Shoppers urged to think before they click as AI retail 'catfishes' infiltrate web: 'Too good to be true'

Scammers are using AI to entice customers with fake images

Are you actually buying the products you think you're buying? Some say scammers operating behind the shiny veneer of artificial intelligence are concocting the latest scheme that will keep online shoppers on their toes as the revolutionary technology becomes more prevalent than ever before.

In an effort to sell their products — or at least the image of an idealized product they hope consumers are willing to buy — scammers are bringing in AI-generated images to online retail to entice customers to buy something that might not end up looking anything like the promised product after all.

NPR reported last month that the phenomenon is becoming increasingly common and told the cautionary tale of Assan Sayad, who purchased a colorful "quilted" bomber jacket he'd seen on an Instagram ad only to find it wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

"I was like, for $40, something that looks this nice — this is awesome, right? And never at any point entered my head that this might be some sort of an attempt at a scam," he told the outlet, which explained Sayad later reasoned that the image of a beautiful jacket with a puffy cloud design he had seen online was completely AI-generated to lure in customers like himself.


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Online shopping has been affected by artificial intelligence in both positive and negative ways, according to tech expert Marva Bailer. (McPODE/McPhoto/ullstein bild via Getty Images / Getty Images)

To find out more about the alarming trend of AI scams, Fox News Digital reached out to tech expert and author Marva Bailer to hear her perspective.

"Imagine your new room with an ad, picture a top-shelf decorator-curated five-piece living room set with hand-painted throw pillows, all for an incredible price. Yet, all that was for sale for that price is the sofa, with no accessories, in a different finish. In the very small print, as part of the consumer protection deceptive advertising law, is a disclaimer. Marketing agencies and professionals, for the most part, are aware of these requirements," she said.

Retail's challenges with "charlatans" and snake oil salesmen have been around as long as the "printing press," she said, also carefully noting that the barrier to entry to create content with artificial intelligence is not limited to professionals.

"Free tools that create professional images and campaigns are launched in minutes, reaching global audiences of millions. The ‘meme’ culture of creating content for entertainment changes drastically when the content is used to represent brands and commerce without legal consent," she explained.


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Artificial intelligence has revolutionized technology in recent years, including its misuse. (iStock / iStock)

When that access falls into the hands of such scheming charlatans, Bailer continued, "offers that seemed too good to be true are just that… too good to be true."

The website for world-renowned entrepreneur and internet personality Grant Cardone gives a rundown of how these "catfishes" operate.

"Scammers simply create the description of a fake product and input that into any of the readily available image generators," the site says. "After that, it’s all about listing your ‘product’ on a website and waiting for orders to come in. When shopping for a product, artificial images can sneak up on you."

Bailer explained that "the speed at which content is created and consumed is an estimated 4,000-10,000 ads per day."

"With our attention span of 8-seconds, less than that of a goldfish, that presents opportunities for fake ads to slip through," she added.

This leads to problems like Sayad's, whose $40 seemingly beautiful "quilted bomber jacket" turned out to look more like a "good-quality sweatshirt."


"I would not buy this," he told NPR. "And it looked legit. That's the thing — it looked like a very clean website. Everything in it was beautifully designed. Everything was in place — so, nothing sketchy."

Some online shoppers have even lamented that they succumbed to scams that prompted them to essentially purchase thin air, thinking they were buying an online site's seemingly unique and affordable products.

One Redditor, for example, wrote, "Scam artists have realized they can throw together a fake online store, put up a bunch of AI-generated images of fantastical (but fake) products, sell them for a dumb price that makes no sense considering what it would cost to actually produce them & then take your money & your credit card and run."

The post featured several AI-generated images of cat-themed plush lounge chairs.

In the comments, others chimed in with their own experiences.

"These kinds of stores are popping up all over social media, Facebook especially, offering custom figurines (that would normally cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars) for $14, chairs like these in the post image for $49.99, shoes with wild designs that would never work (because, physics), etc…" one said.


They continued with, "There are some real AI-generated products being sold in places like Etsy for example, but they're not ridiculous like the ‘products’ being offered in these fake stores. And the worst part is that the ad posts for these fake AI products have hundreds or thousands of comments, everyone believing they're real."

Bailer similarly warned that scamming with AI doesn't end with images and can even be used to expand the illusion that people have purchased a product and took the time to type out a positive review to show others the item — and shop — are legitimate.

"AI is leveraged to understand preferences and increase personalization," she explained. "[It has the] potential to create fake reviews to show interest, create visuals that show use of the product that are imaginary. The promise of happiness, beauty tied to a great deal and the quick press of the button may leave consumers disappointed."

Bailer said the technology can have positive effects on retail, however, including by incorporating accessibility enhancements that "increase inclusion, reduce returns, and create customer loyalty" and helping customers make purchases by creating virtual make-up sessions or dressing rooms, much like Google's AI-powered shopping feature that debuted last year, allowing online shoppers to see clothes on a range of models with different body shapes, sizes and skin tones.