Amazon, Walmart, and others sell fake products online - here's how to avoid getting duped

woman sad annoyed text worried upset

Boryana Manzurova/Shutterstock

There's probably a reason the price sounds too good to be true.

  • A new report has found that five major online retailers - including Amazon, Walmart, and eBay - were selling fake products that can be harmful to your health.
  • Of the 47 products investigators bought, which ranged from Nike Air Jordan shoes to Urban Decay makeup, 20 were counterfeit.
  • Looking for a few red flags will help you protect yourself from purchasing a fake product.

Next time you're about to purchase an item from your favorite online retailer, you might want to do a double take.Advertisement

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office revealed that products purchased from third-party sellers on five major e-commerce sites could be counterfeit - and harmful to your health.

Out of the 47 products - all Nike Air Jordan shoes, Yeti travel mugs, Urban Decay makeup, and UL-certified phone chargers - investigators bought from Amazon, Walmart, eBay, Sears Marketplace, and Newegg, 20 were counterfeit.

All of the shoes were authentic, and only one UL-certified phone charger was fake, but it was a whole different ballpark with the other two categories - six of nine Yeti travel mugs and all Urban Decay makeup were fake.

It's unknown which products came from which retailer, but it is known that one counterfeit item and one authentic item was purchased from each site.

Not only are consumers being duped, they're being exposed to potentially dangerous materials. The report claimed that counterfeit iPhone adapters can pose a risk of lethal electrocution, counterfeit travel mugs can include higher lead concentrations, and counterfeit cosmetics contain substances such as cyanide, mercury, and rat droppings.Those aren't things you want in your hands or on your face.Advertisement

What's doubly concerning is that it's hard to discern the difference between what's fake and what's real. The items, all shipped from the US, were advertised as new and name-brand and were sold by third-party sellers with average customer ratings above 90% - all factors that instill a higher sense of confidence and trust in the buyer.

It's also hard identify what's fake knowing that all five companies have strict protocols and a "zero tolerance" policy for counterfeit products that involves removing said goods from their marketplaces, which they confirmed to CBS News.

Yet, somehow the counterfeits persist. Counterfeit goods account for almost 10% of worldwide trade, according to the World Customs Organization.Advertisement

"I'm not telling anyone to not purchase anything online anymore, that would be unreasonable, but certainly you can look for various things that would help guard you against getting something that's counterfeit," Kimberly Gianopoulos, director in international affairs and trade groups at GAO, told Circa News.

Keep reading for seven tips for spotting fake products online.


1. Know who's selling the product

1. Know who's selling the product

Third-party sellers often use sites like Amazon to clear their excess inventory, garner more visibility, or find a larger audience. While these sellers don't equate to a fake product, they do warrant a closer look as most counterfeit products come from them.

A How-to Geek writer, who was scammed by a counterfeiter on Amazon, breaks down three different types of products you'll find on the site:

Ships from and sold by [Name of Third-Party Seller]: The product is sold by the third-party seller and shipped directly to you.

Sold by [Name of Third-Party Seller] and Fulfilled by Amazon: A third-party seller ships the product to Amazon's warehouses, which then ships it to you without confirming the product is authentic beforehand.

Ships from and sold by Amazon sells the product, so it should be legitimate. While this method isn't completely immune to counterfeits, as they can get commingled into the general stock, it's still your best bet.

Narrow down your shopping search on e-commerce retailers to products sold by the site itself.

2. If it's not coming from the retailer, look up the seller

2. If it's not coming from the retailer, look up the seller

"You can look to see if something is sold by or fulfilled by that particular website. If it's fulfilled by that, [it] doesn't mean that website is selling it to you, it means that they are getting the product to you, but it's coming from a third party," Gianopoulos said, adding you should look for a customer service phone number and address in case you need to return the product.

Find the seller via the website's product page, check out their profile, and even Google them — a lack of online presence is worth noting.

Michael Crider of How-To Geek cautions against a "just launched" badge on a seller's profile, as scammers often run multiple accounts for short periods of time — and against odd names. In an attempt to slip through counterfeit defenses, scammers will use random groups of characters for their name.

"If the name of the vendor is something that looks like it was typed by a drunk monkey, it's probably fake," he writes.


2. Spot the fake reviews

2. Spot the fake reviews

Sometimes, the telltale sign of a fake a product is a fake review. Just because an item has five-star ratings doesn't mean it's authentic. On the contrary, a high number of positive reviews can be a red flag.

Don't be fooled by a "verified purchased" tag on Amazon — while it helps establish credibility, sellers cheat the system by hiring businesses to create dummy accounts, purchase products, and write a stellar review.

You can use online tools to help determine the legitimacy of a review, such as Fakespot, which provides a score regarding the likelihood of fake reviews for a product.

But, you don't always need the help of an online service — there are a few warning signs you can spot with your own eye.

Wirecutter points out that a lot of positive reviews within a few days can indicate people pushed for reviews to happen on a timeline. Poor spelling and grammar, similarly staged user photos, and similar wording can also be warning signs, as can certain words and phrases — think high usage of first-person singular, verbs, and adverbs as well as specifics, like references to people or exact details.

3. Look into shipping logistics

3. Look into shipping logistics

Another red flag waves in the form of extra-long ship times, especially on Amazon where third-party sellers don't see their sales in their bank accounts for fourteen days.

A new vendor with fake merchandise has to maintain their account for at least two weeks, so they'll schedule shipping time for longer than the Amazon processing time to prevent consumer complaints.

Also look from where the product is shipping. "I don't want to pick on China, but that's where most of the counterfeits are coming from," James Thomson, a former Amazon executive, told MarketWatch.


4. Examine product photos

4. Examine product photos

In the age of Photoshop and technology, it's easy for a scammer to edit or steal a photo to make their product look authentic.

Stuart Fuller, director of commercial operation and communications at global brand protection firm NetNames, recommends downloading an image and using Google's reverse image search to see if the photos were taken from another site.

He also suggests contacting the seller to ask for more photos. If they won't provide their own photos, there's probably a reason behind that.

5. Watch out for unrealistic deals

5. Watch out for unrealistic deals

Ryan Robison of detective agency the Robison Group told MarketWatch that the biggest telltale sign of a counterfeit item is the price.

"Almost always, the incentive for people to buy [suspect goods] is that they're cheaper," Thomson explained. "But the reason they're cheaper is because they haven't been tested and certified."

In an interview with NewBeauty, Kelly McCarthy, partner at intellectual property and brand protection group Sideman & Bancroft, advised avoiding the temptation to purchase beauty products from convenient online locations — instead, buy them directly from the brand or department store.

"If you see a 'deal' on beauty products and the sale is not happening in a store that you know is an authorized seller, you are definitely raising your risk that the product is fake," she said. "If the pricing looks too good to be true, it probably is."


6. Inspect the product for suspect packaging

6. Inspect the product for suspect packaging

If you've done all the above and decided the product should reach your doorstep, your inspection shouldn't stop there.

goVerify on eBay has a few guidelines on what to look for when determining the authenticity of a designer item, as do YouTube videos comparing dupes with their legitimate counterparts.

There are a few general tricks you can look for — tags, typos, misspellings, and poor printing should all be on your radar. Packaging should include all the retail packaging for new products, such as manuals or printed materials, and UPC barcodes.

Bharat Dube, chief executive of brand protection agency Strategic IP information, told MarketWatch suspect packaging "can be basic things such as not having plastic covering on the hand bag's handle."

If something looks off, return it and contact customer service to seek a refund.