The Chinese online retailer Alibaba is using AliExpress to expand its reach outside of Asia and challenge online giants like Amazon and eBay… but is it safe to shop there? Are there any security vulnerabilities you should know about? Is AliExpress secure? And are you more likely to be the victim of fraud or counterfeiting if you shop there? Here are the answers you need.
What Is AliExpress?
If you’re not familiar with AliExpress, here’s a quick primer: it’s a huge online retailer owned by The Alibaba Group, a multi-billion dollar corporation that started as a business-to-business buying and selling portal. It has since expanded to business-to-consumer, consumer-to-consumer, cloud computing, and payment services, as well.
To give you an idea of just how big Alibaba is, they reported over $14 billion in sales on Singles’ Day, 11 November, 2015.
AliExpress is Alibaba’s online marketplace aimed primarily at international buyers. It allows small businesses in China to sell to customers all over the world, and, just like Amazon, you can find just about anything there. It might be more accurate to compare AliExpress to eBay, though, as sellers are independent; it simply serves as a host for other businesses to sell to consumers.
Why Is AliExpress So Cheap?
If you browse some of the products on AliExpress, you’ll probably notice right away that many of the prices are really low and wonder why. There are two different distinct possibilities, both of which you’ll find in abundance on the site.
First, there’s the possibility that you’re buying directly from a manufacturer, which reduces the cost of selling to you. Costs for production in China, in many cases, are quite a bit lower than they are in other countries, and the lax enforcement of intellectual property laws may also contribute. A lot of electronics (like the 4WD Arduino robot I built) have fantastic prices on AliExpress, because they’re made in China and you can buy them direct.
The second possibility that an item is extremely cheap is that its either counterfeit or fraudulent (or semi-fraudulent, as in the case of the GooPhone I5). China is known as a hotbed of counterfeit production, and AliExpress is no exception. You can get all sorts of counterfeit items there, from electronics to clothing. Some sellers have also been known to defraud buyers by tricking them into paying before they receive an item and then disappearing with the money.
Of course, being able to tell the difference is crucial.
Security Vulnerabilities in AliExpress
Over the past few years, only one high-profile security vulnerability has been revealed in AliExpress. Last year, there was a cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerability discovered — the same problem that eBay is having right now. This vulnerability would have allowed attackers to reveal some browsers’ personal information, and the researchers behind the revelation made it clear that a huge amount of data could have been scraped very quickly if the bug hadn’t been caught.
Beyond that, I haven’t been able to find reports of any vulnerabilities in AliExpress’s systems. Of course, not every vulnerability would be publicized, but this most recent XSS problem is by far the most glaring error on the record. And, according to the researchers who discovered the vulnerability, once AliExpress was made aware of it, they took it seriously and fixed it quickly.
Unfortunately, the researchers also reported that it took them a very long time to get in contact with anyone at the company, which is worrying, especially given the seriousness of the vulnerability.
Because AliExpress relies heavily on Alipay, Alibaba’s international payment system, there’s potential cause for worry there too, but Alipay also seems to be well-secured. After a vulnerability was reported in its mobile app that allowed in-app phishing, it fixed the issue in about six weeks. Not stellar as fast as issue-fixing speed goes, but still not terrible.
The Real Danger: Fraudsters
AliExpress and Alipay are solid systems when it comes to security. They’re not invincible, but nothing is — and their track record is a good one, so you can be confident that you’re not more likely to have any of your information stolen via one of these services than you are using a more familiar service like Amazon or eBay (remember, even eBay has had a massive data leak).
However, there is one gaping hole in AliExpress: the merchant approval process. I can’t say what sort of process there is, as only merchants from mainland China are allowed to sell on the site, but there have been a lot of reports of scams on the site. So many, in fact, that the AliExpress Security Center has a section of fraud case studies and tips on how to avoid fraud when buying from their site.
So how do you stay safe from fraudsters and scammers when shopping on AliExpress? The same way you do everywhere else. Here are four tips — if you follow them, you should have no problems.
1. If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
This is how scammers get you; they reel you in with the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime deal (this is one of the strategies used in the recent spate of eBay fraud). Check other sites to see what the going rate is for whatever you want to buy to make sure that the price on AliExpress isn’t far too low. If it is extremely low, you’re probably buying a counterfeit product or being set up for a scam.
2. Use Alipay’s Escrow service.
Escrow protects you in a number of ways. First, your credit card details aren’t given to the seller, so you don’t have to worry about them stealing your identity or going on a shopping spree with your card. Second, the payment isn’t released to the seller until you’ve confirmed that you’ve received your purchase. So if you get scammed, you can just get an easy refund from AliExpress, and not have to go through the long, painful, and probably hopeless refund process with the seller.
3. Check the seller’s feedback before buying.
If a seller has a bad reputation for defrauding buyers, there will likely be evidence in their feedback and reviews. Be wary of sellers with any mentions of not delivering or sending sub-par goods. In the time I’ve spent on AliExpress, I’ve seen mostly positive reviews, and I’ve never had a problem getting what I’ve ordered. But it’s still important to be on the lookout.
4. Check your order carefully when you receive it.
Because the escrow system allows you to withhold payment until you’ve received your order, you can confirm that you got what you paid for. Make sure everything is included, that it looks like what you ordered, and that, if you bought a brand-name item, it doesn’t look like a fake.
AliExpress: Safe If You’re Careful
When it comes down to it, the evidence says that shopping on AliExpress is indeed safe, as long as you’re careful, and this is the case with any other online marketplace. Some, like Amazon, offer you more protections than others, but if you’re willing to pay attention to what you’re doing to save a lot of money, AliExpress is a fantastic option.
Do you shop on AliExpress? What has your experience been? Have you ever had to request a refund? Share your experiences in the comments below!