AliExpress is a Chinese-based online marketplace website that allows vendors to sell their products online. Originally focused on business-to-business selling, it has now expanded to provide services for all kinds of e-commerce. It is also geared toward an international customer market, even though many sellers are Chinese.
As with any e-commerce platform, there can be questions as to the legitimacy of the website and its merchandise, as well as personal safety and security when shopping online. Big questions are whether AliExpress is legit and safe, or a scam, and whether it is worth any cost savings. Here are 15 things to think about if you are considering buying from AliExpress.
1. Do your best to practice safe online behaviors.
With all online shopping, you should take precautions to keep your personal and financial data secure. A big difference between AliExpress and Amazon/Target/Walmart/Etsy, for example, is the safety of dealing with AliExpress because it is a Chinese business. China, compared to the U.S. or Europe, does not actively require its businesses to protect customers’ personal and financial data.
So if you are going to buy from it, do all you can on your end to protect yourself.
2. Learn who you are buying from.
One of the benefits of AliExpress is the ability to buy straight from the manufacturer. In many cases, this will lead to lower prices on the product – savings are passed directly to the consumer due to the lack of additional costs for shipping to a third-party retailer. There may also be lower labor costs, and some taxes associated with intellectual property are not collected in the same ways.
That being said, most of AliExpress’ sellers are Chinese businesses, but many of its customers are not. This means it is highly unlikely that you know your seller or that the seller is invested in protecting its reputation, like if you were buying from a local store or a well-known chain.
This does not mean that the company is trying to scam you. Many are legitimately selling real products at a discounted price, which can be a great benefit to deal-hunters. The point is: you don’t know. So be aware of who you’re buying from, and do research if possible.
3. Review the store’s rating skeptically.
All stores will have a rating assigned to them, which can help in your assessment of who to buy from. This rating is usually assigned as a percentage of “positive feedback.” It is pulled directly from the responses that the business has received from its customers. A higher response rate with positive feedback means that more customers have had a good shopping experience with that vendor and are willing to share that with others.
AliExpress may or may not have robust practices to police fraudulent ratings. The Chinese sellers posting their ratings may be truthful, or they may be posting ratings made by friends or employees to dishonestly boost their ratings. Whenever reading any online reviews from an unknown seller, you should try to get a sense of whether you think the ratings are actual customers providing honest feedback.
4. Read the product reviews and know that “brushing” scams are prevalent on Chineses e-commerce sites.
In addition to the company’s rating, each product has a star-based rating with reviews as well. Most e-commerce platforms utilize a rating system like this, allowing consumers to rate a given product on a one-to-five scale and provide additional comments if desired. You will want to read reviews carefully, just like the store rating, to try to see if you think the reviews are by real customers.
“Brushing” scams are scams that trick an e-commerce site into thinking a real purchase took place, so that the seller can leave a fake positive review. They have been prevalent on Chinese e-commerce sites for the last five years, and have now made their way to the U.S. in all 50 states. (CNN)
5. Shop carefully and thoughtfully.
One of the primary disadvantages of online shopping is that you can’t go in person. This may seem obvious, but it can become a major pitfall depending on what you are shopping for. When you are shopping online from a seller with a good reputation, you have more of a sense of security that the product is going to be what you think it is, will be well-described on the website, and if there are problems that the seller will make it right to uphold its reputation.
With AliExpress, you are shopping from Chinese sellers that you do not know and that do not have well-established names in the U.S. If these sellers changed their business names online, they could create clean store-fronts that wipe away negative reviews. They have less to lose than a local or well-known brand.
6. Be aware of the relationship between value and price.
As we’ve mentioned, the products on AliExpress are usually lower in cost than with competitor websites. There are legal and reasonable explanations for this, the most obvious of which being that you are often buying directly from a manufacturer or wholesaler and cutting out the middleman.
This does not mean that you should expect to pay pennies for an expensive or specialized product. One common trick of “scam” sellers online is to promote a brand-name product at a steep discount that is far more than you would expect from any other legitimate retailer. This can be a red flag that you are not actually getting the name brand, or that you simply aren’t getting the product or features you’re buying.
You’ve heard the old saying, “If it’s too good to be true, it isn’t.”
7. Beware of purchasing fraudulent products.
Along with steep discounts, pay careful attention to any product you buy on AliExpress, regardless of the price. A common international e-commerce scam is to advertise a name brand when it is actually an imitation or knockoff brand.
The seller will create the illusion that you are purchasing an expensive brand, but in reality, you are buying a cheap copycat. This can be frustrating, and deceptive business practices like this can harm the reputation of any seller or online platform.
It is always up to the vendor to post accurate and honest information about their products, but you should do your research before adding an item to your cart, including thoroughly reading the product description, looking closely at any photos of the product, and reading customer reviews to see if they received the product they expected.
8. Look carefully when purchasing technology.
It’s worth making a special point to talk about buying technology-related products on AliExpress. Sometimes, vendors will promise one kind of feature but will deliver another. Remember that products purchased at a discount may not be exactly what you think.
As an example, you may buy a computer with a certain processor, but when you receive the product, you find that it has a different and inferior processor. If you expect a certain level of quality from your technology purchase, products bought at a discount may be of lower quality than those that are brand names bought from reputable sellers. Keep this in mind when shopping online with AliExpress, or any seller when you do not know or have a reason to trust the seller.
9. Only conduct business within AliExpress (no outside transactions).
Most websites forbid businesses from conducting transactions outside of the e-commerce platforms they provide, and also forbid customers from initiating outside transactions as well. AliExpress is no exception.
Keeping your transactions within the platform ensures that all parties are protected by the terms and conditions of business as set forth by AliExpress. These protections are primarily put in place to protect the customer, although some protections are there for the business’ benefit as well.
If you conduct business outside the platform, those protections are not in place, and AliExpress cannot guarantee the legitimacy of the sale or the safety and security of your personal information. You become much more vulnerable to scams and dishonest advertising, and you would have no recourse if you did encounter any problems.
Bottom line: if a vendor asks you to communicate outside the platform or send money through a different method, terminate business with that vendor.
10. Be ready to wait weeks for your delivery.
The vast majority of businesses selling on AliExpress are based in China. This means that the products you buy are shipped from China, so do not be surprised when the shipping times are much longer than you’re used to.
Many retailers like Amazon and Walmart have conditioned online shoppers to expect near-immediate delivery on the products you buy. One-day or two-day shipping has become the norm, and even wait times of a week or two seem long by comparison.
When purchasing through AliExpress, remember that those products are subject to international shipping timetables. The vendor may wait until they have enough product to justify shipping them via air or boat cargo, and it will also take time to process them through international customs channels. The costs associated with shipping may also be much higher than the typical “free shipping” you experience with other websites.
This can be one of the tradeoffs to the lower prices on AliExpress products. If the lower cost is worth having to wait a few more weeks, then this may be a totally acceptable compromise to get what you want. Just be aware of the potential drawbacks.
11. Import taxes will add to your cost.
Another hidden cost in purchasing from an overseas business is the collection of higher taxes. Any product that is shipped internationally is subject to import and export taxes due to the fees associated with international commerce. These import taxes are typically assessed as a percentage of the product’s value, collected by the receiving country’s government.
For those not used to buying with an international company, these “hidden” fees can lead to confusion and frustration, and may result in negative reviews for the company. But these fees are a necessary part of doing international business. Some companies may try to find ways around collecting these fees, which may or may not be legal. Be aware of how your chosen vendor is assessing or not assessing these fees as a test of how legitimate their business practices are.
12. Check the return policy and adhere strictly to the time limits.
AliExpress has products on its platform that participate in the Free Return Service. Not all items do. If the item you purchase participates, you can return your product, subject to certain conditions and tight time frames. The details of the “Free Return Service” vary depending on the geography of the customer. If you are a customer from the United States mainland (not Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, etc.), then you have 15 days on top of the “on-time delivery date” to decide if you want to keep or return your item for any reason.
If you want to return it, there is a process you need to follow, and you need to wait up to 2 days for your return request to be approved. If you do not click to get your return label within 5 days after AliExpress approves your return request, your case is closed and you cannot reopen it. This means you will no longer be eligible for the Free Return Service.
By comparison, Amazon immediately approves (or rejects) returns when you call them, and quickly emails you a return label if you need one (or you can return with a QR code). Amazon usually has a return window of 30 days, except starting in November when the return windows generally widen to January 31.
If you have already used the Free Return Service for an item in an order, and you find you need to return another item from that order, you will have to pay for your own return shipping. Since you are likely sending the product back to China, it is quite possible you will have to pay higher shipping costs to send it back than you did to receive the product in the first place. This is usually because vendors will get lower pricing by shipping greater quantities of the product than a typical consumer would. In the end, depending on the price of your product, it might not make financial sense to return it.
13. Carefully follow the steps and tight time limits for the money-back guarantee or you will be out of luck.
AliExpress has a money-back guarantee. The money-back-guarantee comes into play if the customer never receives the product at all, if the vendor was dishonest about the product they advertised, or if there are other major issues with the product itself.
There is a strict and time-sensitive process you must follow. First, you must contact the seller. This means you will be likely be communicating with a small business-owner in China. Second, if the issue is not resolved, you make a claim through AliExpress. You have to make this claim within the 15 days following the delivery of your order or the end of the “package receipt confirmation period” listed in your order details.
If you do not make a claim within these 15 days, you are at the mercy of the Chinese business that you already unsuccessfully tried to resolve the issue with in step #1. In other words, you are out of luck.
By selecting certain options when completing a transaction, you can sometimes bypass working with the vendor and work with AliExpress directly to request a refund. This could be another reason to use the escrow service so that you can make the follow-up process a little easier.
14. Make use of the escrow service.
Escrow services are a growing method of ensuring that payments are secure and safe, and they exist primarily for the protection of the payer’s information.
Using the escrow service provided by AliExpress when shopping on their platform means that you are paying into an “escrow” account, rather than performing a transaction directly with the retailer. The main security benefit is that your personal information is never visible to the vendor; your funds are simply held by AliExpress as the mediator.
Another key benefit is that the funds you deposit are held by the escrow service until you confirm that you have received, and are satisfied with, the product you purchased. This also makes it much easier to receive a refund if you encounter any issues or need to return the product for any reason.
15. Don’t count on the legal system or laws to protect you.
Particularly thinking of a US/UK/Europe/Australia or similar customer, but for any non-Chinese customer, if you are harmed by a breach of your data by AliExpress, or harmed by some transaction on its platform, you would need to get an international lawyer to pursue justice.
Laws in China are different from those in western countries. The attorney fees for an international attorney would likely be too expensive compared to the loss you suffered, and even with a skilled international lawyer (likely with rates from US$800+ per hour as of December 2020), justice would be far from guaranteed.
Is AliExpress a scam in itself? No, but there are scams on the platform. Is AliExpress safe? Look at the sellers. Chinese sellers are not regulated like U.S. or European sellers for the protection of consumers. Be aware of the above issues so you can make safer decisions when deciding where and how to shop online.
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