How To Research An Unknown Online Retailer

So you just spotted that gizmo you’ve been lusting for at unbeatable price, but the only problem is it’s for sale at an online retailer you’ve never heard of. How do you know if they’re trustworthy? Consumerist reader “Gigantic Robotic Penguin” (don’t let the name turn you off) has put together a comprehensive guide to evaluating unknown online retailers. Get started snooping, inside…

All these steps add up to a matrix that can either reassure you or make you want to run the other way.

  • Do they have a toll free customer service number and published hours of operation?
  • Do they take credit cards? It is no guarantee of quality if they do, but it is one step up. I think you should generally avoid any place that only takes Western Union money transfers.
  • Do they have a security/hacker prevention or testing certificate?
  • Does the checkout process use an encrypted HTTPS page?
  • Are the company Privacy and About pages blank, or do they look like they are from a default template for an online shopping cart that was just set up the day before?
  • Search Google for the store name and words like “scam” and “customer service.” It is not a good thing if all the entries are for people asking if a site is a scam in Yahoo Answers.
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  • Check the Whois to see what the website registration looks like. It is not a good sign if it was just registered last week. It should not look like someone is trying to hide the fact that they are running a business out of their parents basement.
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  • Check the Traceroute to see what network it is running on. It should match the WhoIs info to some extent.
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  • Check if the company has a yellow pages listing and street address. If you have a phone number, a company with a street address is a lot more reassuring. Check the address on Google Maps to see if it is a vacant lot or an address in a housing tract.
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  • See if the site has a warning listed on McAfee SiteAdvisor.
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  • Check fraud and scam report sites. Some of them also list sites that have allegedly scammed other people.
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  • Beware of “Online Review” sites. Some are little more than a site for scammers to post fake positive reviews, and the owners to make money on banner ads. Here are some you can trust:
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  • BBB online. Lots of places do not have entries because they are small and treat their customers well enough to not get a complaint.
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    What techniques do you use to see if a site is legit? Share your thoughts in the comments.

    (Photo: Strobist)


    Edit Your Comment

    1. humphrmi says:

      This pretty much covers it for me, and a few new ones (thanks!)

      Actually I usually start by Googling the name of the company first, because if they’ve been bad enough to get ‘scam’ and other avoid-this-like-the-plague entries in the first page of Google, they are definitely off my list of who I’ll do business with. Then I dig a bit deeper with some of these techniques, because a lot of companies can load up the ratings sites with positive feedback.

      The worst I’ve had happen is a retailer that refused to reply to my e-mail after the sale (I was looking for a return; my own fault, bought the wrong thing) but at least I’ve never been ripped off.

    2. 11hawkinst says:

      Great Guide! I will always check this guide when I’m shopping an unknown retailer.

      Yeah, Yahoo Answers is not the place to see whether or not a website is a scam.

      I wish I had known this a while ago.

    3. lr0405 says:

      Excellent guide and thanks for the good links!

      Although I do try to stay away from any online retailers I’ve never heard of, (or my friends have heard of), sometimes a good price is too good to pass up and I’ll be sure to use your advice!

      Just one thing… is ‘quallity’ better than quality? :)

    4. trujunglist says:


      That’s double the amount for the same low price! (although L is now diluted)

    5. realjen01 says:
    6. jeffjohnvol says:

      My favorite is

    7. STROBIST says:


    8. ConsumptionJunkie says:


      The BBB is garbage.

    9. stan0614 says:

      WHOIS is a great tool. I had a problem with an EBAY seller. I used WHOIS to track down the address of the seller. Used to reverse lookup the phone number etc. I got a phone call within an hour.

    10. thisrobot says:

      a lot of credit card companies offer one time use credit card numbers, these can be very useful if the preceding tests give an inconclusive result.

      it’s also a good idea to test a retailer (buy something cheap) before dishing out the real bucks.

    11. clank-o-tron says:

      For the record, if you call yourself or your organization something as brilliant as “Giant Robotic Penguin”, I’ll pretty much trust you implicitly.

    12. Snowlovers says:
      Don’t just look at the rating, read all of the negatives and look for 1) a pattern of the same type of complaints and 2) how the company has responded (if at all).
      Basically the same way I look at a ebay seller’s ratings – except there you need to look at the retracted feedback too.

    13. yetiwisdom says:

      Great guide though a “a security/hacker prevention or testing certificate” is pretty meaningless and rogue sites routinely slap these up to fool people. Look for badges from established sites like Verisign & ShopZilla that actually click through to those sites’ profile pages for the vendor.

    14. madanthony says:

      One thing that can be kind of fun if you suspect a site is a scam is to take a line of text from their site (usually from their about us page) and copy and paste it into google. Often you will get the page that they ripped off when they copied their scam site.

      Yes, I have a very loose definition of fun. And no girlfriend.

    15. Keat says:


      One time use CC numbers should be used even at reputable retailers. You never know when one of them is going to suffer a security breach and millions of CC numbers are going to be stolen.

    16. I, for one, will be taking this guide very seriously. No…honest! :-)

    17. jermscentral says:

      I, for one, welcome David Hobby’s photo to Consumerist.


    18. GrandStan says:

      I, for one, use Bizrate (as listed above) or I’ll take a looksee at their storefront on Amazon (if they have one). I can check user ratings from there. Now, I know this last one sounds stupid (for what it’s worth Alex Albrecht of Diggnation fame endorses this one), but I take a good look at the design of the site itself. If it looks like it was just thrown up on the web in five minutes, then it probably was.

    19. eyeRmonkey says:

      I saw the photo for this article and got really excited because I thought it was an article about (the only other blog I read as avidly as I read Life Hacker). Too bad. Good article none-the-less.

    20. Consumerist Moderator - ACAMBRAS says:

      A click on the link crediting Strobist for the photo shows that Strobist has added the photo to the Flickr pool (where any Flickr user can share photos for possible use on

      If is opposed to this, please e-mail Ben Popken at

      Great photo, btw.

    21. Ben Popken says:
    22. Raul_Pevre says:

      Try and suss out who is a drop-ship company and who is selling from their own warehouse. I found out the hard way that is a drop ship company, in other words they’re pretty much going to pass the buck on any complaint you may have.

    23. mattbrown says:

      I have one condition: they take credit cards. A little while back, I experienced some fraud charges on my debit card (BoA). I called them, and they sent me a letter of affidavit to verify that the money I said was stolen, was stolen. Sent the letter, and got back my moneys.

      Then again, it’d be even easier to deal with eBay, and get a refund from PayPal or SquareTrade (done both myself).

    24. bahalana says:

      FYI, I have it on good authority that those “hacker safe” and other security badges mean absolutely nothing. The site pays a fee to use the badge, and there is not necessarily any actual testing or certification that occurs. In response to one commenter, the BBB is not “garbage”. True, if the business is not a member, there isn’t much they can do for you, but I check their databases on every firm I do business with because they do keep records on all complaints. The fact that a business is a member earns them brownie points in my book, because it indicates a certain willingness on their part to provide satisfaction, they will have a record, and there is a complaint resolution process through a third party.

      • ariven says:

        Well, the McAfee “hacker safe” flag costs around $1300 to get for a year (at least it was a couple years ago when I last looked at it)… so it is an indication that whoever is running the site has spent some money on it.. while it doesn’t preclude scammers from spending that much to simulate legitimacy.. the guy who slaps a quick site up is less likely to do so.

    25. past says:

      The picture you used creeps me out beyond words.

    26. geekender says:

      How about

    27. faust1200 says:

      @past: Ya mac users give me the willies also.

    28. mduser says:

      @Snowlovers: I do that on, I’ll look at the ratings of a product on the front page (typically they show good ones), then I’ll look at the 1 and 2 star reviews to see why there were people that hated it.

    29. pandroid says:

      I would disagree with part of the list, slightly. The more of niche market you get into, the more likely it is that not all of those conditions will be met. I have a family member who runs a small online business out of their home, and they don’t have a 1-800 number, for instance. And they’re just not big enough to warrant reviews on anyone’s website. But they do run everything fairly and above board, and offer good deals on their products. So keep in mind the size of the industry and the business may impact how much of the list is reasonable.

    30. vitozilla says:

      everyone using firefox should download the netcraft toolbar. They have a risk rating of sites so if some of the bar or all is red then there have been complaints about the site. it also shows the site rank what country the site is in and the host. i’m looking at the consumerist which was established in Nov. 1999 rank: 4628 you can get a site report which is kinda like a whois and you guys are in the U.S. and Datagram, Inc. is the host. also my ip for firefox tells you the ip of the site and if you right click you can traceroute, whois, and other things. this helps me out since i use stumbleupon alot and stumble on cool stuff i want to buy but from places i never heard of before.

    31. gparlett says:

      I don’t by video or photo gear from Brooklyn. On several occasions I have found prices to good to be true, however when I attempted to actually purchase the item, they sent an email saying they had to call to verify the credit card information. When they called they attempted to sell me all kinds of extras at grossly inflated prices. The first time I was totally unprepared and they called me at work and I fell for it, spent nearly a hundred more than I should have. The second time I turned down every extra and was finally told that the item they were selling me was gray market and would not work in the US. They quoted me a price on a regular item which was several hundred above market. I doubted they actually had any gray market video cameras in stock so I pressed for the original price and was finally told that they were canceling the order and hung up on unceremoniously.

      I don’t know whats special about Brooklyn, but theres a whole group of companies from down there that do this.

    32. actmnophn says:

      I just check if any of the big name stores like staples has the same item then i buy it as a pricematch. I pay the cheap price and get the (small ammount of) security of the name brand stores.

    33. econobiker says:

      @pandroid: Echoing what you said, if it is a niche market you should search the forums servicing that hobby or requirement for burned customers or people complaining about the seller. If the seller is active in that niche they will either have responded to the forum complaint or you will have your answer in regards to their trustworthiness.

      I saw this go down once on the forum where a supposed engine/customizing shop was outed for ripping off the performance car parts of a guy who had sent his car for a customizing job. He was able to track down the closed down shop’s owner through help from the board using techniques described above and got his car back but it was just a shell by that time. A police report for that town took it from there…

    34. yukonrye says:

      My wife almost purchased a Canon XTi DSLR camera from an online retailer called “Best Price Camera”. She found a link to them from a list of vendors listed on CNet. They even had 5000+ positive feedbacks. Luckily before she did I checked and found out the place was a giant scam. They had multiple online stores, all with different names. EVERY store had at least 5000+ positive feedback ratings. What they would do is get you to buy the camera online (often advertised for at least $100 less than others retailers) and call you back to up-sell you on lenses and accessories. If you refused any of this they would call you back and tell you the camera was on indefinite backorder or they would just cancel the order all together.

      If you find a price that is well below the average for a new item. Research the hell out of who is selling it.

    35. azpat says:

      I always do a search for “XYZCompany sucks”

    36. hellbent says:

      another vote for

    37. Alan Thomas says:

      I don’t do a lot of research, althogh I do rely on froogle/google ratings a lot. I prefer shops that take Google Checkout, but ultimately the risk isn’t mine so much as it belongs to the credit card company.

    38. prodport says:

      I also like to look at to see how old the domain is and any registration info. I also cross-check with to see who else is on the same server. Not always a correlation, but you can get an idea of the neighborhood.

    39. Love2Scuba says:

      One more idea, see if they take PayPal. Even if you are not a huge fan, PP offers buyer protection up to $2k. PP also shuts down merchants who are fraudulent or who get too many complaints.

    40. Anonymous says:

      In response to where to buy a digital camra online, I’ve been using with the very best results.
      Their return policy is the best ever!.. and that’s what its all about!.. I’ve returned some items to them including digital camera’s with no problems. Also, B&H in New York City is also another great choice!..only problem with B&H is you may have to pay sales tax.I’ve purchased from them and also returned items to them with no problems. Just as long as the item was returned within a fourteen day period from purchase date.