You might think you’re getting a great deal, but if it looks too good to be true, it probably is
E-commerce isn’t exactly the Wild West of shopping, but it’s not too far off from that, either. Lots of legitimate-looking companies are selling counterfeit—and downright dangerous—products online. Here’s what to do if you’re injured by one of them.
The rise of e-commerce has revolutionized the way we shop. With a single click, we can have practically anything delivered to our doorstep, from gadgets to clothing. But what happens when a product turns out to be faulty, or worse—counterfeit? Let's dive deep into the realm of product liability as it relates to online shopping.
- 67 percent of adults ages 50 and older buy from online retailers.
- 40 percent of internet users purchase items online several times a month.
- 20 percent of internet users buy items or services online weekly.
- Millennials make 54 percent of their purchases online.
- 40 percent of American males ages 18 to 34 state they would “ideally buy everything online.” This is also true for 33 percent of females.
- Millennials ages 18 to 34 spend more money online than any other age demographic.
Source: George Washington University School of Business,
History of E-Commerce: Facts, Stats & Tips on What’s Next
The hazards of faulty and counterfeit online products
It used to be that if you wanted to shop online, you’d likely head to a website like Amazon (Amazon Prime debuted in 2005!). Gradually, other large retailers came online—with that, some saw an opportunity to sell knock-off (or counterfeit) goods at enticing prices.
What are counterfeit goods?
A counterfeit item is often sold at a fraction of the price of its “real” counterpart. However, it can be inferior in quality, potentially harmful, or does not meet safety standards.
Identifying counterfeit goods in e-commerce
For millions of people, online shopping is convenient and easy. But it also requires you to be a savvy consumer. Here's how you can determine if an item might be counterfeit and what to do if you suspect you've purchased a fake product.
Here’s how to spot a counterfeit product:
- Check the price
If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. If the price is dramatically lower than it is for the same or similar item elsewhere, it might be counterfeit.
- Review the seller's profile
Look for information about the seller, including their rating, reviews, and history on the platform. Unknown or new sellers with no feedback could be suspect.
- Inspect the product description and images
Counterfeit products often have low-quality images, typos, or inconsistencies in the product description.
- Compare with the official website
If possible, compare the product images and details with those on the official brand's website.
- Look for verification
Some online platforms have verification processes for authentic products. Look for badges or symbols that signify authenticity. You can also look at the manufacturer’s website to see if it lists other retailers that sell the item.
What to do if you suspect you’ve purchased a counterfeit item
- Contact the seller.
Inquire about a refund or replacement item.
- Report it to the e-commerce platform.
If you purchased through a site like Amazon and the seller is unresponsive, you can contact Amazon directly for assistance.
- Seek legal advice.
If the product cost you injury or financial loss, you can consult a lawyer to learn your options for financial recovery.
- Report to authorities.
In some instances, you might want to contact your local or state consumer protection agency. This is especially relevant if you believe you’re a victim of a scam.
Defective or faulty products
Even a legitimate (i.e. not counterfeit) item can be defective.
There are three ways a product could be defective. It can be from poor design, a manufacturing defect, or failure to warn about how to properly use the item or its hazards.
While it’s often not easy to make a claim for a product defect, it’s easier if you purchased the item in a brick-and-mortar store and it was manufactured in the U.S. by a reputable company. However, there are different considerations when the item was purchased through an e-commerce platform.
E-commerce platforms and product liability
Some e-commerce platforms are reputable and “safe”... right?
- Liability of an e-commerce platform
Most e-commerce platforms act as intermediaries. They host sellers but don't always take responsibility for the products sold. Therefore, you’d have to determine whether the platform itself sold the item or if it was actually coming from another seller. Usually you can read this in the “fine print” on the website. Many websites sell a combination of their own products and other retailers’.
- Terms of service (TOS)
Most e-commerce platforms have Terms of Service that limit their liability. These might be buried in the site, but you can often find them by searching the company’s name and “terms of service.” This section will define when the company is or is not liable for its sellers.
- Accountability of an e-commerce seller
Lawyers for some plaintiffs in e-commerce claims have said that if a platform is aware, or should have been aware, that it was selling counterfeit or defective products, it should be held liable.
Jurisdiction challenges in e-commerce product liability claims
The digital marketplace knows no boundaries, but legal jurisdictions do.
If a faulty product comes from overseas, which country’s laws apply? In other words, what if you purchased a defective product that was manufactured overseas from a U.S.-based online platform? A lawsuit is more difficult to file if the foreign manufacturer doesn’t have a physical presence in the U.S.
However, some international treaties and agreements can facilitate filing claims against foreign entities. This helps to hold a manufacturer accountable.
To file a claim in a U.S. court, the court must have personal jurisdiction over the foreign manufacturer. There must be tangible connection between the manufacturer and the state where the lawsuit is filed.
Alternatively, a U.S. resident can sometimes file a lawsuit against the local seller or distributor if they cannot sue the foreign manufacturer. This is a question for a qualified and experienced attorney.
What to do if you purchased a defective product online
- First, try to resolve the issue with the seller or platform.
Contact the seller, explain the issue, and allow them to rectify it. They might offer a refund, replacement or repair solution.
- If the seller is unresponsive, file a complaint with the platform.
Most e-commerce platforms have customer service departments that assist in resolving disputes.
- Gather and preserve evidence:
- Keep the defective product. Don't dispose of it, as it might be needed for examination.
- Document everything. Take photos of the defect, and keep all communication with the seller, receipts, and packaging.
- Write a timeline. Note all important dates and interactions related to the purchase and discovery of the defect.
- Consult a lawyer.
A personal injury lawyer can help you understand if you have a valid claim, will determine jurisdiction, and guide you through the process of filing a lawsuit.
The process of seeking recourse for a defective product bought online can be challenging. With the right evidence and legal guidance, you'll be better positioned to assert your rights. If you find yourself in this situation, don't hesitate to reach out to a personal injury lawyer who specializes in product liability. They'll work with you to explore your options and pursue the best course of action for your specific situation.