It’s time to start your holiday shopping, and if you want to avoid the Black Friday crowds, you might choose to shop online. But while you won’t have to stand in long lines or fight over the last TV at Target, online shopping still has its challenges.
We highlight three online shopping “traps” – online tracking, drop-shipping and fake ads – and explain how you can avoid them.
Trap #1: “Cookies” track what you do online
When you do just about anything online, your browser creates a cookie (not the dessert), or a log of your clicks and actions.
Google describes cookies as “files created by websites that you visit. They make your online experience easier by saving browsing information. With cookies, sites can keep you signed in, remember your site preferences and give you locally relevant content.”
That means other sites, including social media, read those cookies and know what you’ve been up to. The sites then tailor their ads and products based off your search history.
“Advertisers are using it to offer me brands or products that might be beneficial or that I'd enjoy, the same way a news organization might be offering me news stories that align with my interest,” Marketing and Communications Lecturer said Hal Vincent, a marketing and communications lecturer at Elon University.
Imagine you want to buy a pair of hiking boots, for example. You search “hiking boots” on Google. Almost instantly, ads for hiking boots show up on Facebook. You get hiking boot emails. Boots appear on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. Your neighbor coincidentally posts their old hiking boots for sale on Nextdoor. And with boots everywhere, you start to question if the internet can hear your thoughts.
That's all thanks to cookies.
Social media sites don’t really need cookies... because they have you. Every picture, post, search and click build a profile that tell advertisers how to target you.
So what can you do about it?
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to erase your online profile completely, but clearing the cookies from your browser is a good place to start.
The next step is to turn off targeted ads on Facebook.
If you click on the down facing arrow at the top right hand of your Facebook page and go into Settings, you’ll see an option for “Ads.” Inside that page, you’ll see options to allow or block ads for three categories:
- “Ads based on data from partners”: Facebook describes this as “data that advertisers and other partners provide us about your activity.”
- “Ads based on your activity on Facebook Company Products that you see elsewhere”: Facebook describes this as “when we show you ads off Facebook Company Products, such as websites, apps and devices that use our advertising services, we use data about your activity on Facebook Company Products to make them more relevant.”
- “Ads that include your social actions”: Facebook says, “We may include your social actions on ads, such as liking the Page that’s running the ad.”
All three options can be turned off based on your preferences.
Trap #2: Drop-shipping sites sell you the same product for more money
Have you ever clicked on an ad and ended up at a website you’d never heard of? Did the website look well put together, with multiple products listed and quality photos and descriptions?
It’s possible you clicked on a drop-shipping site. Drop-shipping site creators offer you products and fulfill your order without ever touching or stocking the products they ship.
After you click “buy” on their site, they don’t grab the product from their warehouse, put it in a box and send it to your house. They order it off another site and sometimes charge you a lot extra for a process you didn’t even know about.
Shopify.com, a site that helps drop-shippers get started, defines the process as “a retail fulfillment method where a store doesn’t keep the products it sells in stock.”
And drop-shipping is legal. While most consumers are only beginning to learn of them, the websites aren’t mislabeling themselves.
“We have not really addressed the either legal or ethical considerations of creating advertising for or about drop shippers or drop shipping,” Vincent said.
VERIFY found a self-professed drop-shipping site and searched for some products. One of the items, a holiday-themed cookie rolling pin, cost $30 on their site.
But we found the same rolling pin on Amazon.com and Ebay for less than $10.
While the drop-shipping site didn't do anything wrong and would deliver the real product to you, they’d also charge you roughly $20 extra in the process.
So what can you do about it? Downloading price comparison apps and ad-blockers can help.
Honey and PriceScout are two of the most popular apps that you can automatically install on your browser. When you search for a new product, the apps will automatically search other sites for cheaper prices.
When it comes to blocking ads, AdBlock and AdBlock Plus are two of the most popular add-ons. They can be configured to block ads that appear on websites. If you add one of these blockers to your browser, it’s worth setting up preferences to allow ads on some sites you want to support. Many outlets make their money off advertisements, and you don’t want to block them on sites you want to support.
Trap #3: Fake ads are everywhere
It’s difficult to spot a deliberately fake advertisement. They don’t all promote ridiculous deals, like motorcycles on sale for $9.
There aren’t even catalogs or databases keeping track of fake advertisements. So what do you do?
“When ads, or emails... steer you towards counterfeit products, stolen goods, knock-offs, poor quality, counterfeit...that's illegal,” Vincent said.
And he’s right. The Federal Trade Commission enforces federal laws regarding advertisements.
According to FTC publications, ads must be “truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.”
Ads that are noticeably false or even appear to be false can be reported in a number of ways:
- FTC Complaint Assistant: This site lets you directly submit an advertisement that is questionable to the FTC for review.
- Google AdWords Feedback: This site lets you submit complaints or errors with Google AdWords ads.
- Facebook Ad Review: Facebook doesn’t have a form or submission for ads that have issues. Instead on an ad that appears to be misleading or false, you can click the next to the image and choose the “report ad” option.