Survey Says: Online Shopping Scam Fears Exceed Reality

Picture this: You’re going back and forth online with someone selling a great couch in nearly new condition. Everything in the listing looks good. The seller is only accepting serious offers, so they require half the amount upfront as a deposit ahead of pickup. You quickly send the deposit out of fear of being outbid.

The next thing that happens? Poof. The seller disappears, the listing is gone, and you don’t know how to get your money back.

Unfortunately, online shopping scams like this are prevalent in the U.S. According to the FTC, online shopping issues were the second most reported fraud category in 2023. These scams can occur on many platforms, including social media. The FTC also reported that online shopping was the most common social media scam from January 2023 to June 2023.

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We surveyed 1,088 U.S.-based adults to learn about Americans’ biggest fears surrounding online shopping scams (specifically, peer-to-peer transactions) and the steps they take to protect themselves and their information.

Note: “Online marketplaces” in this study refer to any platform where a peer-to-peer online transaction can occur. This includes peer-to-peer platforms like Craigslist and OfferUp, as well as social media platforms with peer-to-peer transactions like Facebook Marketplace, Instagram Shop, and TikTok Shop.

Key Takeaways

  • When shopping on online marketplaces, more than half (55%) said they feared receiving fake or incorrect products, despite only 15% experiencing this in the past year.
  • 98% of respondents have at least one fear about shopping on online marketplaces.
  • The top three anxiety-inducing online shopping scenarios were paying on sites that lacked secure encryption (22%), clicking on unsolicited offers via email or text (21%), and completing peer-to-peer transactions (17%).
  • Less than a third (29%) of Americans are comfortable spending more than $100 on an online marketplace without first researching the seller.
  • More women than men take more safety precautions when shopping in online marketplaces.

Online Marketplace Fears Outweigh Actual Experiences

We asked respondents about their fears and experiences when shopping online. Our survey revealed that 55% feared receiving fake or incorrect products, even though only 15% had experienced that in the past year. All other answer choices also saw a similar trend between fears and experiences.

Additionally, 38% said they had not experienced any online marketplace issues on our list despite 98%  having at least one fear of shopping on online marketplaces.

Respondents most commonly experienced sellers misrepresenting the item’s condition (21%), and this was the second most common fear regarding online shopping (51%).

With the prevalence of Craigslist scams, Instagram scams, and seemingly every other scam in between, it’s understandable to feel apprehensive when buying something from an online marketplace — regardless of your personal experience.

Women Have More Online Marketplace Fears Than Men

When digging into differences between genders, we learned that a higher percentage of women have fears when shopping in online marketplaces than men.

When focusing only on fears, we found that men and women shared the same top three:

  1. Buyers receiving a fake/incorrect product (51% of men vs. 58% of women)
  2. Sellers misrepresenting the item’s condition (47% of men vs. 55% of women)
  3. Sellers disappearing after receiving payment (45% of men vs. 55% of women)

Both men and women were more afraid of product- and scam-related issues like these rather than issues related to fraud.

Focusing on product specifics in the short term is reasonable, but neglecting to protect your personal information can open the door to issues like synthetic identity theft and other types of identity theft.

Americans Stand Divided on the Most Anxiety-Inducing Transactions

We also asked respondents about the shopping scenario that makes them the most anxious. Peer-to-peer transactions made the top three for all respondents (17%). However, there was no clear majority winner among the choices presented.

Given the fears and cautiousness most had and the prevalence of online scams, it’s natural to see that each scenario was a nerve-wracking option.

Less Than a Third Would Take Their Chances With High-Priced Online Purchases

We asked respondents how much they’d be willing to spend on an online marketplace without looking up the seller’s reputation, and only 29% said they would be willing to pay more than $100.

With prices for everything continually rising, losing only $50 in a fraudulent online transaction can be a big hit to a person’s budget. Smaller losses also happen more frequently. The FTC received the most fraud reports in Q4 2023 for losses ranging from $1–$1,000.

When comparing respondents who selected this answer, more women (61%) than men (39%) said they would only be comfortable spending less than $50, once again showing that women prefer to be safe than sorry.

Women Are Taking More Safety Precautions Than Men

Our survey revealed that many respondents engage in several safety precautions. Below are the results for all respondents:

  • Check buyer reviews: 47%
  • Meet in public for the exchange: 40%
  • Find seller’s social media profiles for a matching name and photos: 38%
  • Compare price to similar listings: 35%
  • Look up email or username to confirm who they are: 31%
  • Look up a phone number to confirm it’s real: 29%
  • Request more photos of the item from different angles: 27%
  • Look up their address to confirm they live there: 28%
  • Reverse image search to find other listings: 23%
  • Confirm employment details via LinkedIn or similar source: 17%
  • None of the above: 7%

When taking a closer look at the data, we found that a higher percentage of women than men admitted to engaging in most safety precautions when shopping on online marketplaces — with a few exceptions.

More men said they would compare prices to similar listings (36% of men vs. 34% of women) and reverse image search product photos to find other listings (26% of men vs. 19% of women). Only 17% of men and 17% of women said they would confirm employment details via LinkedIn or a similar source.

More popular safety precautions, like checking buyer reviews and meeting in public for the exchange, had a higher percentage of women than men choosing that answer.

Men and women’s top safety precaution was checking buyer reviews (42% of men vs. 52% of women). Although past buyers’ experiences can shed some light on a seller, looking up information about the seller can help clue you in on potential red flags.

For example, searching their name, email address, or username can help you find out what they’ve been posting on other sites (and if they’ve had complaints on other platforms).

Despite the difference between the percentage of women and men selecting safety precautions, the top safety precautions generally remained the same.

How to Avoid Online Shopping Scams

Although many of our respondents have been lucky enough not to fall victim to online shopping scams, many Americans weren’t as lucky. There were more than 368,000 reports of online shopping and negative reviews fraud last year, with 53% of reports including money loss.

Whether you’ve experienced scams yourself or want to avoid becoming a statistic, there are many steps you can take to get ahead of potential scams. This includes precautions that many of our survey respondents practice:

  • Checking buyer reviews for signs of ongoing issues or warnings from past buyers.
  • Comparing the price in the listing to similar listings to check if you’re getting overcharged.
  • Requesting more photos of the product to confirm they have the product and to check its condition.
  • Searching for the product photos in an image search to see if the lister potentially stole it from another listing.
  • Looking up information provided to confirm the seller’s identity and to check if their information appears elsewhere for negative reasons. For example, you can look up their username to find reviews on other online marketplaces.

People search engines are also a powerful tool to help you get proactive about potential online shopping scams. With Spokeo, you can confidentially find information about people, from their social media profiles to available phone numbers.

Use Spokeo’s people search engine before your next peer-to-peer purchase to learn about who you’re buying from before it’s too late.

Methodology

The survey of over 1,088 U.S. residents aged 18+ was conducted via SurveyMonkey Audience for Spokeo on April 8, 2024. Data is unweighted, and the margin of error is approximately +/-3% for the overall sample with a 95% confidence level.

The breakdown of people surveyed was as follows:

Age ranges:

  • 18-29 – 17%
  • 30-44 – 30%
  • 45-60 –  31%
  • > 60 – 22%

Gender:

  • Female – 47%
  • Male – 53%

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