Coronavirus warning: How to spot copycat websites selling fake COVID-19 PPE

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Cloned websites and fake pictures are fooling consumers into paying for personal protective equipment (PPE) which they may never receive.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says there are countless new websites which are fraudulent. Because of that, online shopping scams are now one of the top three complaints.

"Because of the demand for PPE and things like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, we have a lot of people putting up websites purporting to offer those products. One of the things we see is where they essentially copy a legitimate website," said Todd Kossow, Director of FTC in the Midwest Region.

Kossow said the websites look real and prey on the need for masks and sanitizer, among other items. You could click and never get your product.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) is also reporting that 90% of scams in April were related to COVID-19 or fake websites.

"The warning is really the same we give for any online shopping. It's really easy for somebody to set up a website and purported to be a legitimate online merchant. Consumers should do their homework before they purchase something," said Kossow.

Here is what you should do to make sure you're buying from a legitimate website:

1. Make sure the website has an "S" at the end of the HTTP at the beginning of its URL to make sure it is secure.

2. Look for a specific contact information on the website and try calling the company to make sure you're on their proper site.

3. Conduct reverse image searches on websites like Google which may show the same images on different websites.

"With these websites, you are not getting your money back and you are not getting your product very often," said Leo Friedman who runs ipromo.com, a personal protective equipment online seller in Chicago's West Loop.

He showed the I-Team a website which he said is of a company that cloned some of his website pictures.

"They basically ripped off the whole website. All our images, all our text, word for word. But they forgot to change some of the links on the website from us to them," he said.

The I-Team called the listed 800 phone number on the website, left a voicemail and also sent an email.

Friedman said when he called, someone who answered agreed to take his images off the site. The entire website is now down.

Friedman also showed the I-Team a report he filed with the FTC. That report could help authorities if the same people are cloning other business sites, but catching them isn't easy.

"The operators are likely offshore, which make it harder for law enforcement to track them down and do something about it," Kossow said.

For the first three months of this year the cybersecurity firm Bolster documented a massive spike detecting 854,441 confirmed phishing and counterfeit websites, 30% of which were COVID-19 related.

Besides the fear of not getting products, there's also a concern about the quality of PPE purchased for workers on the front lines. Greg Cohen, CEO of Magid Glove & Safety, in Romeoville is testing sample masks before distribution.

He told ABC 7 in April, "We have one example where we tested it and it was almost no different than wearing a bandana on your face, and that one company was ready to sell us 300,000 masks that day."

If you are shopping for essential items online and prices look too low, it could be a warning you're on a copycat website.

If you're a victim, you can report the fraudulent transaction to your credit card company and the FTC.
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