Long before the start of the seemingly never-ending pandemic, it was hard to resist the convenience of online shopping. But while buying something directly from a reputable retailer—or straight from the manufacturer—tends to ensure that you know exactly what you’re getting, the rise in popularity of online marketplaces, particularly those on Amazon and Facebook, has made it more of a crapshoot.
These spaces operate more like virtual flea markets—except without the option of inspecting the items (in person) yourself. For this, and other reasons, it’s not uncommon for stolen goods to end up for sale on these sites. In fact, according to the National Retail Federation, what it refers to as “organized retail crime” (ORC) currently costs retailers an average of $700,000 per $1 billion in sales, and roughly 75% of retailers surveyed in 2020 saw an increase in ORC that year alone.
So how do you tell what’s legitimately (and legally) being sold or resold, and what’s hot? Here are a few red flags to look out for when shopping at online marketplaces.
A bizarrely low price
When an item is priced way, way below market value or “discounted so heavily” that it looks suspicious, then it’s a sign that it might be stolen, retired Beverly Hills Assistant Police Chief Marc Coopwood told Newsnation Now. If you’re not sure how much it typically goes for, Scambusters recommends checking prices of similar items that have already been sold. You can do this on eBay by clicking “sold listings” in the left-hand panel of the product listings page.
A sparse or suspicious listing
Take a careful look at the listing of the item you’re considering to see if it has any of these red flags, Scambusters advises:
- There’s no real description of an item—only a brief, plain statement of what it is, with no details.
- The description claims the item was “found.”
- It’s a locked computer, tablet, or smartphone, and the seller claims they “forgot” the password.
If you do decide to pursue the item further, before making an offer, be sure to contact the seller and ask plenty of questions on things like its condition, how long they’ve owned it, and why they’re selling, Scambusters explains. Ask sellers to show you proof of ownership, like a receipt or product registration record.
An anonymous profile
While there’s no guarantee that online sellers are who they say they are, Coopwood says that having an anonymous profile is also a definite red flag.
A lack or absence of ratings and/or feedback
Of course, there are always cases in which a new (and completely legit) seller doesn’t have any ratings or feedback yet, but as a general rule, that’s not a great sign. So is only having negative ratings, or having feedback only for a handful of very cheap items—a tactic Scambusters says crooks use to build up their (fake) credibility.
There is no way to contact the seller
Usually, reputable sellers will provide at least some way to contact them if buyers have questions or issues. But Coopwood says that this isn’t the case for people who sell stolen merchandise.
The seller asks you for personal information
According to Coopwood, this happens most often when sellers don’t provide any identifying information about themselves. “[When] they have an anonymous profile, they are asking for information you should never give them,” he told Newsnation Now.
The seller requests that you pay via money transfer
It is a major red flag if a seller asks you to pay for your purchase with an untraceable money wire, or a cashier’s check, and won’t accept credit cards or PayPal, according to Scambusters.