Smart About Money: The (big) problem with buying online today

Nick Maffeo “Caveat emptor” is Latin for “Let the buyer beware.” Which means buyers needed to beware thousands of years ago and buyers still need to beware today, especially when shopping online. Because some things online are changing … for the worse.

One example: It is now abundantly clear that online reviews have been corrupted to such a degree that it’s prudent to feel they can’t be believed or trusted as a dependable guide to buying. Which is a shame. Online reviews now have to be taken with a large grain of salt.

(To their credit, legitimate online businesses try to limit abuses but the phony reviewers are creative and relentless. It’s a serious problem.)

Even genuine reviews can be less useful as a guide given the differences in individual buying experiences and expectations. Probably everyone has ended up making a purchase in spite of some critical reviews and then been happy to discover the product was fine for their situation. It happens all the time.

Also, increasing numbers of online shoppers are noticing that some web sites just don’t appear to be “right.”

Recently, I was online looking for a gift (inline skates) and also for commercial cleaning supplies for the Bank. Some of the web sites I got to seemed like they might have been “scraped” from other sites. They seemed visually off and I became concerned these sites were fronts attempting to harvest credit card information from unsuspecting customers.

Since the names of those companies were not familiar to me, I did some quick Google searching. When corroborating information about the questionable sites seemed non-existent, I decided to trust the red flags and my intuition. Even though they claimed they sold products I wanted, I did not buy from those companies.

Which brings up the biggest problem with buying online since Day 1 and especially today – specifically, a lot of the time you are dealing with complete strangers.

Usually things work out fine. The key word there is “usually.”

The major online retailers are usually safe but – as their pages get more jam-packed and complicated – it can be all too easy to miss that you’re not buying from them but from a 3rd party. Unfortunately some of those 3rd parties are selling questionable merchandise at inflated prices with dodgy customer service. And that’s just one tip of a huge iceberg.

The fact is that there is a ton of fraud out there. It not just the internet but a lot of times the internet is involved in one way or another.

The internet is going to remain the world’s most popular “store” but it’s becoming more and more important to be extra-vigilant to decrease the “stranger danger” when shopping online.

What can you do? Be 100% sure you know who you’re buying from and be extra cautious when buying high-demand or emergency products online.

Watch for red flags and listen to your intuition on anything that seems too easy, too good of a find or too good of a deal. Be willing to walk away.

Look for opportunities to buy from local businesses with good local reputations. Most now have online stores with on-site pick-up and easy returns. Shopping locally online can be the best of both worlds – for you, the local retailer and the community too.

Nick Maffeo is the President & CEO of Canton Co-operative Bank in Canton. Have a question? Email to

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