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How to Shop Online and Not Get Ripped Off

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Shopping online can feel like magic. A couple of clicks and a few days later, a box is on your doorstep. But it can also feel like playing a game of digital dodgeball. Shoppers must tread carefully to avoid the fake reviews, unsafe or mislabeled products, or counterfeit goods hiding behind legitimate-seeming listings.

That’s because we are living in the Marketplace Era. Third-party sellers peddle their wares via the digital bazaars of Amazon , Walmart , Target—and now even Urban Outfitters and J.Crew. The deal could be seen as a win-win: Customers get a larger selection of products and retailers get a cut of more sales. The problem? It adds a layer of mystery for shoppers. Instead of buying from that site you know, you’re buying from a seller you don’t know, and often it’s a product whose brand you’ve never heard of.

Plus, policies for returns and refunds might be different than items sold directly by the site. Most don’t vet third-party products for quality. And the competition between sellers is so intense, many manipulate their listings to boost ratings.

After years of covering the ways in which marketplaces can be manipulated, I’ve developed three key tenets for shopping on the internet:

• Know who is selling what you’re buying.

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