tell you that 99.99999% of websites found via Google AdWords are completely safe and legit, but I can't. New scam websites appear on a daily basis via Google AdWords, and will continue to do so for many years to come.
You can never be 100% safe online, and the only way you can minimise your risk of buying from a fraudulent store is to thoroughly research it, before you buy. You can find some tips on safe online shopping at the following page.