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Much of our shopping can now be done online and while ecommerce has its benefits, it comes with risks too. Protect yourself from common online buying and selling scams by staying alert to these common red flags.

Red flags to look out for

Purchasing scams have recently been on the rise, with fraudsters active on both sides of a transaction. These scams take place on common ecommerce platforms used by genuine people, such as eBay, Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace and Carsales. Staying alert to the red flags below can help you spot a scammer and avoid falling victim to online fraud.

General red flags to look out for

Be wary of buyers or sellers who:

  • ask for identification documents such as your driver’s license, passport or Medicare card number (never provide these to someone you don’t know, as it may be used to commit identity fraud)
  • send fake emails that appear to come from ecommerce platforms such as eBay or Gumtree
  • request to use payment methods such as gift cards, money wiring services or PayPal’s ‘Family and Friends’ method (which has limited protections)
  • come up with excuses for why the payment or item is delayed
  • claim they are on deployment in the armed forces, overseas, travelling, or unwell, and so can only speak over email, rather than on the phone, on a video call, or in person.

Look out for these red flags when you’re selling an item

A scammer posing as a legitimate buyer may:

  • falsely claim that they have paid or overpaid you, and request that you return some funds to them
  • email you falsified or altered receipts or money transfer confirmations, claiming to be from companies such as PayPal, eBay or your bank
  • ask you to pay upfront for transportation or shipping costs, promising to reimburse you
  • cease communication after you send the item, so that not only have you have lost the item, you have lost money paid for postage and other services too.

Look out for these red flags when you’re buying an item

A scammer posing as a legitimate seller may:

  • put up an advertisement that is fake, or sell items that aren’t rightfully theirs
  • ask you to pay with gift cards or cryptocurrencies
  • advertise prices that are well below the usual selling price – if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is
  • send you pictures of the item which appear to be legitimate, or a picture of themselves (these images are often stolen from the internet or from legitimate advertisements)
  • stop communicating once you pay for the item, and never send it to you.

Case study – puppy buying scams

Scammers have been using the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic to their advantage, creating an opportunity to run online scams, including puppy scams. According to the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC), Australians lost nearly $300,000 to puppy scams in the first five months of 2020 alone.

In a puppy scam, an individual or business offers to sell a popular breed of dog for a low price. However, after money is transferred to secure the purchase, all communications stop.

The scam

Jenny* wanted to buy a puppy for her daughter’s birthday. She found an advertisement online offering Cavoodle puppies for a low price. She contacted the seller to see if there were any pups available.

Jenny says, “The seller Boris told me they only had one puppy left, so I had to be quick. I was interested, and asked if I could see the puppy in person or via video call. He said no as they apparently had bad reception, but that he could send me pictures. The pictures looked legitimate to me and I really wanted the puppy for my daughter, so I decided to go ahead with it. Boris sent me an email that looked like it was from my bank asking me to transfer money, so I did.”

What happened next

“When I hadn’t heard from him for two weeks after paying, I kept trying to follow up with him, but he kept giving me excuses. I never heard from Boris again. I contacted my bank but they were unable to help me recover the funds I had sent. My daughter and I never got the puppy we were hoping for. If I bought another dog in the future, I would insist on seeing the puppy on a video call, and would only hand over cash when I picked up the dog.”

Case study - selling a phone

Raj* wanted to sell his old phone to make some money to put towards a new one. He created a listing on a common online marketplace, and received a message from a potential buyer, Daniel, shortly after.

A scammer makes contact

“Daniel told me to send him an email directly to discuss the sale further, rather than going through the online platform. He seemed keen to proceed with the sale – he told me he was on deployment in the army and needed a better phone. Daniel asked me to be quick in sending the phone as he needed it urgently before they were deployed. The next day he made the transfer, and sent me a screenshot of his receipt.

A refund request

“Shortly after, he messaged me again saying he’d realised he had accidentally overpaid me, and wanted a refund for the difference. Even though the funds hadn’t landed in my account yet, I was happy to refund him the difference as the receipt looked legitimate.

“A week later, I had sent the item to him and refunded the $250 difference, but still hadn’t received his transfer to my bank account. I wasn’t able to get a hold of Daniel again, he blocked me on email and social media. I was left out of pocket for the actual phone, the money I should have got for selling it, and the ‘refund’ I sent him for the ‘overpayment’.”

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.


Follow the below tips to help keep your identity and your money safe online.

  • Use secure payment options that come with protections, such as PayPal (not PayPal Family and Friends) or a credit card. Be cautious of sellers asking you to pay with gift cards or cryptocurrencies.
  • Where possible, do some research on the buyer or seller and look for reviews.
  • If possible, meet in person to exchange the item and cash.

When purchasing an item online

  • Conduct a reverse image search on Google for the photos of the item you’re buying – you may find the picture of the item already exists on a legitimate ad, or in other fake ones.
  • If it’s not possible to meet in person, ask the seller for a video call so you can inspect the item more closely.
  • If you’re buying an animal, consider putting the purchase on hold until you can see the animal in person. Seek advice from a reputable breeder’s association or vet.

When selling an item online

  • Carefully inspect any emails that claim that the item is paid for.
  • Check your bank account to ensure the funds have cleared before proceeding with the sale.
  • Be cautious of buyers asking to charge them extra to cover transportation costs.

Read our online shopping article for more information on staying safe while shopping online, or visit the ACCC Scamwatch website.

If you’re a NAB customer and believe you may have fallen victim to a scam, please call 13 22 65 immediately and ask for the Digital Fraud and Anti Scam Team.

Helpful resources

How to keep your identity safe online

Your identity is your most valuable asset. Protect it. Your freedom depends on it.

Handy tips for secure online shopping and banking

Stay in control of who accesses your information when browsing online with these simple tips.

Fraud and scams