Online shopping has revolutionized retail, mostly for the better, but some purchases require more care and attention than others. Make sure you do your due diligence when buying online before you fall for a fake or a scam.
Due Diligence Required
To be clear: we’re not saying you should never buy any of these items online, just that there is an elevated level of risk involved in making some of these purchases. Many of these risks can be mitigated with care and attention, or simply abstaining from the purchase and spending your money elsewhere.
The most important thing to remember when buying anything online is that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
Supplements and Medicines
The supplements industry is largely unregulated. Supplements include vitamins and minerals, but also weight loss formulas, products designed to increase energy levels, or pills and powders that promise to improve sexual performance. Thanks to legislation passed in 1994, the Food and Drug Administration has not been able to adequately regulate the industry due to a lack of testing requirements.
This means that products don’t have to be tested before being brought to market and the producers of these products can make claims that haven’t necessarily been proven in a clinical setting. The story is similar overseas, plus the nature of online shopping makes it possible to import products from overseas, often with little oversight from authorities.
Some supplements may be worse than others, even if you trust the source. Tests conducted by ConsumerLab found problems with three of four spirulina supplements, with one sample being contaminated with lead. There have been many other reports of heavy metals, salmonella, and toxic fungi appearing in supplements. The answer seems to be ensuring that your brand of supplements are independently verified by reputable labs.
As for medicine, online pharmacies exist and provide a valuable service in a post-pandemic world, but you should only use those that you trust. Don’t buy from no-name websites or those based overseas that you’ve seen in online advertisements.
Many sellers are motivated by hype, as has been seen with reports of fake Ivermectin being sold online. (Ivermectin is, of course, a drug that authorities have repeatedly warned against using to treat COVID-19, even if you’re buying the real deal.) Hype drives demand, and demand sparks profiteering. Always talk to a doctor before buying medicines from any source.
Second-Hand Goods on Classifieds Websites
Facebook Marketplace is an online classifieds service designed for buying goods locally, ideally face-to-face. You can arrange with a seller to buy something over the internet and have it shipped to you, but you’ll have no protection when doing so. It’s the real-world equivalent of sending banknotes in the mail.
Auction websites like eBay exist for this reason. With eBay, you’re eligible for buyer protection (while the seller gets seller protection, assuming all requirements are met). Don’t use Facebook Marketplace to buy items from sellers who you aren’t meeting in person. Use websites like eBay or Etsy instead, or set up your own online shop using a service like Shopify.
Countless Facebook Marketplace scams depend on never meeting buyers face-to-face, so if you must use the platform you should insist on a physical meetup.
Very Cheap Electronics
Fake electronics can be found on even the biggest and most respected online shopping platforms, including behemoths like Amazon. Common fakes include counterfeit memory cards that don’t perform as well as the real deal, dodgy USB drives and other poorly built computer peripherals, and too-good-to-be-true deals on headphones and earbuds.
Buy from official sources if you’re concerned about fake merchandise. On Amazon, you can see where an item ships from on the item page. If nothing is listed, that means that the item is coming straight from an Amazon warehouse and is likely genuine. If you spot something significantly cheaper than similar items, you should immediately be suspicious. At best, the seller is dropshipping. At worst, they’re selling items that aren’t even worth the massively discounted price they’re asking for.
Reading reviews won’t necessarily help since scammers know how to use fake reviews to increase their ratings. Before you know it, the item has been removed, and the scammers have moved on to the next grift. Meanwhile, you’ll be left with sub-par goods, for which you won’t get an official warranty.
We’ve been caught out like this before with not-really-Sennheiser headphones. When we returned the item to Sennheiser for a warranty claim, we were told that the item was fake and that we’d been scammed. All Sennheiser offered was to throw the item away for us. Lesson learned.
Cheap digital codes for games or storefront gift cards should immediately ring alarm bells. We’re not talking about a small 10% discount, where a $50 gift card only costs you around $45, but significant price cuts of 20% or more. These codes are often purchased with stolen credit cards since codes are easy to acquire, are delivered immediately, and can easily be sold.
Purchasing codes that have been purchased this way could put your account at risk, depending on the vendor’s policies. For example, Microsoft may consider the purchase of a cut-price gift card to be marketplace theft, which could potentially see your Xbox account banned.
The problem with using stolen credit cards to buy up codes for games wholesale has been well-documented. Ultimately, the publisher or developer is the one who loses out when the stolen card is flagged and the money returned. Indie developer TinyBuild claims to have lost $450,000 to G2A scammers.
Bicycles are one of the most commonly stolen items since they’re valuable and mobile, and bike locks are often easily defeated with the right tools. They’re also in high demand, especially in cities where commuters are looking for cheap alternatives to driving to work. Unfortunately, this means buying a second-hand bike is a bit of a minefield.
Before you buy, thoroughly research the bike in question and understand its manufacturer, model, year of manufacture, and if possible the bicycle serial number. You can use this information to do a thorough lookup of the bike online before you buy.
Check local stolen bike databases like Bike Index (US), Bike Register (UK), and National Bike Register (Australia) to see if any similar bikes have been stolen (you may even be able to look up the serial number in some instances). You should also trawl local Facebook groups dedicated to finding stolen bikes too.
You may be able to rest a little easier if the seller can provide some paperwork to show that they legally purchased the bike (and that all the details match up). Even so, it doesn’t hurt to be careful.
This isn’t just a case of not rewarding a thief with a payout, it’s also a matter of not handling stolen property. If the owner of the bike can prove that you are in possession of their rightful property, at best you will lose the bike and worse could face legal repercussions. You may even be able to point the rightful owner to any online advertisements that seem to be selling their stolen bike, should the alarm be raised.
Property and Rentals
Property scams took off during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many unable to travel due to lockdowns and local restrictions. This led to an increase in buyers and renters taking on property without seeing it in person, but also gave scammers new avenues to take advantage of.
These scams take place primarily on websites like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, where practically anyone can advertise anything for sale. Scammers post images of a property and even encourage potential tenants or buyers to inspect in person. The scam usually comes to a head with the scammer requesting a retainer, rent in advance, or security deposit.
When it’s time to proceed or move in, the supposed owner is nowhere to be found. Existing tenants or owners will be none the wiser that their houses were used as part of a scam.
Sticking to reliable real estate websites which require listings to be added by verified agents is one way to avoid such a scam. Another is to be very careful when doing business over classified websites. Conduct title searches with local councils to find out who rightfully owns the property and insist that the owner meets you at the property (and lets you walk around inside too). Visit multiple times to make sure they are who they say they are.
Thoroughly research the property and the person selling it before handing any money over. If you must buy “sight unseen” then do so using a reputable agent.
Memorabilia and Autographs
Fake memorabilia and autographs can be sold both online and offline, with many brick-and-mortar businesses being accused of selling fake goods.
Buying online is even more difficult since you cannot inspect the item in person or bring along someone a little more knowledgeable. The seller’s reputation is important here, but so is purchasing using a service that affords you a level of buyer protection.
If you’re buying an event ticket from somewhere other than the official ticket vendor, you’re taking a risk. This can pose a problem when the show you want to attend is sold out, at which point you might turn to a reseller website or Facebook Marketplace to score a deal. We’ve bought and sold tickets for gigs over Facebook ourselves with no issues, but there was always an element of risk involved.
Be particularly careful with reseller websites like ViaGoGo, which often show up in ads on Google or Facebook when searching for event tickets. They appear to be a legitimate vendor when, in reality, they’re a reseller website with an abhorrent track record. The service has been known to be used by scammers and scalpers, with little protection for buyers.
One particular shady Facebook practice involves creating events for shows and pointing attendees to unofficial reseller websites. Some events can only be sold through designated resellers, since the ticket is linked to an identity that must be proved at the door. Make sure you understand any of these requirements before you buy.
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To quote a member of How-To Geek staff who admitted to having both good and bad experiences buying food from Amazon: “Who knows what kind of expiration dates you’ll get if you order a bunch of bulk food that’s been sitting in the back of Amazon’s warehouses for a while?”
Cheap food may have a short shelf life, which doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with it (yet,) but it may not provide the value proposition you’re looking for if your goal is to make it last. You probably don’t need to worry about this if you’re buying in bulk for an event where you’re going to use it all up at once.
You can always message the seller to find out more about the shelf life of the items you’re buying before you open your wallet.
More Scams to Be Aware Of
The internet is a scammer’s playground, and so it’s no surprise to find all manner of schemes online. From emails that try to phish your passwords to tech support scams, fake job recruiters, and dodgy Facebook competitions. Stay safe out there!
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