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New warning for online shoppers: Watch out for fake 'discreet shipping' fees

The holiday shopping season is packed with warnings in 2023 about a flurry of phony websites that impersonate big name brands to scam consumers.

Now, we're being warned that some phony e-commerce websites are even going so far as to hit shoppers with a hidden fee for “discreet shipping," according to a late November alert from the Better Business Bureau.

You'll pay an extra shipping fee for something that probably isn't going to arrive anyway.

You might spot this so-called new fee late in the order process − or even through an email after you've ordered the item and received a tracking number. The fee supposedly covers special packaging or even some sort of stamps, as scammers try to gouge more money from unsuspecting and, yes, possibly rushed Cyber Week holiday shoppers.

Look-a-like websites for big brands

First, we can't warn consumers enough this season that we're seeing a proliferation of fake websites. I heard from one reader who ran into fake websites that promised 90% off. She never received anything she ordered.

Another sign of a scam: Weird emails from customer service. This consumer's email stated: "Sorry to keep you waiting. The logistics company says the package has been delivered to your address. We shipped the wrong item. There should be a pair of 3D polarized sunglasses in your package, please find this package. We have lost a lot of money and we need you to find this package and we will send you the correct package."

Nancy Breedlove, a former Detroiter who now lives in Cape Coral, Florida, said she spent about $56 on what she thought were discounted items online from Lululemon. She disputed the purchase with PayPal when she didn't get the items and said she was able to work with PayPal to get a refund.

Breedlove, 70, is still dealing with issues after spending less than $20 to place an order on what appears to be a fake Coldwater Creek website. Again, she never got anything. She plans to dispute the charge with her credit card company.

The Coldwater Creek site wanted her to pay a fee to track the package.

"I did not trust them," she told the Detroit Free Press. "And I’m not going to pay to track an item."

She remembers the online ad talking about Coldwater Creek closing, which she thought sounded true. Coldwater Creek closed its stores in 2014 to switch to an online-only strategy. A few years later, it announced plans to open a few stores. This year, the competing Soft Surroundings women's clothing and accessories brand filed for bankruptcy and Coldwater Creek announced plans to buy remaining assets and sell the Soft Surroundings brand online and via catalogs. All the retail reshuffling can get confusing.

The websites with the great deals used the same logos as the well-known brands, Breedlove said. "And that’s why I thought it was legitimate." She recalls that she initially spotted the promotions either on Facebook or Instagram. The ads said that the items were 90% off.

The athletic leisure brand Lululemon has posted a warning to consumers online about counterfeit goods and fake websites. Some clues of a scam: "Look for contact information and email addresses that don't appear to be legitimate like 'lululemon@gmail.com.'" Another sign of a imposter website: You might see a variation of the word, such as "lulu" or "lulus" in the domain name.

Oddly enough, many trendy consumers looking to save money are readily buying what are dubbed "dupes." They're turning to lookalike products for brands like Lululemon, Abercrombie & Fitch, Birkenstock, and others. The growing love affair with fake products – or replicas of real higher-priced items – has been promoted by TikTok influencers, according to a report by Reuters.

Still, you could get caught by scammers who recognize a hot seller and then copy the design of original websites to appear real.

As I warned earlier this year, be extremely skeptical when you spot a clearance deal or promotion for 90% off everything on a website.

On Cyber Monday, I placed an order for a holiday gift at Talbots. The regular website was promoting 50% off and free shipping that day. And amazingly, not all that long afterwards on Monday, I saw an ad pop up in my Facebook feed for 90% off at Talbots. I knew it had to be a scam, given earlier alerts. Breedlove saw a similar 90% off Talbots promotion for a "Talbots Clearance Shop" on Instagram.

Consumers can save plenty of time and money if they just ignore their fear of missing out on a deal when they spot 80% or 90% off ads on social media.

A Michigan consumer reported losing $198 in September after spotting an ad on Craigslist for clearance deals for Bed Bath & Beyond merchandise, according to a report made to the BBB Scam Tracker.

She never got what she ordered. Instead, she received two packets of USB pastel colored cables from 21460 Yellow Brick Road, Walnut, CA 91789.

How to shop Aldi: Aldi can be a saver's paradise: Here's how to make the most of deals in every aisle

'Discreet shipping' fee scam

When it comes to those extra shipping fees, the BBB is warning that its online BBB Scam Tracker has received multiple reports from consumers who purchased diet pills, vaping products, ammunition, CBD edibles, or other similar products and then were told they'd be charged a “discreet shipping” fee.

Other shoppers spotted that fee when they designated their online purchase as a gift. Another twist of this scam involves being charged for “discreet package stamps” to prevent their packages from passing through customs.

One consumer complained to the BBB about buying cigars online. After the purchase, the shopper started getting emails that demanded more money for supposedly refundable insurance on the delivery. "After that," the consumer told the BBB, "they requested more money for a type of delivery the sender described as discreet. They won’t cancel the order, refund the money I paid, or deliver the package without getting more money from me.”

But the BBB said that the shopper is unlikely to see anything show up. "Unfortunately for this shopper, the package and the cigars probably never existed in the first place," the BBB stated.

The BBB noted that scammers often ask that you pay through a digital payment app such as Zelle or CashApp. If you use an app to pay, you probably won’t be able to recover your money when you realize the business is a sham.

Typically, if you're shopping online, you want to use a credit card so that it is easier to contest fraudulent charges if you don't receive what you ordered.

Also, research online before you buy. Search the brand name and the word scam to see what kind of copycat schemes are out there.

Scammers are using social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to offer eye-catching deals to lure budget-strapped consumers − and now scammers might even try to get you to pay more money for "discreet shipping."

Contact personal finance columnist Susan Tompor: stompor@freepress.com. Follow her on X (Twitter) @tompor.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Watch for scam sites, bogus shipping fees while online shopping