(Graphic | Courtesy of Oregon FBI)
According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, bait and switch cases by online Chinese vendors targeting Oregonians have increased by 30 percent since June 2020. They account for 65 percent of all online shopping scams reported to the FBI in Oregon.
The scam usually starts with victims buying items from vendors they think are located in the U.S. From there, the bad actors do one of two things.
In the first version of the scam, the victim orders an item online, but instead of receiving that item he ordered he receives a package of small, lightweight materials such as disposable face masks, stickers, or plastic trinkets. Once the vendor generates a shipping tracking number, it can provide that information to the payment processor (such as PayPal) so that the processor will release funds to the seller. At the same time, the seller is able to minimize its shipping costs due to the light weight nature of the package.
In another version of this scam, the vendor sends an item that is loosely-related to the one purchased, claiming that was the item the buyer had ordered. This is an attempt to convince consumers they had mistaken their orders and accept the switched item. Consumers who requested refunds received offers of partial refunds if the victim returned the item to an address in China.
In these cases, shipping costs to China almost always exceeded the refund amounts, discouraging consumers from completing the refund. Notably, many of the victims reported the packages they were sent actually showed sender information originating in the United States, so there should have been be no need to return the item to China. Additionally, no invoices or order information were included in the packages so any returns could not have been attributed to that particular customer.
To protect yourself, make sure you research vendors — particularly those who advertise through social media platforms or through unsolicited messages. Use a credit card to pay and pay through a reputable payment processing platform. Make sure whatever platform you use has strong refund and dispute processes.
If you believe are a victim of an online scam, you should report the incident to the FBI’s Internet Crime Center at ic3.gov or call your FBI local office.