In our current global landscape, many of us have turned to online shopping and mobile apps to buy groceries, order takeout, or keep up with fitness routines. In fact, 13% of Canadians have purchased groceries online through the pandemic.1

Scammers and fraudsters are taking advantage of the increase in e-commerce by creating fake websites and mobile apps to capture personal information.

Here are some tips to help identify and protect yourself against fake websites and mobile apps.

Fake websites

Just because you've gotten an e-mail from a well-known company or have seen an ad for an item on social media, doesn't mean that the sender, website or embedded links are legitimate. Many scams involve fraudsters setting up fake websites to mask themselves as a reputable company – when really, it's an attempt to gain your credit card details or sell you something that isn't as advertised.

One common COVID-19 scam involves phony websites selling fake Clorox and Lysol2 and even offering vaccines. In some versions of this scam, you don't get anything at all but in others, you get sent fake versions of the products – which could be dangerous. Also be cautious of text messages, emails or calls related to Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) or Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB) repayment.

So, how do you know if a company or a website is real or not? The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada suggests that you pay attention to a few things before deciding whether to purchase something on a website you don't often visit.3

  • Does the website look poorly designed? Does it have broken links?
  • Can you find an address or phone number listed for the business?
  • Are there clear sales, return and privacy policies on the site?
  • Is the back button disabled? If you're stuck on a page and can't go back, it’s usually a red flag of a scam site.
  • Are you being asked for your credit card information before you make a purchase?

If you notice any of the above, it's best not to make a purchase to protect yourself. If you suspect the site is pretending to be a well-know retailer, open a new browser and access the company’s website via a Google search, instead of following the direct link that was sent to you.

Fake apps

An increasing number of retailers and service providers require or encourage you to download an app to make a purchase. Whether you're ordering takeout or buying books, purchasing through an app can be faster than logging onto the company's website. Apps are also often better designed for mobile, making it easier and more efficient to use.

Similar to websites, apps can be fake too. The last thing you want to be doing during dinner time is waiting for a delivery order of sushi that will never come. While the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store routinely monitor the apps listed in their marketplaces to remove scam apps, a scam app can sometimes slip through their monitors.

The Canadian Bankers Association recommends that you look for the following before downloading and using an app:4

  • Is the name of the app publisher the same as the retail app? Is the spelling correct?
  • Does the app have user feedback and ratings?
  • Does the app require a significant number of permissions to install?
  • Does the app have multiple pop-up ads or does it keep prompting you for your personal information?

If you notice any of the above flags, it's best not to download the app or to uninstall it completely. If you're looking for a well-known app, you can always visit the company's website and click on a direct link to their app to ensure you're downloading the right one.

Stay safe

The trick to staying safe online is to be cautious and vigilant. While it takes a bit of extra time to double check the legitimacy of a company or organization, you'll be happy that you did when you get your sushi order or new item.

Learn more about how you can recognize the most common scams