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Who Are You Really Buying From When You Shop Online?

Shady companies are selling on Amazon, Walmart and other retail sites. Here’s how to protect yourself


spinner image woman shopping online looking at laptop with magnifying glass to see where she is really shopping it turns out it is a disheveled man putting used merchandise in a box at his home
BEN MOUNSEY-WOOD

You searched Amazon, you found what you were looking for on Amazon, and you clicked “Buy” on Amazon. Odds are, however, that you didn’t actually buy from Amazon. More than 60 percent of the site’s sales are made by other vendors, the company says.

Amazon isn’t the only major retailer that’s expanding its business as a middleman. Walmart, Target, Macy’s, Chewy, Best Buy and J.Crew, among others, also run what are known as third-party marketplaces. To put it another way, these giant online retailers are operating far less these days like a store and more like a mall or flea market.

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The problem is some of the stores in these online malls are shady operators. And that problem won’t go away, given how this trend is growing.

The reasons for this are simple: Adding online marketplaces to existing e-commerce websites enables retailers to expand their product selection and generate fee revenue from smaller vendors without much risk.

But the setup can be confusing. These marketplaces often feature a crazy mix of sellers, from large corporations to small businesses to some guy working out of his garage. Product quality, customer service, return policies and shipping times can vary dramatically. Items sold by third-party sellers may not be properly manufactured, stored, handled or ethically sourced, because they operate outside of major retailers’ supply chains, explains Kari Kammel, director of the Center for Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection at Michigan State University.

What’s worse, criminal enterprises use online marketplaces to sell stolen, expired, recalled and counterfeit products that could be contaminated or made with toxic chemicals, Kammel warns.

The new INFORM Consumers Act requires retailers to protect consumers from counterfeit, unsafe and stolen goods sold by third-party sellers, through requirements such as the clear disclosure of a seller’s name, address and contact information. That should help consumers, but the law only recently took effect, and it won’t eliminate bad actors, Kammel says.

Here’s how to shop more safely.

Check out the seller

One easy way to protect yourself is to buy directly from the retailer that runs the website. You can usually find the seller’s name on the product page near the button for buying the item. Otherwise, click the seller’s name for more info, including its product selection — a random mishmash could be a red flag, Kammel says. Also read user reviews — don’t just look at ratings. One way to quickly filter out potentially fake user reviews and unreliable sellers is to use Fakespot .I use it to sort products on Amazon and Walmart and get alerts about third-party sellers.

Locate the shipper

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By the seller’s name on Amazon, look for the “Ships From” info. That fine print can make a big fat difference! This summer, when my dad was shopping for an outdoor lounge cushion, he saw something odd: Both the shipper and shipping time changed depending on the cushion’s color. The red version, shipped by Amazon, would arrive in two days; other colors, sold and shipped by a Chinese seller, would take weeks. If you need to return an item to anywhere overseas, you may have to pay a fortune.

Spot return gotchas 

When buying from third parties, pay special attention to each product’s return policies, including costs. You may have some protections: Walmart, for example, lets you return third-party items to its stores. But Amazon’s A-to-Z Guarantee has a lot of fine print. “We get many emails from customers confused about whom to contact when something goes wrong,” says Rob Gross, cofounder of Fakespot, “and that’s usually because they bought from a third-party seller who disappeared.” I use it to sort products on Amazon and Walmart and get alerts about third-party sellers.

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