Online holiday shopping is bucking trends this season as millions of Americans say they prefer to surf the web for holiday deals. But police warn shoppers, the holiday hunt for great gifts could come at a hefty price.

This week, some unhappy customers have taken to social media to blast their most recent online shopping experience with one Hancock County business; Bayou Gifts, LLC, an online shopping site which offered a variety of brand name products at huge discounted prices. The group, at one time, reportedly had an estimate of about 12,000 people who had joined but has since been shut down.

No criminal charges have been filed; however federal agents with Homeland Security and local law enforcement officers have confirmed an investigation into the company was launched and is ongoing.

Pass Christian resident and mother of two Barbara Whaver says she recently joined the buy-in group Bayou Gifts, LLC on Facebook.

Barbara said because the owner lived in the Kiln, she chose to support the small business.

“I saw many posts from the owner talking about taking donations for flood victims and helping the community out, so I figured her heart was in the right place and she was trying to do well,” Whavers said.

According to Barbara, her first transaction with Bayou Gifts, LLC was placed in August of this year. She ordered a Minnie Mouse-to-go pillow for one of her children. While awaiting her product, Barbara sais, she found a few other great deals and decided to place more orders in anticipation for Christmas. In all, Barbara said, she made five transactions with Bayou Gifts, LLC totaling over $100, including sales tax, but her gifts, she said, were never delivered.

After multiple attempts to correct the situation with the owners failed, Barbara took to Facebook like many others warning people not to purchase from the site.

Michelle Nicholson, another frustrated mother and customer, lives in Greenville, MS. She said a friend added her to the group because of the low prices. She sais she placed an order and did not receive her items. She said she worries that many may not have a Christmas due to their orders not being fulfilled and most refund requests are being denied by the company.

”I only have $70 out there but others have hundreds. I had to rush around and find replacements and they aren’t expected to come in until after Christmas day.”

Not all customers who ordered through Bayou Gifts, LLC were stood up on their shipments. Some shoppers say they received products, but did not get their money’s worth, as items were listed as authentic or name-brand but were later found to be not as advertised.

One customer, Destinie Heitzman, said she purchased a popular life-sized baby doll for her youngest child who really wanted a baby brother for Christmas. The doll sells for nearly $200 in stores. The buy-in site offered the doll at a tremendous discount but when delivered, she said, she found it was not what she expected because it nearly fit in the palm of her hand.

TYME, a popular name-brand cosmetic company, posted warnings to the buy-in group’s page alleging the beauty products were not authentic.

In TYME’S post, team members with the company said, “We are sorry to say that you haven’t ordered a real TYME iron. This is due to it not being bought on our website … or off of Amazon. In this case, there isn’t much we can do on our end. If you paid with a credit card we recommend doing a chargeback as that’s the best way to be compensated.”

Michelle and others say the owners of Bayou Gifts, LLC claimed to have been in a contract with a reputable children’s toy store company.

According to at least one tracking slip obtained by The Sea Coast Echo, products were ordered from an overseas supplier. Business 2u Limited was the name of the company which shipped a November order out of Malaysia. The contents were not listed on the slip but showed a quantity of 15 big boxes being shipped out with a scheduled three-day freight. On Dec. 1, the package made it to Mexico, where it was placed on hold for a goods and service tax of $950.

Bayou Gifts, LLC’s owner and her associate declined comment for this article.

Online, Bayou Gifts, LLC told customers a few different reasons why items did not reach them. In one group post, the owner claimed at least four times the items were stolen from her front porch upon delivery. In another, they informed customers U.S. customs had intercepted the delivery in Jackson and a fee of $950 would have to be paid in order to complete the delivery.

Most recently, just days before Christmas, a final post was published before the group was deleted. It said the items had been seized by US customs, suggesting shoppers request refunds through PayPal. When customers asked about the items that were said to already be on hand at her home, they were told those items were seized as well.

“It’s one story after another,” Michelle said. “Before that happened a semi with the products on it was hijacked and taken to Mexico, they said!”

Customers said the owner also claimed she had refunded anyone who had asked and planned to refund others. But according to PayPal, some refund claims are being disputed by the business. Some buyers also had private messages again suggesting customers request a refund through PayPal.

Not all customers were protected by PayPal’s Purchase Protection Policy. Many paid through PayPal’s Family and Friends program as recommended by the business. Some paid in other forms of payment. When using PayPal Family and Friends as a form of payment, PayPal states the personal payment can’t be protected. They say it’s up to the seller to get that money back to the purchaser. PayPal’s policy also states, “If the form of payment was made through PayPal’s Family and Friends using a debit or credit card, you could get in touch with the bank/card issuer and have them issue a chargeback on the transaction.”

The controversy has apparently impacted a neighboring state’s business which has a similar name, Bayou Gifts Too, LLC, based out of New Orleans, La. Business owner Melanie Doucet took to Facebook to say, “Just want to clear this up…It is not Bayou Gifts Too that was affiliated with this terrible situation. We have always provided exceptional customer service and our customers have always been happy. This has affected our business because of … negative feedback..”

Tom Byrd, Public Affairs Director for Immigration & Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigation (ICE), could not give details regarding the case as there is an “ongoing investigation” he said.

According to investigators with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office, they are looking into the matter.

Barbara was able to replace some of the gifts so her children would have Christmas. “I was not able to get all that they asked for due to not having the time nor funds to get everything.”

Michelle says she has finally, after 3 months, received a refund on one of her transactions however the other was disputed by Bayou Gifts, LLC. She has appealed that dispute.

Story by Stacey Cato