Online shopping was supposed to make buying things easier and more convenient. But instead of giving you all the best options for, say, air fryers in one place, e-commerce sites can leave you lost and confused, wandering through page after page of strange-sounding air fryer brands.
Here’s how to spot red flags that a brand isn’t what it says it is, whether it’s on Amazon, Walmart, Google, Facebook or Instagram.
Look for a website, social media presence and contact information
Look for any evidence that the company exists outside of the first ad or listing you see. A dedicated website is a good start, but these can also be created on the cheap with tools like Shopify and WordPress. Scroll to the bottom of the front page to look for the contact details in the footer and see if it’s a template. Look for an “About us” page. If it sounds original and names any founders or employees, that’s a good sign. Most will have an email address, but look for more ways to contact the company, including an address and a phone number. The more reachable they are, the better.
Next, look for any social media presence on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. It’s not uncommon for up-and-coming legitimate brands to start with social media before hosting a full website.
“Especially for fashion and beauty, if you don’t see any sort of social media presence, that can be a red flag,” said Elaine Kwon, a managing partner at Kwontified, an e-commerce management and software company.
Look up the company’s age and what else it sells
Tech companies, including Google and Facebook, have started providing more information to help shoppers identify a suspicious brand, like how long it has been around. If you see a brand has only had its URL or social media pages for two years or less, keep researching.
On Google: Search for the company and click the three vertical dots next to its main webpage result to bring up the “About this result” section. You should see the date the website was first indexed.
On Facebook: Go to the company’s profile page and scroll down to the “Page transparency” section. You’ll find the date that it was created and any name changes it has had. Look for multiple or unusual name switches, like going from Coffee Pot Spot to Leggings Emporium. You can also see what countries the page’s moderators are located in.
On Amazon: Look for the brand’s landing page. To get there, click on the name of the seller which should appear as a blue link under the product name or next to the words “Sold by.” Click and see if it’s a fully fleshed-out brand page (promising) or just a list of other search results (less promising). While you’re here, see what else it sells. If it seems entirely random — socks, an exercise bike, hamster wheels — that’s a sign it’s just moving whatever cheap products it thinks people will buy.
On Walmart: Look for the “sold and shipped by” company name and click on it. Make sure there is a brand page and see what else they sell. Research the phone number and address if listed.
Know when cheap is too cheap
It’s possible to buy a plastic salad spinner online for under $5. While there’s a chance it could be perfectly adequate at drying lettuce for years to come, if the price is significantly lower compared with brand-name spinners (around $30) it is likely to fall apart sooner. This matters more for some products than it does for others. While a cheap spinner probably still goes in circles, anything you consume, like supplements or any devices that could injure you like a treadmill, shouldn’t go for drastically lower than standard pricing.
Find the company’s physical headquarters
If there’s a physical address for the business, look it up on Google Maps. The address isn’t always listed alongside the contact information, so look up any return policies and see if there’s a mailing address buried in there. Next, copy and paste the address into Google Maps to see the street view. Is it a haunted-looking building in an abandoned strip mall with no visible signage for the brand? One strike. Random residential homes can also be a red flag. That’s not to say some genuine small businesses aren’t run out of houses or unmarked buildings, so use this as one of many data points when making your decision.
If it has a U.S. location, look up the business name with that state
Some companies will say where they are “based” on their profile pages or Shopify sites but not give an exact address. Either way, if they list a U.S. location, go to the website of that state’s secretary of state and do a “business entity” search. If they are registered, there should be an address and a person’s name listed. You can Google the name and see if they have a LinkedIn profile or other signs of being an entrepreneur.
Relearn how to read reviews and comments
On e-commerce sites, don’t judge by the average review rating. Instead, look closer. Too many five-star reviews on Amazon can mean a company paid for them and used a review service to help float its product to the top of the search results.
Try looking up a company’s one- and two-star reviews, which can tell you far more about the products (sometimes they can even reassure you a product is real). Be aware of reviews that all use similar language or sound like they’re for an entirely different product. Finally, look at the date of the oldest review to see if the listing got a large number of reviews unusually fast.
“For every couple hundred sales, there will be one person who leaves a review,” said Saoud Khalifah, founder of Fakespot, a browser tool that rates brands. “When you have a new brand that just launched, there’s no way they have a million sales.”
Read the guarantees and return policies
A big-ticket item with a 30-day warranty should stop you in your tracks. Something that costs more than a few hundred dollars should come with a much longer warranty, such as a year or more. Find a return policy and know your options if the product is defective. Watch out for products where you’ll have to pay for return shipping, that only have a short return window or that ask you to mail it back overseas.
Do an old-fashioned web search
Type the name of the brand into a search engine and see if any sites pop up flagging it as a scam. Then put the name into the Better Business Bureau site, Trustpilot or even Reddit. If there are no results anywhere, that can be a sign it’s not a safe place to purchase from. Try to find other buyers sharing their own experiences on blogs or social media. On her blog Written With Love, Michele Eilertsen keeps a running list of scam brands she’s run into or that readers have flagged.
“I’ve reported dozens of scam boutiques to [Facebook and Instagram] over the years, and 99 percent of the time these reports are either ignored or they find no reason to take their pages down. It’s frustrating, to say the least,” said Eilertsen.
Do a reverse image search
Take a screenshot or get the URL for one of the images on the site, preferably a product shot. Go to images.google.com and enter it into the search. See if that same photo shows up for other brands or listings, or is even just stock photography. (Sometimes these are provided by wholesale companies to brands that are buying and reselling, but they can also be stolen from mainstream brands.) Lifted images are a huge red flag.
Know when to buy name brands, go to real stores
As a rule of thumb, don’t buy anything that goes in your body (food, supplements, pacifiers) or anything that could be otherwise unsafe (car seats, replacement batteries) from third-party sellers. Amazon, Google and Walmart are not your only options for shopping online. Default to a traditional retailer when it’s important. Trust stores that still choose and stock their own goods, and that have physical locations where you can check quality yourself. Also try to buy known brands when it’s important, but be careful about buying them on marketplaces from third-parties. It’s possible to end up with shoddy returns or last year’s models.
Report any bad experiences
If you already bought something and got burned, you can try to save other people from the same fate. Leave a review on Trustpilot or the Better Business Bureau or post about your experience on Reddit or social media. You can try telling the companies directly by calling Amazon, Walmart or Shopify customer service, but they’re unlikely to take action unless it’s a safety issue or an egregiously bad product.
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