The internet has been the greatest technological advance we've seen in our lifetime. The computing power of the cloud can bring distant relatives, quite literally, to the palm of our hands, mean that we will never miss the big game or that we can do all of our Christmas shopping without ever leaving our armchairs.
In Google's Zeitgeist of 2012, published last week, the God of the Internet laid out our searching interests, from the top song (Gangnam Style) to the most popular sport (In the UK the honour went to Syncronised Swimming, beating Murderball). In a more interesting twist, Google showed us for the first time the list of our most popular "How to..." searches. We may deny it, but secretly we've all carried out a sneaky knowledge searches in the past year. For my sins I recently searched "How to make Yorkshire Puddings", wanting to avoid making flat pancakes with my batter. But a chance misspelling over the weekend threw up a very interesting dark cottage industry that could have massive financial consequences for some of the High Street's biggest names.
I was planning on cooking fish for dinner so, wanting some inspiration, typed in "Hake recipes". Except the wonderful Apple autocorrect on my iPad thought I really wanted "fake receipts" and displayed thousands of results that caught my eye. I had never heard of companies who specialise in providing such a service, but here in front of me was the evidence it was a thriving market.
" We have made 100's of replica receipts from 100's of stores worldwide. We cannot display them here, as when we did they companies whose store receipts we displayed threatened us with legal action."
"We have created replica receipts for many of the world’s largest electronics stores, department store receipts, phone shop receipts, computer store receipts, supermarket receipts, and many more."
These were but two examples from the pages and pages of Google search results. Every so often would be. News story of someone being caught out by using fake receipts, notably from our MP Expenses scandal but there was also comment from the likes of the National Retail Federation in the US who were warning shops to be extra vigilant for faked proof of purchases when goods are returned. On many occasions, the goods returned are stolen by criminals who use the fake receipt to gain cash. In this instance the retailer at least gets his merchandise back. But a new trend, driven by the technological advances of scanning and printing, have enabled criminals to produce perfect imitations of valid receipts. Of course, producing such items is illegal.
One of the main concerns for this illegal practice is that it encourages the growth of counterfeiting and piracy. Someone who knowingly buys a fake CD or DVD is damaging the copyright holder but then add in a fake receipt from a High Street store and it then starts to do serious damage to retailers as well. Let's use the example of my daughter's current favourite brand - Abercrombie & Fitch. If I buy a fake Abercrombie t-shirt I damage the brand in two ways. Firstly I spend my hard earned money with a roguish trader rather than in the shop, and secondly the cheap imitation will damage their brand reputation. But if I now buy a fake receipt and take the t-shirt back to the shop for a refund I'm defrauding them again.
Retailers are obviously very concerned by this latest attempt to defraud them. According to retail experts, return and receipt fraud cost brands something in the region of $14 billion annually, with other 50% having seen this type of fraud in the past year. Brands need to walk a fine line between protecting against this growing type of fraud and driving shoppers away with complex returns policies. Earlier this year, one major UK High Street retailer discovered one individual who had committed numerous offences over an eighteen month period that had cost the company thousands of pounds. So what can they do about it?
Fortunately there are answers out there. Just like combating money forgers, many brands are ditching the traditional scraps of paper for something more sophisticated. Watermarks, holograms and invisible ink are being used in production methods now to stop the illegal practice, but still the best prevention is vigilance. Shops need to take extra time and care when processing refunds, and whilst this may increase processing time for genuine customers, an explanation of the problem, its causes and the simple fact of the illegal nature of the practice may just deter enough people this Christmas.
Stuart Fuller is the Director of Communication for NetNames Ltd. He rarely is able to take back any items as he always loses receipts.