The Problem (And Tricky Fix) Of Fake Online Sales

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Be careful when clicking on that too-good-to-be-true Amazon deal.

You might see a Sony stereo listed at 50 percent below its retail value or a brand-new Samsung television for less than 40 percent of its original cost. Place the order, however, and you might get an entirely different product—if you receive anything at all.

Fraudulent sellers have been a recurring issue for Amazon, and as the site’s presence grows, the scammers are employing new tactics to trick unwitting buyers. For regular Amazon shoppers, the good news is that Amazon will step in to address customer issues. The company’s famous “A-to-z” policy affords refunds to any fraud victims.

Still, fraudsters undoubtedly create headaches. Imagine ordering something as a birthday gift only to have an inferior item arrive days before the big day.

Amazon takes an aggressive stance toward the scammers. Thanks to customer reports, the site shuts many of the fake stores down—but some still have time to make thousands of dollars at the buyers’ expense. To counteract this, Amazon began restricting the number of new products sellers can offer at one time.

“While previously a new seller could list hundreds of thousands of new products, often at super low prices, this is going away,” Joe Kaziukėnas of business intelligence firm Marketplace Pulse told Forbes. “Instead, a seller will only be able to list a small amount of products until they prove themselves, and then the limit will rise. To us, it sounds like an obvious and easy fix.”

But unfortunately, that’s not always enough of a restriction to stem the problem.

James Thomson, a consultant who previously worked for Amazon, said this in an interview with BuzzFeed News:

It really is a game of cat and mouse. As soon as Amazon sets up a way to identify these sellers, they have a way to get around it.

That brings us to the final line of defense: You, the consumer. As in all online transactions, consumers must shop smart and protect themselves from dedicated fraudsters. An Amazon Support page offers an extensive set of tips and strategies that can help Marketplace shoppers avoid unscrupulous sellers.

According to the retail giant, no legitimate Marketplace sellers will trade goods for Gift Card codes. That request is a huge red flag, and if you encounter it, alert Amazon Customer Service. If you suspect fraud or identity theft, notify the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center here.

Of course, scammers are endlessly inventive, and their ploys extend way beyond gift card schemes. Amazon also warns users to refuse payment if any seller directs you away from the official Amazon merchant site. And be sure you can verify the identity of online sellers, the retailer suggests.

Maybe the most powerful defense against scammers is to ask yourself if a deal seems too good to be true. If it does, chances are it is.

“For consumers, the best course of action is to avoid the lowest-priced sellers, as unintuitive as that might sound,” Kaziukėnas said.

Unrealistically low prices sure are tempting, but they might not be worth the risk.

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