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  • Cheryl Tan

How To Avoid Online Scams, in Light of the COVID-19 $122,000 Mask Scam

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

Written by Cheryl Tan


Credit: Reuters

There has been an increase of online scams lately, with opportunistic sellers preying on pandemic fears. Covid-19 has set off a flurry of panic buying around the world especially for surgical masks and hand sanitizers. Once shops started selling out, people went online to hunt down these coveted items. The issue is, you never know what you’re going to get when shopping online.

And we’ve seen that happen time and again with news reports on people getting cheated of their money, or even teenagers getting arrested over scam charges. One of the biggest news to emerge from e-commerce scams lately was a case where at least 600 people were scammed on a surgical mask preorder by a seller going by the handle of “diywallpaper” on Carousell, a marketplace app.

Credit: Carousell

The seller was unable to follow through with the order, claiming that she was cheated of $122,000 when the supplier didn’t deliver the masks she ordered. The police have since confirmed they will not be taking action against the seller as there is insufficient evidence to prove she was out to cheat buyers.

We reached out to the seller as well as a buyer who only wants to be known as Ms Zheng for more details.

When asked why she chose to trust this supplier, seller “diywallpaper” stated that she found the supplier online and trusted the person as they provided certificates and a website to track the shipments. She declined to show us the certifications mentioned.

Ms Zheng, on the other hand, mentioned that she was asked to pay in full through funds transfer once the preorder was made and that she didn’t use the in-app payment feature – Carousell Protection.

We reached out to Carousell and other popular online shopping platforms, Lazada, Shopee and Facebook Marketplace to find out whether these platforms have measures in place to actively protect their users.

Carousell’s Chief of Staff and Vice President of Operations, Su Lin Tan, strongly encouraged all users to use Carousell Protection, an escrow payment solution where funds are held by Carousell until the transaction is marked complete by both the seller and buyer. This might cause some issues with preorders since plenty of sellers require upfront payment so they can pay their suppliers as well, but the main point would be to avoid preorders and only deal with sellers who have ready stock on hand to avoid being cheated.

Carousell also encourages users to not take conversations off the app, and assured us that they would be monitoring listings and manually removing those which are exorbitantly priced.

Facebook Marketplace has gone one step further to ensure their platform won’t be used for such scams, stating that “to protect people from inflated prices and predatory behaviour, in addition to masks, we’re now also banning hand sanitizer, surface disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 test kits in ads and commerce listings. We’ll be ramping up our automated enforcement for ads and commerce next week. If we see abuse around these products in organic posts, we’ll remove those, too.”

We went on Facebook Marketplace and still saw some old listings that should be removed after Facebook ramps up their automated takedowns this week. Despite that, there are sellers who’ve seemingly managed to game the system by not listing what they’re selling in the title or description, but just a photo of the masks or sanitiser. It is definitely a tricky problem to solve.

A Shopee spokesperson mentioned that “All purchases made on Shopee are also secured by Shopee Guarantee which protects users by holding payment to sellers in escrow temporarily until buyers confirm the receipt of orders.” So as long as Shopee users don’t use other payment methods, it seems quite likely that they’ll be safe.

To sum up, there are a few steps one can take to reduce the likelihood of being scammed online. The first is to ensure that you use payment methods offered by the platform directly, and not by transferring money via PayNow, PayLah! or other apps.

Second, avoid dealing with preorders as much as possible and opt to meet up with sellers face to face to make sure that the products are authentic.

Lastly, if a deal is too good to be true, it most likely is.

We have not received a reply from Lazada at the time of publication.

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