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“It's a game of whack-a-mole” Local business struggling to shut down copycat websites

Posted at 6:00 AM, May 21, 2024

BALTIMORE — A local sporting goods store is dealing with impostors. These fake websites steal their photos, use their address, sometimes their phone number, and targets their customers.

An online shopper recently fell for it. Brenda Robinson’s niece wanted sneakers for Christmas, the On Cloud 5 running shoes.

“I did a Google search and this AuSport* organization or store came up,” said Robinson.

They had the cheapest price, and Robinson thought the website looked good, so she placed the order.

“I had to pay through PayPal, and they had a Gmail address. And I should have known something, but it was Christmas time and I'm just wanting to get this present ordered so I can get it to my niece on time,” Robinson said.

The shoes never shipped, and no one responded to her emails. She then filed a dispute with her credit card company and a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

“We are unable to communicate with this business. They don't answer the phone. We know the address is false,” said Angie Barnett, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland.

The business listed an address in Maryland, however, the location is a vacant warehouse. Coincidentally, or not, the address is next door to Holabird Sports, the Baltimore County business whose photos were being used on the AuSport website.

“I've found in the last three years over 100 fraudulent websites that are copying Holabird [Sport]'s catalog, Holabird's images, Holabird's product descriptions, oftentimes, their privacy policies and contact information as well,” said Rob Jacobson, the Chief Technology Officer for Crossroads Co.Lab, the company Holabird Sports uses for online marketing and ecommerce.

Jacobson recognized the photos on AuSport’s website as their own and said the prices, like $77 for On Cloud 5 running shoes, are designed to reel in customers.

“That price is just not possible. These sell for $149.99. The retail price is $149.99, and they are a new shoe, so they're protected by manufacturer pricing. You're not allowed to sell them for less than that,” Jacobson said.

While the AuSport site is now offline, Jacobson has found many others like it that are still active.

“As we take one down, two or three more pop-up, and it's game of whack-a-mole,” said Jacobson. “We receive customer service inquiries every day of people who have placed orders on these fraudulent websites and then they're reaching out to the phone number that was listed, which happens to be ours, wondering where their products are.”

Jacobson has been using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to issue take down notices. He's seen some success, but it can take him anywhere from a few days to a few months to try and get these sites removed.

“As these people start to think that Holabird is scamming them or think that Holabird is connected, they start leaving bad reviews, they start issuing, you know, notices to various places that we are a scammer as well,” Jacobson said.

Recently, he’s been in contact with the webhost for many of these fake websites. They’ve agreed to release their customer information with a proper court order. Jacobson is now working to obtain one to be able to identify who is responsible for these copycat websites.

Until the website designer is identified and stopped, it's up to shoppers to better vet who they're doing business with.

“Do they have contact information? Do they have a privacy policy? Look at their terms and conditions and see if maybe they use the name of another business because they simply cut and paste,” Barnett recommended.

Another interesting spin is some of these websites advertise accepting credit card payments, but after the customer places their order, they’re sent an email that's there's been an issue and to pay using a peer-to-peer payment app.

If money is sent this way, the customer has little to no recourse in getting it back. They’ve also given away their personal and payment information, which can be sold to other bad actors.

Fortunately, Robinson was able to get a refund through her credit card company, but she's concerned about her personal information being used or sold.

When shopping online, always use a credit card for the best protection. Check that you're on a secure or trusted website. Research the business address, try the customer service phone number, and keep a record of what your ordered and the promised delivery date. Click here for additional information on how to avoid online shopping scams from the Federal Trade Commission.

*The website used by Robinson, AuSport, is no longer active online. This website is not affiliated or connected in any way to Ausport SuperStore, an Australian company selling specialized sporting goods.