During the holiday season, shoppers everywhere are hunting for great bargains and unique items online. Today’s online marketplaces — where anyone can buy or sell new items — are numerous, offering a wide variety of products. Examples include eBay, Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp and Swappa, just to name a few. But savvy buyers should be aware there are risks involved when buying from any of these types of marketplaces — including ending up with stolen or counterfeit merchandise, receiving an item that’s different from what you ordered, or never receiving it at all.
Unscrupulous sellers and fraudsters can show up on any of the many legitimate marketplaces, and they appear like any other seller. Because these sellers often hide behind fake accounts with fake names, and they aren’t required to provide or verify their contact information, it’s extremely difficult for law enforcement to catch them. Organized retail crime is a growing problem for all retailers, and for shoppers.
“Shopping online provides endless opportunities to find great products,” said Mike Combs, director of investigations for Home Depot Asset Protection. “Shoppers just need to know the potential pitfalls, and be careful with what types of new products they purchase at any online marketplace.”
Fortunately, there are consumer safeguards in place at many online marketplaces. Being aware of potential red flags can help you avoid problems. For example, here are signs that may mean you could be buying a stolen or counterfeit item:
- It seems too good to be true — such as a new, brand-name item on sale for a drastically lower price.
- The product is described as “brand new,” “new in box” or “new with tags.”
- Large quantities of the same item/brand are available at the same time.
- The seller indicates they can “get other products upon request.”
- There are signs of box tampering or removal of security devices when you receive the item.
While just one of these is not a sure sign the item is stolen or counterfeit, these red flags should cause you to ask questions before buying and proceed with caution.
How can you protect yourself?
You can buy more safely online by following these tips.
1. Purchase from the retailer directly, even for gift cards. It’s always best to purchase gift cards on the website of the brand or in its stores. The original issuer of the gift card, like a retailer, is not responsible if the gift card was purchased on an online marketplace and there is no value on the gift card or the value is less than what you were expecting. If you need to check the balance of a gift card, always go to the website of the brand that is issuing the gift card. Do not ever enter the full gift card number and PIN onto any other website. You may be giving the value of the card to a fraudster.
2. Check out the seller. Ratings, reviews and comments from other buyers can help you sense if they are legit. Contact the seller directly to ask questions about the item, as well as their return and refund policies, and make sure you are satisfied with their responses before buying.
3. Research the item. Do a search for typical prices of the item. Does their pricing seem too good to be true? Check the photo carefully to see if it appears to be a real item or stock photo. Photos should show more than one angle, or both outside and inside the package. Ask the seller for additional photos if you’re not satisfied.
4. If you have a problem, contact the seller, the marketplace and your credit card company. Make sure to keep digital copies of all emails and text messages between you and the seller regarding the purchase. Your credit card company may be able to withhold payment if there is a problem.
Armed with these tips and a little caution, you can enjoy your online holiday shopping safely.