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Buying From an Online Marketplace

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These days, there are many online marketplaces selling new and used goods, from apple peelers to zip-up hoodies. You may find a marketplace on your social media accounts, through online ads, or by searching online. Before you buy from any online marketplace, check the seller’s rules about refunds and returns, see who can help if you have a problem, and make sure they let you pay with a safe payment method.

Online Marketplaces Offer Different Protections

Online marketplaces can be small and local — like a neighborhood group — or operated by large, national companies. In general, online marketplaces connect buyers and sellers. When you find something you want, you typically contact the seller directly.

Some marketplace operators leave it completely up to the sellers and buyers to decide how to handle payments, returns, refunds, delivery, and other issues. In those cases, you have to work out questions or concerns with a seller. The marketplace operator does not get involved.

Other marketplace operators help buyers in important ways. For example, a marketplace might have a process to help you get a refund if you buy something but don’t get exactly what was advertised, or never get the item. If that kind of protection is important to you, read a site’s policies before you buy from a seller. Make sure the protection applies to the thing you’re buying or the seller you’re buying from. There may be a short window of time before you have to return the item or claim a refund.

When You Shop

Each online marketplace will have its own way to display items, process payments, or manage other parts of your shopping experience. Before you buy from a seller listed on a particular marketplace, search online to learn more about the site, seller, and any items you’re considering. When you find something you like, be sure to use a safer payment method.

Check out the marketplace site

  • Search online for the site’s name, with the word “complaint” or “review,” to see what other people say about their experiences.
  • If you must sign up for an account before you can buy from the site, find out how the site will protect and use your information.
  • Make sure the pages where you register, sign in, and pay are secure. Look for https at the beginning of the URL. The ‘s’ means the site is encrypted — but it doesn’t mean it’s a legitimate site. Scammers know how to encrypt sites, too.

Check out the individual seller

  • Check the seller’s ratings and read comments from recent buyers.
  • Be sure the seller’s listing includes contact information. If you have questions about an item, contact the seller. If you aren’t satisfied with the seller’s answer, choose a different seller.
  • If you want a certain service — like a product warranty, free shipping, or the right to return an item — check the listings or ask sellers if they offer the service before you buy. Get the answers in writing and keep copies of your messages.

Check out the item

  • Look closely at the photos the seller posts. Are there several photos so you can see the entire item, or just stock photos? If you don’t see pictures of the actual item, you can’t check its condition or be sure the seller really has it.

  • Read the seller’s description of the item. If a seller says something is “refurbished,” “vintage,” “used,” “as is,” or “close-out,” it probably isn’t in top condition.
  • If a seller lists an expensive item for a very low price, it might be counterfeit.

Use safer payment methods

  • Buy from a seller or site that accepts safer payment methods like credit cards, which have legal protections if something goes wrong, or a secure online payment system that protects buyers in case there is a problem.

  • Scammers often ask you to pay in ways that make it tough to get your money back.
    • Don’t pay with wire transfers through companies like MoneyGram or Western Union.
    • Don’t pay using gift cards like iTunes or Google Play, cash reload cards like MoneyPak, or cryptocurrency. Paying with these methods is like sending cash; once it’s gone, you generally can’t get it back. Find out what to do if you think you sent money to a scammer.
  • Don’t buy from anyone who wants you to pay outside the marketplace’s payment system. If you do, you’ll lose any protection the site offers and you probably won’t get either the item or a refund.

Check deadlines

  • Keep track of any deadlines for sending returns, asking for refunds, or asking for help from the site.

  • Keep copies of any email or messages between you, the seller, and the site.

Resolving and Reporting Problems

If you run into problems with a seller on an online marketplace, contact the seller immediately. If that doesn’t work, contact the marketplace to report the seller.

If you paid by credit or debit card, file a dispute with your credit or debit card company and withhold payment while the company investigates.

If you think you’re dealing with a dishonest business, report it to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov and to your state attorney general.