AliExpress is the international arm of the Chinese retailing giant AliBaba, aiming to challenge online giants like Amazon and eBay.
But is it safe to shop there? How long will items take to arrive, and what happens if they don’t? Is AliExpress legit? And are you more likely to be the victim of fraud 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 $25 billion in sales on Singles’ Day (November 11) 2017.
AliExpress is Alibaba’s online consumer marketplace for international buyers (while TaoBao is for China). It allows small businesses in China to sell to customers all over the world. Just like Amazon, you can find just about anything there. Unlike Amazon, all of the sellers on AliExpress are a third party: AliExpress itself does not sell anything. They just provide the marketplace.
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. Why is this? 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 are quite a bit lower than in other countries. The lax enforcement of intellectual property laws may also contribute.
A lot of electronics (like this 4WD Arduino robot we built) have fantastic prices on AliExpress, because they’re made in China and you can buy them direct, avoiding the retail markup added by a middle-man.
The second possibility for an item being 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.
How Long Does AliExpress Take to Deliver?
All items on AliExpress have an estimated delivery time on the product page, and it’s usually anywhere from 20 to 60 days. Yes, two months is an awfully long time to wait for something you’ve bought online! In my experience, about two weeks is the average time it takes most items to arrive, but you certainly need patience to buy direct from China.
Be aware that this will be even slower at certain times of the year, like Chinese New Year (around the start of February), and Single’s Day (11/11). I once made the mistake of buying some Christmas presents during the Single’s Day sale: a few of them didn’t arrive until the middle of January.
Nearly all shipments (even those with free shipping) will have a tracking number once shipped, but it may take a week to actually dispatch before a tracking number is added. After that, you should be able to follow the package as it floats around various Chinese postal centers, and after a long wait, arrives in your local country’s customs clearance office.
If you don’t have a tracking number after 10 days, you should reach out to the seller. You won’t be able to open an official non-delivery dispute until the maximum delivery time has been exceeded though.
In six years and thousands of dollars worth of shopping on AliExpress, I’ve only had to open two cases for non-delivery. One could be tracked to my local customs office, but had been sitting there for a month. The seller offered to send it again, and sure enough, I actually received both packages about a month later. Another was never dispatched, and there was no tracking number. AliExpress issued a full refund.
The Hidden Cost of AliExpress: Import Taxes
If you’re new to having an item shipped to your country from abroad, you may not have a clear idea of the import taxes involved; or that sellers will often attempt to bypass those taxes on your behalf.
Nearly all countries have an import tax: a percentage value of the cost of the goods being imported that must be paid to your government when bringing something into the country.
In the EU, this is a 20% VAT that’s levied on nearly everything. It’s your legal responsibility to pay this, and the shipping company will pay on your behalf, then issue you the bill. They’ll also charge you a handling fee for the privilege; that’s another flat rate $10-15. Of course, this means that a $10 bargain gadget may not be such a bargain once the $2 tax and $10 handling fee is added on.
How to print cash courtesy of HMRC and Royal Mail. (1) Buy charity tee-shirt, cost £15.47. (2) Charge customs duty of £11.07 on it. Thieves!
— ??? (@waswasere) September 17, 2015
Many people are shocked to find these hidden charges, and end up leaving a bad review for the seller. As a consequence, you’ll find most sellers will automatically mark any packages as a low value “gift”, bypassing import duties. To be clear: this is illegal. You should pay your taxes. But unless you’re trying to pull off a large scale fraud, it’s not the sort of illegal which will actually land you in trouble.
Note that if you were trying to deliberately import something without paying the duty, you would need to do so using the slow, free shipping method. Express couriers like DHL have stricter rules and won’t carry packages marked as a gift. If something can only be shipped by express, factor in at least another 20% of the cost to pay on arrival before your package can be released.
What About AliExpress’s Quality of Goods?
In most cases, the goods you buy will be the same as those in the high street. However, sometimes you may find yourself unhappy with the product. For instance, perhaps the thickness of material for that dress is not as you expected. In that case, you should be realistic when contacting the sellers.
Unless there’s something specific in the listing that you can point to as being incorrect, simply not liking the goods you bought is not a good reason to demand a refund. So what can you do if you’re not happy?
- Chalk it up to experience, and don’t buy from that seller again. If the item was actually delivered, and the product description and photo are accurate, AliExpress themselves won’t assist.
- You might be able to negotiate a partial refund. If your first instinct was to review the product as 1-star, this is almost certainly no longer an option. Ratings are important, and may be your only bargaining tool.
- You might be tempted to return the goods, but be very careful with this. Shipping something back to China may cost more than you paid for the item in the first place, and that cost won’t be refunded. Tracking items sent back into China is unreliable at best, and sometimes they can just disappear entirely at the Chinese customs office.
Be realistic about the price you’re paying. Check out some YouTube videos for an idea of the kind of quality to expect (apparently, “AliExpress haul videos” is a thing now).
The Real Danger of AliExpress: 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 no 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 Chinese sites like 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
Scammers 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. For non-branded goods, savings of up to 75% compared to a high street retail store are not unusual.
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. Once you’ve marked an item as received, you have 15 days in which you can still open a dispute about the goods.
5. Never Buy Branded Goods on AliExpress
Branded goods are offered special protection in most countries. If you purchase fake goods, and your package is inspected, they will be seized. If you bought a lot of those goods and it looks like you might be trying to sell them on, expect a knock at the door from customs officials.
6. Be Careful With Storage and Memory Components
It’s a common scam even if you’re buying from a Shenzhen market stall, but even easier to pull off online. You buy a memory stick that reports itself to be 64Gb when put into Windows Explorer, but it’s actually a lot less. The firmware has been hacked, but you won’t know until you actually try to use the whole drive. The scammer is long gone with your money.
If you’re willing to risk it anyway, be sure to test the drive with a tool like h2TestW as soon as you receive it.
So, Is AliExpress Safe to Shop On?
The evidence suggests that shopping on AliExpress is indeed safe. However, be careful and be realistic. This is the same for any other online marketplace where also you need to think about how you can move beyond online reviews and shop smarter. 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.