300 euros for non-existent sofas: the scam that deceived Google Shopping

An impressive scam was among the top Google Shopping results for convertible sofas, during weeks. An increasingly common method, resembling that employed by a scammer Numerama has already investigated.

Sophie simply wanted to buy a sofa bed. So, when the first result displayed on Google showed her a site with very attractive prices and with a model resembling exactly what she was looking for, she didn’t hesitate for long. ” I just felt like I got a very good deal at the time, with a convertible sofa at just over 360 euros “, she remembers today. Very quickly, she decides, and pays.

She immediately receives an SMS, similar to those sent by some online sales sites: ” Hello Sophie “, can she read on the message, “ Thank you for purchasing from Vehrnex! We will let you know when it ships. “. Everything looks good. But yet, as Sophie will soon realize, the order tracking number that follows the message is fake — and she’ll never receive her couch.

Sophie isn’t the only one who fell for Vehrnex, the fake company that claimed to sell sofa beds and rugs. The scam worked extremely well, and would have claimed at least 700 victims in just a few months, from the end of November 2021 to mid-March 2022. Because Vehrnex was helped by an extremely good ranking on Google Shopping, on a listing in the marketplace of C Discount, and by a hundred false testimonials on Trustpilot.

The sofas sold by Vehrnex did not in fact exist. // Source: Nino Barbey for Numerama

A good ranking on Google Shopping

Numerama has already investigated a similar scam. Last October, we told the story of Argamiel Distribution, a fake site selling electric bikes, which used a similar technique. The scammer had usurped the identity of Argamiel Distribution, a real company specializing in the sale of argan oil and honey. The company had been put on hold by its real owner, but it was still registered in the commercial register as active. The scammer had used this identity, which gave him real legitimacy, to build a new site, which included the Siret number of Argamiel Distribution, thus reassuring potential customers. Other than a few spelling mistakes on the site, the illusion was perfect — until the bikes ordered by the scam victims never arrived.

“For me, if it’s on Google, it’s because it’s reliable. »

Sophia

The scammer behind Vehrnex used a similar technique — which is why a reader warned us of the existence of this site — but which is not quite the same. Thus, Vehrnex is not a company registered on the Societe.com register, which was the case of Argamiel. It is currently impossible for us to say if it is indeed the same person behind the two scams.

Numerama interviewed several people who bought a sofa on the Vehrnex site, who all told us the same story: as with the victims of Argamiel Distribution, those of the fake sofa sales site were directed to it thanks to Google Shopping . While typing ” convertible sofa on Google, Vehrnex was one of the first results to appear, according to our witnesses. The site offered, for an extremely competitive price, several convertible sofas presented as quality products.

fake customer service

The site is as of May 3, 2022 unavailable — but there is an archived version on the Way Back Machine site. What you can see there shows a site that is extremely well done, clean, and presents itself as a shop ” specialized and expert in interior decoration in all these (sic) forms “. And although Vehrnex says it specializes in carpets, that didn’t really shock Sophie. For me, if it’s on Google, it’s reliable “, she regrets today.

Source: Web Archive
Source: Web Archive

She was reassured, like many other customers, by her email exchanges with customer service, with a so-called Charlotte Pietri. Numerama tried to contact her several times, but never managed to reach her. Charlotte Pietri, who is probably a false identity, would have communicated with many customers, according to the testimonies we have collected. In particular, she would have reassured them about delivery times, and would have confirmed that their sofa was going to arrive – before blocking them and no longer responding once the trickery was discovered.

I went to the site several times, and I was completely naive “laments Sophie. ” I tried to call Vehrnex customer service several times because I wanted information, and I always got a message saying that with the Covid it was more comfortable to go directly to the site. Numerama also tried several times to call the phone number provided by Vehrnex, without success.

Very good reviews on Trustpilot

Vehrnex would also have been registered as a reseller on the C Discount marketplace, explained to us a person interviewed by Numerama – questioned, C Discount had not yet answered our questions at the time of the publication of our survey. But on top of those great listings and fake customer service, Vehrnex was able to fool many people with over a hundred overwhelmingly positive Trustpilot reviews. They featured prominently on the site, next to the products.

Canapes « super comfortables”, ” very responsive and professional customer service », « great website », « the quality is there » : the first opinions published about Vehrnex were all extremely laudatory, and they put the curious on the spot in confidence. ” My purchase was motivated by these comments », Explained a witness to us.

One of the fake reviews on Vehrnex's Trustpilot page // Source: Numerama screenshot
One of the fake reviews on Vehrnex’s Trustpilot page // Source: Numerama screenshot

It wasn’t until the first victims of the scam became aware of the deception that the tenor of the Trustpilot reviews changed. The company’s page is now awash in insults and vindictive messages – but Vehrnex still enjoys a decent rating: its page has two stars out of five, for just over 370 reviews. It is no longer possible to leave new comments today, as it is indicated that ” the company’s website no longer exists » : it is never specified on Trustpilot that Vehrnex is suspected of being a scam by customers.

There are still not enough checks

If we must recognize a certain finesse and a sense of detail in the scammer, the story of Vehrnex shows above all how badly third-party platforms and sites do their verification job. It is these shortcomings, at several levels, which have allowed Vehrnex to exist for so long, and ultimately to extract several thousand euros from a large number of victims.

Among the first offending sites, Google Shopping. We have already been in contact with Google Shopping during our investigation of Argamiel Distribution, and during another investigation which showed how many scammers used a free service from Google to promote their fraudulent sites. In both cases, the company assured us that it conducts proactive checks, as well as human checks when reports are made. Google also asks some advertisers to verify their identity when they pay to promote their site on Google Shopping, but not all. And, obviously, this is still not enough to stop all scam attempts.

Again contacted by Numerama, a Google spokesperson told us that he was taking ” very seriously dishonest business practices and [qu’il] the [considère] as a flagrant violation of [son] regulation “. ” In 2020, we announced that we would begin to expand identity verification to all advertisers on our platforms and this effort is still ongoing. “, he also specified.

In fact, all advertisers are not yet obliged to identify themselves before broadcasting advertisements. However, the ” Merchants must adhere to a number of rules in order to start promoting their products »says a Google spokesperson. “If we discover ads that are in violation of these rules, we remove them. Repeated non-compliance may prevent the merchant in question from advertising through us. »

A very good ranking on Google Shopping contributed to the success of the scam.  // Source: Nino Barbey for Numerama
A very good ranking on Google Shopping contributed to the success of the scam. // Source: Nino Barbey for Numerama

It is also at the level of Trustpilot that serious shortcomings are to be deplored. The company indicates on its site that it has implemented numerous tools to remove false reviews: a ” fraud detection software “would detect” automatically suspicious reviews “, and would remove them, it is explained. In reality, however, it’s a different story. Numerama was able to see on Vehrnex’s Trustpilot page some identical reviews posted one after the other by different people. The accounts that left positive comments were also new, and the majority had not left any other reviews, which suggests accounts created for the occasion. Finally, by searching buy Trustpilot review », we immediately come across many sites offering their services, showing how common it is to publish false comments.

Asked by Numerama, Trustpilot explained that it had blocked new comments on the Vehrnex page from March 2022. Due to numerous reviews being identified as fabricated, we demanded that the company immediately cease their practices, explaining that they had violated our terms of service. “. Moreover, ” our automated fake review detection tools and our specialists had already identified and removed fraudulent reviews from the Vehrnex profile “. However, Numerama was able to see some false reviews on the Trustpilot page, which shows that not all of them have been removed.

Fake reviews are an ever-evolving problemsays Trustpilot, and we work continuously to ensure that we take all possible action against manipulated comments on our site, and also against the sale of opinions. The company also says it introduced new technologies to better spot misleading reviews more than a year ago — as Vehrnex’s history shows, they’re unfortunately not up to scratch yet.

Finally, and this is new compared to the Argamiel Distribution site, the Vehrnex site accepted payment by credit card. However, this is not an operation that all sites can accept: you must have obtained a distance selling electronic payment contract to receive payments online. In order to have such an agreement, you have to go through a bank and submit an important file to prove the validity of the project. The fact that Vehrnex obtained such a contract shows, there too, a failure in the process of verification of the banks.

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