Not too long ago, most people were wary of purchasing things online. Sure, you might pop over to Amazon now and then to grab a book, but you'd never consider booking a vacation (that's what travel agents are for!) or buying clothes (you need to try those on!). But it's a different story now. Shipping and returns have become faster, cheaper and more flexible, and we're much more comfortable submitting credit card information online. If you have an Internet connection and don't live in the middle of nowhere, there's really no reason you even have to set foot outside anymore. You could easily have everything you need to survive shipped to your door.
Despite the ease of things – and besides the fact that you'd turn into a creepy hermit if you bought absolutely everything online – there remain a few items you're better off purchasing in person. Some things are just too important and personal to buy sight-unseen. Some might have exorbitant shipping costs. And unless you're very careful about the source, some could lead you into dangerous and possibly illegal territory.
The siren call of Internet deals can be tough to resist, though. So repeat this mantra, in online shopping as in life: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Anything From a Suspicious Site
There are things you shouldn't buy online, and there are also shady-looking sites you shouldn't buy from. You probably have dozens of reputable sites in your mental online shopping database, but every so often you'll come across an unbelievable deal on a site you've never heard of. Maybe the site will seem legit, but often it won't. Most of us have good enough radar that we immediately know a bad place when we see one. Outdated site design with an overwhelming variety of fonts, item descriptions in broken English, no contact information — these are the signs. No matter how good the deal is, just steer clear.
Another red flag is a lack of security. If you reach a page on which you need to enter payment or other sensitive information, always check if the URL begins with "https" instead of "http." No "s" means the site hasn't been secured and your information could be at risk of being stolen. Get out of there quick and don't look back.
There are plenty of trustworthy car-buying sites out there that have great shipping and return policies and reliable customer service. They're usually touted as a way to bypass pushy salespeople and all the haggling that comes with buying a car in person from a dealer. And we get it — the traditional method of buying a car is so needlessly stressful, it's easy to see why you'd want to avoid it. We don't doubt that many people are perfectly happy with the cars they bought online, sight unseen. However, you should take into account your comfort with ambiguity, and how much you value learning through firsthand experience.
There are so many things you can't know until you actually drive a car. Exactly how it feels and handles, how it smells, how much legroom there really is in the passenger seat. If it turns out you don't like it, you have to deal with returning it, which is a hassle no matter how great the return policy is. And if you didn't buy from a reputable place, well, things could get ugly.
It's definitely a good idea to price-shop online before you make any car-buying decisions, but buying one presents a significant set of concerns – and that's not even taking into account whether you're buying new or used.
Obtaining prescription drugs in the United States can be back-breakingly expensive if you don't have good insurance (or none at all). The lure of cheap online drugs, therefore, can be strong, and it's perfectly legal in the U.S. to buy your prescriptions from Canada or other countries. But the Internet prescription drug market, not surprisingly, is enormous and pretty seedy. In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pulled off a sting operation that targeted 9,600 online pharmacies and seized $41 million in illegal and counterfeit drugs [source: Edney].
There are legitimate online pharmacies, but so many of the illegal ones disguise themselves — through website design and URLs that are very close to those of well-known companies — that it can be very difficult to discern what's what. The red-flag rules we mentioned earlier obviously apply here, and you should also make sure that the site requires a signed prescription from your doctor. It's a bad sign if it doesn't. (Of course, it's great if you're trying to buy drugs without a prescription ... but not so great if you'd like to stay on the right side of the law.)
Bottom line, if you buy from a questionable online pharmacy, there's no way of knowing what you're getting, and those pills that show up in the mail could have an incorrect and potentially harmful chemical makeup. There's a reason the drugs are so cheap.
Illegal drugs are obviously something that, regardless of where you buy them, purchasing puts you at risk. The online market, however, seems to offer a safer, more convenient alternative to more traditional methods of obtaining drugs. Why pay a visit to your friendly neighborhood dealer when you can have everything delivered to your door, totally anonymously, with the click of a mouse?
There are any number of easily accessible websites that sell illegal drugs, but the real action is hidden in the deepest recesses of the Internet, which can be found only using advanced encryption software that makes you untraceable. The currency of choice on these sites is bitcoins, which adds another level of security. The FBI shut down the granddaddy of the black-market sites, Silk Road, in 2013, but dozens of others have sprung up in its place. So buying illegal drugs on line can be surprisingly easy, and it does seem secure. But that doesn't make it any more legal, and potentially more traceable by sophisticated law enforcement agencies. An online transaction is just as illegal as a handshake deal on a corner, and at the end of the day you'll still have no way of knowing if the product you receive is the real deal or something even more dangerous.
We all know there's no shortage of counterfeit and knockoff designer goods on the Internet. (Counterfeit items actually reproduce the designer's labels and symbols, while knockoffs don't. It's illegal everywhere to produce counterfeit designer goods, but it's perfectly legal in most places to buy them.) Whether it's ethical is another debate, but we're just here to make the case that buying them online is not a good idea.
For one, many knockoffs are sold on those unsecure sites that we warned you to run away from, and the sites selling illegal counterfeit goods are most definitely going to be of the shady variety. Who knows what these people will do with your credit-card information, and forget about being able to contact them if there's a problem (which there very well could be). If you do go through with the transaction, the item you receive could be of pretty poor quality. If you must buy knockoffs and counterfeits, you should at least handle and inspect them before you buy.
There are so many amazing online deals on appliances, this one might be impossible to resist. But for a number of reasons, buying them in-store is still a safer bet. So much could go wrong while shipping a refrigerator or dishwasher, and if it arrives damaged you'll have to work out how to return that enormous package — and you might have to pay for it if you can't prove when the damage occurred.
Service is another aspect to consider. If you buy in a store, you'll be able to talk to the salesperson about delivery, installation, returns and warranties. Online, you'll have to closely analyze the fine print, and you'll probably end up having to make a call or visit a store anyway if you need to clarify things. Check out the shipping costs, which could be pretty steep. Will you have to make your own arrangements for installation? The last thing you want is a massive refrigerator box on your doorstep and no way to get it inside. Your friends will probably not appreciate having to come over and help you drag it into your kitchen and then figure out how to install it. If you can't understand the setup instructions, you might have to hire someone to do it for you. All in all, it could be a whole lot of hassle for a small bit of savings.
Every niche market has its own obsessive Internet world, and there are hundreds that revolve around makeup. There's no end of makeup blogs, makeup reviews and makeup videos, many of them with links to sites where you can instantly snap up all the ingredients you need to look just like Elsa from "Frozen," or to re-create that smoky-eye tutorial you just watched. But without actually holding the products in your hand or, better yet, putting them on your face first, can you really know exactly what you're buying? Even different computer monitors can display colors differently, and not entirely true to life.
Of course, buying online is an excellent option if you're replacing or refilling items you've used before, but think twice before you drop $35 on a Chanel lipstick you've never tried. It might look beautiful on a model, but even if she seems to have the same coloring as you and the lipstick appears to be the perfect shade, your monitor could be throwing things off. Take the time to go to a specialty makeup shop or a department store and test it. It's definitely more time-consuming than getting it all with a couple of clicks, but it's more likely you'll be satisfied.
If you must have that lipstick immediately, make sure you read the return policy closely — opened makeup often isn't returnable.
This one belongs in the same category as cars: "Huge purchases that should be handled in person."
Purchasing a house can be such an involved, drawn-out, emotion-filled process that it's hard to imagine anyone buying one on the Internet without ever having laid eyes on it. It does happen, though, and it's becoming more common — investors and house flippers, for example, snap up properties at online auctions all the time. But that doesn't mean it's appropriate for everyone. For the most part, people buying houses online are professionals who have a detailed plan for getting the most bang for their buck out of this purchase. If you're thinking it might be an easy way to get a good deal for your own home, you might want to think again.
If you're mentally and financially prepared for the unseen costs of buying a house online, go ahead and take a shot at it. But however tempting it might seem to buy a home with your laptop, most of us should stick to the old-fashioned method: walking through and making sure everything's ship-shape before plunking down hundreds of thousands of dollars.
We'll preface this one by saying of course you can restock your favorite perfume or cologne if you see a good price online. Or maybe you've spritzed a particular fragrance onto your wrists at a department store and decide later that you'd like to purchase a bottle. In those cases, go ahead and grab one online.
But if you see a beautiful bottle of designer perfume online and are so intrigued by the description that you must have it? Hold that thought. Reading something like "top notes of ylang-ylang mixed with hints of bergamot and patchouli" can be inspiring, sure, but ultimately mystifying about what the perfume actually smells like. Unless you have a finely trained nose, you can't have a real idea of a fragrance until you actually put it on yourself — and it's not good enough to spray it into the air or smell it on a friend, either. The scent will change completely when it's on your body. And once you've opened it up and spritzed it, you're probably out of luck on a return. So always try a fragrance — ideally, let it linger for a few hours — before you buy.
Getting a pet can be a life-changing decision, and buying one can be easy to do online. If you've spent hours looking at pictures of adorable animals who need homes, it can be tempting to go ahead and grab one. It sounds a little crazy, but it is possible to have a dog or cat delivered to your home.
That's really not the best idea, though, as you need to be very careful about the seller. There are plenty of trustworthy rescue groups who will transport a needy pet to another state if they can't find a local adopter. We'd say in that kind of situation, go ahead and buy online. And there are many responsible breeders online, but unfortunately scammers and not-so-responsible breeders abound. It's imperative that you have a face-to-face meeting with the breeder and visit the facility to make sure you're not buying from a puppy mill or another disreputable place. If that's not allowed, stop the process right there (and report them to the Better Business Bureau). Online or not, never buy from an unethical animal dealer.
We can't imagine buying a pet without cuddling it first and hearing about its personality from a real, live person. (OK, we'll make an exception for fish.)
Telemarketers are making tons of illegal robocalls using falsified caller IDs. Learn more about the scam in this article at HowStuffWorks.
Although I've avoided most of the pitfalls in this list, I once made the ill-advised decision to buy custom bobbleheads of my children online. Red flags were everywhere, but I charged ahead. The 3-year-old somehow turned out looking like a middle-aged woman, and the then-bald baby had a full head of hair, but the manufacturer insisted on their accuracy. After months of exchanging angry emails, I'm proud to say that I got a refund without having to ship the faulty bobbleheads back to China. And then the 3-year-old broke them.
- The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Why You Should Never Buy a Puppy Online." (April 13, 2015) https://www.aspca.org/fight-cruelty/puppy-mills/why-you-should-never-buy-puppy-online
- D.K. "How Can You Buy Illegal Drugs Online?" The Economist, Aug. 25, 2013. (Aug. 2, 2015) http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/08/economist-explains-11
- Edney, Anna. "Crackdown on Online Pharmacies Nets $41 Million in Drugs." Bloomberg. June 27, 2013. (April 17, 2013) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-06-27/crackdown-on-online-pharmacies-nets-41-million-in-drugs
- Gaffney, Jacob. "5 secrets to winning online property auctions." Housing Wire. Jan. 17, 2014. (Aug. 2, 2015) http://www.housingwire.com/articles/28642-secrets-to-winning-online-property-auctions
- Gallardo, Stephanie. "5 Things You Should Never Buy Online." MSN. March 25, 2015. (April 13, 2015) http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/digitallife/5-things-you-should-never-buy-online/ar-BBits9J
- Power, Mike. "Life after Silk Road: how the darknet drug market is booming." The Guardian. May 30, 2014. (Aug. 2, 2015) http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/may/30/life-after-silk-road-how-the-darknet-drugs-market-is-booming
- Saranow Schultz, Jennifer. "The Legality of Buying Knockoffs." The New York Times. Oct. 28, 2010. (April 17, 2015) http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/28/the-legality-of-buying-knockoffs/?_r=0
- SSL.com. "How can I tell if a web page is secure?" (April 16, 2015) http://info.ssl.com/article.aspx?id=10068