The seven types of e-commerce fraud explained

E-commerce fraud is constantly increasing, and alternative payment methods are attracting criminals.

While the increase itself is nothing new (there has been more e-commerce fraud every year since 1993), the rate is impressive. CNP fraud is predicted to increase by 14% by 2023 and could cost retailers $130 billion.

Fraud is not exclusive to credit card payments. Criminals are becoming more sophisticated in their use of malware to command online banking logins via phones, tablets and computers, using the stolen bank account details to make fraudulent payments.

‘Alternative’ payment methods are also attracting criminals. So what does this fraud look like, exactly? A study by Worldpay asked 274 merchants from various industries in six countries precisely this question. The most common types of fraud are explained below.

Identity theft

According to the study, the most common types of e-commerce fraud causing concern among merchants are identity theft (71%), phishing (66%) and account theft (63%). Here, credit cards are the most popular target, as a fraudster does not need much to carry out a ‘card not present’ transaction.

In traditional identity theft, the criminals’ goal is to carry out transactions using a different identity. Instead of having to come up with a completely new identity to do this, they simply take over an existing one. This is easier to do – and usually much faster.

Fighting digital fraud with the power of data mining

Dr Stephen Topliss, VP, Fraud and Identity at LexisNexis Risk Solutions, discusses the power of data mining in combatting fraud. Read here

In order to commit identity theft or appropriate someone’s identity, fraudsters target personal information, such as names, addresses and email addresses, as well as credit card or account information.

This enables them, for example, to order items online under a false name and pay using someone else’s credit card information or by debiting another person’s account. Phishing, on the other hand, simply involves using fraudulent websites, emails or text messages to access personal data.

Another technical method is known as pharming, in which manipulated browsers direct unsuspecting customers to fraudulent websites. Often, all that is required to appropriate someone’s identity is a stolen password. This can be used to take over an existing account with an online shop – in most cases, the payment data is already stored in the account.

Of course, hacker attacks on e-commerce providers and stealing customer data also fall under this type of e-commerce fraud, as does using malware on computers to commit identity theft by spying out sensitive data.

‘Man-in-the-middle attacks’ are even more sophisticated. These involve hackers muscling in on communications between customers and merchants (or between customers and banks) in order to siphon off login data.

We haven’t even mentioned the opportunities involved in intercepting credit cards sent by mail, for example, or in copying credit cards in restaurants and hotels or at cash machines. Already, though, the true extent of the identity theft problem is apparent.

Friendly fraud

In fourth place is what the merchants surveyed refer to as ‘friendly fraud’. This sounds friendlier than it really is: using this method, customers order goods or services and pay for them – preferably using a “pull” payment method like a credit card or direct debit.

Then, however, they deliberately initiate a charge-back, claiming that their credit card or account details were stolen. They are reimbursed – but they keep the goods or services. This fraud method is particularly prevalent with services, such as those in the gambling or adult milieus. Friendly fraud also tends to be combined with re-shipping.

This is where criminals who use stolen payment data to pay for their purchases don’t want to have them sent to their home addresses. Instead, they use middlemen whose details are used to make the purchases and who then forward the goods.

Combat fraud with analytics

The exponential surge in online fraud and cybercrime saw almost 6 million offences committed last year, meaning around one in 10 adults in the UK were victims. Read here

Clean fraud

Clean fraud’s name is misleading, because there’s nothing clean about it. The basic principle of clean fraud is that a stolen credit card is used to make a purchase, but the transaction is then manipulated in such a way that fraud detection functions are circumvented.

Much more know-how is required here than with friendly fraud, where the only goal is to cancel the payment once a purchase has been made. In clean fraud, criminals use sound analyses of the fraud detection systems deployed, plus a great deal of knowledge about the rightful owners of their stolen credit cards.

A great deal of correct information is then entered during the payment process so that the fraud detection solution is fooled. Before clean fraud is committed, card testing is often carried out. This involves making cheap test purchases online to check that the stolen credit card data works.

Affiliate fraud

There are two variations of affiliate fraud, both of which have the same aim: to glean more money from an affiliate program by manipulating traffic or signup statistics. This can be done either using a fully automated process or by getting real people to log into merchants’ sites using fake accounts. This type of fraud is payment-method-neutral, but extremely widely distributed.

Triangulation fraud

During triangulation fraud, the fraud is carried out via three points. The first is a fake online storefront, which offers high-demand goods at extremely low prices. In most cases, additional bait is added, like the information that the goods will only be shipped immediately if the goods are paid for using a credit card. The falsified shop collects address and credit card data – this is its only purpose.

The second corner of the fraud triangle involves using other stolen credit card data and the name collected to order goods at a real store and ship them to the original customer.

Stolen credit card items physically shipped by network of threat actors

New report uncovers a direct link to the outcome of stolen credit cards, offering rare insight into the physical world operations of actors tied to digital threats. Read here

The third point in the fraud triangle involves using the stolen credit card data to make additional purchases. The order data and credit card numbers are now almost impossible to connect, so the fraud usually remains undiscovered for a longer period of time, resulting in greater damages.

Merchant fraud

Merchant fraud is another method which must be mentioned. It’s very simple: goods are offered at cheap prices, but are never shipped. The payments are, of course, kept. This method of fraud also exists in wholesale. It is not specific to any particular payment method, but this is, of course, where no-chargeback payment methods (most of the push payment types) come into their own.

More international fraud

On average, the merchants who participated in the study do business in 14 countries. According to 58% of those surveyed, the major challenge in e-commerce fraud prevention is a lack of system integration to provide a unified view of all their transactions across all markets.

52% also see increased international transactions as a challenge. Almost exactly the same number (51%) have great difficulty in maintaining an overview of the various fraud prevention tools in different countries. Language barriers, as well as the difficulty of keeping international tabs on individual customers, pose additional fraud management challenges.

Different devices

Fraud methods vary depending on the sales channel, and the fact that most merchants aim to achieve multi-channel sales does not make the situation any easier. According to 69% of merchants surveyed, sales via third-party websites like Amazon, Alibaba or eBay are particularly susceptible to fraud. These are followed by mobile sales (mentioned by 64%) and sales via their own online shops (55%). 

Written by Karsten Witke, head of payment services risk at PPRO Group.

Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice consists of the best articles written by third parties and selected by our editors. You can contact us at timothy.adler at