Stolen Goods Online: 8 Red Flag Warning Signs

Can you get your money back if you buy stolen goods on the Internet?: Internet Scambusters #603

Stolen goods are on offer and bought every day on the Internet.

So, how can you spot them before falling victim? And if you do buy a stolen item, what should you do?

It’s not all good news — but we have the answers in this week’s issue, along with a warning of a new scam targeting iTunes users.

Before we begin, you may want to spend a moment looking at this week’s most popular articles from our other sites:

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Now, here we go…


Stolen Goods Online: 8 Red Flag Warning Signs


You might have seen news reports a few weeks ago about Federal authorities charging three people in connection with the sale of more than $7 million of stolen goods on eBay.

The scale of the alleged crime might have been surprising — it was said to have run for 10 years and netted around $4 million — but there’s certainly nothing unusual about the sale of stolen items online.

Online shoppers find themselves victims of this crime every day and police have specially trained squads who constantly scrutinize sales sites looking for the proceeds of burglary and theft.

Law enforcement organizations also have access to a national database of missing items, including their serial numbers.

So, what can you do to avoid buying something that’s stolen? And if you do buy something in good faith that turns out to have been stolen, what are your options?

Red Flags

Though you can’t always be certain whether an item being offered for sale online is stolen, there are a number of warning signs that should put you on your guard.

For instance:

  • The price is extremely low. Check prices of similar items that have already been sold. This is easily possible on eBay by clicking on “sold listings” in the left-hand panel of the product listings page.

  • There is no detail with the listing, just a plain statement of what it is. Before making an offer, contact the seller for details about condition, how long they’ve owned it and why they’re selling.

  • The description claims the item was “found.” Despite the saying, finders are not keepers without first following a process that includes reporting the find to police.

  • If it’s a computer, tablet or smartphone, the description says the item is password locked. The seller may claim they forgot the password.

  • The seller has little or no positive feedback, or their existing feedback is for a handful of very cheap items. Crooks use this cheap product feedback to build up their credibility record.

  • In an online classified site the seller is from out of town and is cagey about giving you any contact information. Usually they don’t want to meet, but if they do it’ll be away from their home.

    From a personal safety point of view, meeting in a public place like a mall or coffee shop is actually a wiser action than going to someone’s home. But request their name and home address anyway (which you might be able to confirm online) and ask them to bring some personal identification with them, like a driver’s license or proof of ownership.

    If they make excuses, it’s best not to buy.

  • They also cannot provide proof of ownership, such as a receipt or product registration record. If it’s a private seller, ask if they have a receipt.

  • The seller asks you to pay with an untraceable money wire or a cashier’s check, and will not accept credit cards or PayPal.

Individually, some of these red flags may not indicate that a product has been stolen but they should put you on your guard, especially if there are multiple red flags.

If you know or suspect an item may have been stolen, don’t buy it because you could be committing an offense.

What If You Buy A Stolen Item?

First, let us make an important disclaimer: Scambusters does not provide legal advice. Our reports are purely for information and we don’t accept liability for any actions you take.

Also, we don’t have the resources to answer your questions. If you find yourself in a situation involving stolen or suspicious goods, you should get appropriate legal advice.

So, having said that…

First, if you buy a stolen item in good faith and behave honestly when you discover the theft, you are unlikely to be in trouble with the law.

Behaving honestly includes reporting it to the police or confirming you have it and cooperating with them if the police contact you — but make sure it is the police who are contacting you, not a scammer!

Second, a stolen item still belongs to the person it was stolen from, not you, and the police will almost certainly want to return it to them.

Third, you can try to get your money back.

If you bought it from someone who also didn’t know it was stolen, they may refund your money when they find out.

If they won’t, you can try the disputes procedure on the selling site, or check if the purchase is covered by the terms of any buyer protection program they have.

If you paid by credit card, your card company might be prepared to help but company policies vary.

In all cases, the time between when you buy the item and discover it’s stolen can be critical. Too long (usually more than 30 days after purchase) and they’re unlikely to help.

One of the most contentious issues is whether the selling site should compensate duped buyers if the money can’t be recovered from the seller.

Unlikely. Think of it like this:

Suppose you saw a card advertising a product for private sale on the community board in your local supermarket.

If you buy it and it turns out to be stolen, should you expect the supermarket to cover your losses?

We think not. So don’t be surprised if, when you contact the selling site, you don’t get your money back.

Most online organizations do their best to try to prevent stolen items from being listed in the first place, and they work closely with police to nab suspects.

But, like the grocery store, they probably won’t dip into their own pockets to compensate the purchaser of a stolen product.

It truly is a case of “Buyer Beware.”

Alert of the Week: If you use iTunes, beware of a new phishing email disguised to look like it’s from Apple, saying someone has accessed your account from an unauthorized computer and your account has been frozen.

It asks you to click a link that takes you to a phony iTunes page where you’re supposed to enter all your account details.

If you have any questions/concerns about your iTunes account, don’t click links; go straight to iTunes.

That’s it for today — we hope you enjoy your week!