“It was paper-thin, like it was made of felt,” said Bass, 43, an attorney in Austin. “And the fur — if it even was fur — looked like something you’d find on roadkill or a rat.”
Online scams are as old as the Internet, but consumer fraud experts say sketchy offers have snowballed in the rush to cash in on holiday shoppers, who are expected to spend a record $143 billion online this season. And as consumers become more comfortable buying from overseas merchants, no-name Instagram accounts and on their phones — where it can be trickier to discern whether a site is legitimate — it all adds up to diminishing oversight and more opportunities for fraud.
At Overland Sheepskin, a family-run business in Fairfield, Iowa, executives say they have been fighting an uphill battle against websites that use its photos to misrepresent themselves as vendors. Overland shared a spreadsheet of 753 such sites it has identified since early November and says dozens more crop up daily, highlighting both an explosive growth in new types of consumer deception and the fact that retailers and shoppers have little recourse.
“This is organized fraud on a massive scale,” said Gabriel Openshaw, Overland’s vice president of e-commerce. “These sites are stealing our images and sending customers horrendous-looking knockoffs — or nothing at all — in exchange for their money.”
Most of those sites — 90 percent, according to Openshaw — are hosted by Shopify, a leading Web platform that backs more than 1 million merchants. The Washington Post viewed numerous images of what appeared to be Overland merchandise hosted by sellers on Shopify’s site, many of whose store pages resemble each other. (The Post sells branded T-shirts and other merchandise through the Shopify platform.)
In recent weeks, lawyers and executives at Overland say they have reported hundreds of sites to Shopify and have sent multiple notices to the company’s legal team, according to documents Overland shared with The Post. Shopify has removed some of the offending images and sites; others, including KeliSexin, remain active even after Openshaw and his team have flagged them nearly a dozen times.
Amy Hufft, a spokeswoman for Shopify, said the company treats concerns about its merchants “very seriously.” An internal team monitors for fraudulent activity, she said, and closes shops “when necessary.”
KeliSexin did not respond to an email seeking comment. Nor did most other merchants contacted by The Post; one sent a form email requesting more details.
“Shopify believes in making commerce better for everyone,” Hufft said. “We have multiple teams who handle potential violations … of alleged copyright and trademark infringement, as well as fraud complaints.”
A Washington Post analysis of dozens of Shopify-backed websites found photos lifted from more than 20 major brands, including J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, Boden, Max Mara and All Saints. One site advertised a $68 Free People kimono for $21, while another claimed to be selling a $6,990 Max Mara cashmere coat for $47. (A representative for Max Mara said the company is working to “monitor and repress” such instances of fraud. The other brands and websites did not respond to requests for comment.)
The Canada Goose Rossclair Parka is made with duck down and fur, and retails for $995.
On BonaChic.com, it’s $39.12. BonaChic did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Toronto-based Canada Goose says it has had 30,000 fake online ads and websites removed in the past year. The retailer said it works closely with local law enforcement to identify and seize counterfeits at production sites around the world, and trains customs officials on how to identify counterfeit products as they’re being moved across borders. It is also trying to educate consumers on how to spot fakes, and offers a URL tracker on its website so shoppers can confirm that they’re buying from an authorized retailer.
“We take the protection of our brand, its trademarks and our consumers seriously,” said Carrie Baker, chief communications officer.
Upscale retailers tend to be major targets, security experts say, because they often have impressive, high-quality photos. Their products are also highly coveted, making them ripe for counterfeits and scams.
Globally, counterfeit goods are expected to become a $1.82 trillion market by 2020, according to a report by Research and Markets. And although many of those fraudulent transactions still take place on sidewalks and in storefronts, experts say a growing number are moving online to keep up with shifts in consumer spending. Major e-commerce players such as Amazon are also doubling down on third-party vendors, resulting in less control over what is being sold on leading sites, and how.
A Washington Post analysis last month found a “continued abundance of counterfeit goods” on Amazon, including knockoff Hermès bracelets and imitations of Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Gucci handbags. The company says it uses “sophisticated tools to combat bad actors,” and has more than 5,000 employees devoted to protecting vendors and consumers from fraud and abuse. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
At Overland, executives said they discovered the problem in late October, when a Google Shopping search for “sheepskin bomber jacket” appeared to turn up two websites that were offering its products at steep discounts, using the same names, images and descriptions as on Overland’s site. Those sites have since been taken down. But hundreds of new ones have appeared, many of them hawking the same sheepskin coats and leather jackets for a small fraction of their suggested price.
Each site has hundreds of photos, almost all of which can be linked back to other retailers and publications, Openshaw said. Sometimes the photos are reused as-is. Other times, they’ve been cropped or altered in some small way, by changing the background or model’s face, for example, or the color of the clothing, making them more difficult to trace.
“I’ve never seen anything remotely close to this,” he said. “Obviously, this is the worst possible time of year for us to be dealing with this.”
One full-time employee now spends his entire day reporting images to Shopify, while other staffers have been trained on how to send notices to offending websites. Many of the sites appear to be copycats of one another, Openshaw said, and seem to have sophisticated teams of graphic designers, social media managers and Web editors behind them. In addition, such sites are typically based in Eastern Europe and Asia, making them difficult to track and shut down, according to Alan Brill, managing director of the cyber risk practice at Kroll, a New York-based consulting firm.
“The Internet,” he said, “was never designed to be secure.”
‘I got burned’
Bass, the attorney in Austin, was in the market for a coat when the Facebook ad caught her eye.
She had bought a number of sweaters, scarves and shoes from similar ads without any issues. So she followed the link and purchased two coats from KeliSexin. She didn’t pay attention to the URL, she said, and assumed that the social media site had vetted the ad. A spokeswoman for Facebook said an automated system reviews ads to make sure they’re not selling prohibited items such as tobacco, dietary supplements and payday loans. Identifying companies that sell counterfeit products, she said, can be more difficult, and Facebook often relies on user reports to flag such content. She added that the company is reviewing KeliSexin’s ads.
Bass said she typically reads customer reviews and conducts reverse image searches for products on websites she’s not familiar with. “But this time I didn’t,” she said. “And I got burned.”
She used a debit card to pay $112.49 for two coats. Weeks later, she’s still trying to get a refund for the order, which arrived from a San Diego warehouse.
When she asked to return the coat, a company representative told her she would have to ship it to China, according to emails Bass shared with The Post. “It may be lost in the process of returning,” the representative told her. “If lost, we can’t refund the money to you.”
Getting a refund, experts say, can often be difficult. Most consumers don’t catch on until days or weeks later, when they receive a faulty product in the mail (or perhaps nothing at all). By then, the site in question has probably been shut down, leaving shoppers with little recourse.
Kevin Whitaker didn’t have particularly high expectations when he paid $54 for a shearling sheepskin coat from Neathot.com. But he liked the color and thought it looked nice.
“I figured it was an imitation, but I read the reviews and thought I’d just wear it casually,” the Pittsburgh-based truck driver said.
He paid an extra $6.95 for three-day shipping. Two weeks later, he has yet to receive anything from the now-defunct website. (As for the item in the photo, it turned out to have been a $3,395 Overland coat.)
“This was my first time buying from a site I don’t know, and I’ll never do it again,” he said. “I feel cheated.”