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 shopping online before you run into a scam or scam.
Due care is required
To be clear: we’re not saying you should never buy none of these items online, only that there is an increased level of risk involved in making some of these purchases. Many of these risks can be mitigated with care and attention, or simply refrain from buying and spend 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 medications
The supplement industry is largely unregulated. Supplements include vitamins and minerals, but also slimming products, products designed to increase energy levels or pills and powders that promise to improve sexual performance. Due to legislation passed in 1994, the Food and Drug Administration was unable to adequately regulate the industry due to a lack of testing requirements.
This means that products may not be tested before being marketed, and manufacturers of these products may make claims that have not necessarily been proven in a clinical setting. The story is similar overseas, plus the nature of online shopping allows products to be imported from overseas, often with little oversight from the 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 are many other reports of heavy metals, salmonella and toxic molds in dietary supplements. The answer seems to be to make sure your supplement brand is independently verified by reputable labs.
When it comes to medicines, online pharmacies exist and provide valuable services in the post-pandemic world, but you should only use those you trust. Do not buy from unknown websites or from foreign websites that you have seen in online advertisements.
Many sellers are motivated by hype, as seen with reports of fake Ivermectin being sold online. (Of course, Ivermectin is a drug that authorities have repeatedly warned against using to treat COVID-19, even if you’re buying the real deal.) Hype fuels demand, and demand fuels profit. Always consult a doctor before purchasing medication from any source.
Used goods on classifieds pages
Facebook Marketplace is an online advertising service designed to buy goods on the spot, ideally face-to-face. you be able to arrange with the seller to buy something online and have it shipped to you, but you won’t have any protection. It’s the real equivalent of sending bills by post.
This is why auction sites like eBay exist. With eBay, you are entitled to buyer protection (while the seller gets seller protection, provided all requirements are met). Don’t use Facebook Marketplace to buy items from sellers you won’t meet in person. Use websites like eBay or Etsy instead, or set up your own online store with 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 meeting.
Very cheap electronics
Counterfeit electronics can be found on even the biggest and most reputable online shopping platforms, including giants like Amazon. Common fakes include fake memory cards that don’t work as well as the real thing, dodgy USB drives and other poorly built computer peripherals, and too-good deals on headphones and earplugs.
Buy from official sources if you are concerned about counterfeit goods. On Amazon, you can see where the item ships from on the item page. If nothing is listed, it means the item came directly from Amazon’s warehouse and is likely genuine. If you spot something significantly cheaper than similar items, you should be immediately suspicious. At best, the seller does dropshipping. At worst, they’re selling things that aren’t even worth the massively discounted price they’re asking.
Reading reviews doesn’t necessarily help, as scammers know how to use fake reviews to boost their ratings. Before you know it, the item has been removed and the cheaters have moved on to the next grift. In the meantime, you’ll be left with sub-par goods that you won’t get an official warranty on.
We’ve been caught like this before with Sennheiser headphones. When we returned the item to Sennheiser to claim the warranty, we were told that the item was fake and that we had been scammed. All Sennheiser offered was to throw the item away. Lesson learned.
Cheap digital codes for games or gift cards to stores should immediately ring an alarm bell. We’re not talking about a small 10% discount where a $50 gift card only costs you around $45, but a significant price reduction of 20% or more. These codes are often purchased using stolen credit cards because the codes are easy to obtain, are delivered instantly, and can be easily sold.
Purchasing codes that have been purchased this way could compromise your account depending on the vendor’s policies. For example, Microsoft may consider purchasing a discounted gift card to be marketplace theft, which could get your Xbox account banned.
The problem with using stolen credit cards to buy wholesale game codes is well documented. Ultimately, the issuer or developer is the one who loses when the stolen card is flagged and refunded. Indie developer TinyBuild claims to have lost $450,000 to G2A scammers.
Bicycles are one of the most commonly stolen items because they are valuable and mobile, and bike locks can often be easily bypassed with the right tools. They are also in high demand, especially in cities where commuters are looking for cheap alternatives to driving to work. Unfortunately, this means that buying a second-hand bike is a bit of a minefield.
Before buying, research the bike thoroughly and understand its manufacturer, model, year and, if possible, the bike’s serial number. You can use this information to do a thorough online bike search before purchasing.
Check local stolen bike databases such as Bike Index (US), Bike Register (UK) and National Bike Register (Australia) to see if any similar bikes have been stolen (in some cases you can even look up the serial number). You should also browse local Facebook groups dedicated to finding stolen bikes.
You may be able to rest a little easier if the seller can provide you with some paperwork to prove that they bought the bike legally (and that all the details match). Still, it doesn’t hurt to be careful.
It is not only about not rewarding the thief with a payment, but also about not handling the stolen property. If the owner of the bike can prove that you have rightful ownership of it, at best you will lose the bike and at worst you could face legal consequences. Should the alarm be raised, you can even refer the rightful owner to any online ad that appears to be selling their stolen bike.
Real estate and rentals
During the COVID-19 pandemic, real estate scams occurred, with many unable to travel due to lockdowns and local restrictions. This has led to an increase in buyers and tenants taking properties without seeing them in person, but has also given fraudsters new opportunities to exploit.
These scams primarily take place on sites like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, where virtually anyone can advertise anything for sale. Scammers post pictures of the property and even invite potential tenants or buyers to inspect in person. The scam usually culminates in the scammer demanding a deposit, rent in advance or a security deposit.
When it’s time to move on or move in, the supposed owner is nowhere to be found. Existing tenants or owners will be none the wiser that their homes have been used as part of a scam.
One way to avoid such a scam is to stick to reliable real estate sites that require verified agents to add listings. Another is to be very careful when doing business over classified websites. Do a title search with local councils to find out who legally owns the property and insist that the owner meet you at the property (and let you walk around inside). Visit them a few times to make sure they are who they say they are.
Before handing over any money, do your research on the property and the person selling it. If you must buy sight unseen, do so through a reputable agent.
Memorabilia and autographs
Fake memorabilia and autographs can be sold both online and offline, with many brick-and-mortar businesses accused of selling counterfeit goods.
Buying online is even more difficult because you can’t see the goods in person or bring someone a little more knowledgeable with you. The seller’s reputation is important here, but so is buying with a service that gives you some level of buyer protection.
Tickets for events
If you buy an event ticket from anywhere other than an official ticket seller, you are taking a risk. This can be a problem when the show you want to attend is sold out, at which point you can turn to the retailer’s website or Facebook Marketplace to get a deal. We’ve bought and sold concert tickets on Facebook ourselves with no problem, but there’s always been some risk involved.
Be especially wary of reseller websites like ViaGoGo that often show up in Google or Facebook ads when searching for event tickets. They appear to be a legitimate seller, when in reality they are a seller’s website with an appalling track record. The service is known to be used by scammers and scalpers, with little protection for buyers.
One particular shady practice on Facebook involves creating events for shows and directing attendees to unofficial vendor websites. Some events can only be sold through designated retailers as the ticket is linked to an identity that must be shown at the door. Make sure you understand some of these requirements before purchasing.
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To quote a How-To Geek team member who admitted to having both good and bad experiences buying groceries from Amazon: “Who knows what expiration date you’ll get when you order a bunch of bulk food that’s been sitting in the back. Amazon warehouses?’
Cheap foods may have a short shelf life, which doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them (yet), but they may not provide the value proposition you’re looking for if your goal is for them to last. You probably don’t have to worry about that if you’re buying in bulk at an event where you’ll use it up all at once.
You can always check with the seller before opening your wallet to find out more about the shelf life of the items you are buying.
Other scams to be aware of
The internet is a scammer’s playground, so it’s no surprise that you’ll find all sorts of schemes on the internet. From emails trying to phish your passwords to tech support scams, fake recruiters and dodgy Facebook contests. Stay safe!
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