Is AliExpress Legit and Safe to Buy From?

What is Aliexpress? Is it safe to shop on? Are there any security risks? We shopped there several times and here’s what we found.

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 $75 billion in sales during the 11-day Singles Day event period in 2020.

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.

Hence, AliExpress products may look legit, but you’re not always getting a good deal.

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 directly, avoiding the retail mark-up added by a middle-man. How to Build a 4WD Arduino Robot for Beginners

The second possibility for an item being extremely cheap is that it’s 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.

Taken together, AliExpress offers some really good deals, but not all products are legit. 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 between a legit deal and a ripoff is crucial when buying something from AliExpress.

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. It’s also wildly inaccurate in my experience, so best ignored.

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, AliExpress increased the “Buyer Protection Time” to up to 90-days. That’s another way of saying you have to wait 90-days before getting a refund for something not delivered. Yes, three 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. Over half of the 30+ items we ordered during 11/11 sales arrived within two weeks.

Unfortunately, this also depends upon the shipping method used. In 2018, AliBaba launched it’s own shipping service, called Cainao, with their own warehouses and shipping partners in major countries. Cainao Global Economy, I have found, is utterly horrendous. Even if you’re notified that a package has arrived in your country, it can then sit in the Cainao warehouse for a month or more before finally being delivered. Of the three packages I’ve had delivered by Cainao, one took two and a half months to be delivered; one was lost (though I received a full refund).

AliExpress Standard Shipping on the other hand is usually delivered by Airmail, then the last mile is handled by your standard local mail service (Royal Mail in the UK, or USPS in the USA).

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 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 a few disputes 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. Other instances resulted in 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. You may also not be aware that sellers will attempt to bypass those taxes on your behalf, which is of course, illegal.

Nearly all countries have an import and/or value-added tax. This is a percentage value of the purchase price of the goods being imported that must be paid to your government when bringing something into the country.

In the EU, this is 20% VAT that’s levied on nearly everything. Delivery companies will pay on your behalf, then issue you the bill. They’ll also charge you a handling fee for the privilege. That’s usually 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.

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”, which means it can pass through customs checks without paying import duties. To be clear: this is illegal. You should pay your taxes. But unless you’re trying to pull off a large scale dropshipping fraud, it’s not the sort of illegal which will actually land you in trouble. After all, how were you to know the seller would mark the package with an incorrect value?

Also, as a general rule, if one were to deliberately try to avoid paying import taxes on their AliExpress shopping, they would opt for the slower, free shipping methods that are handled by your local mail courier. They either don’t care, or handle such a volume of packages that it’s not worth their effort to investigate the true value of every package.

Express package couriers such as DHL have much stricter rules, and refuse to carry packages marked as a gift or with an obviously low value. If something can only be shipped by express, factor in at least another 20-25% of the cost to pay on arrival before your package is released from customs.

What About AliExpress’s Quality of Goods?

In most cases, the goods you buy will be the same as those you find on the high street. However, sometimes you may find yourself unhappy with the product. Perhaps the thickness of material for that dress is not as you expected, or the colors are wrong. 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 got what you paid for.
  • You might be able to negotiate a partial refund. If your first instinct was to review the product as 1-star, this is probably 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 is expensive—often 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 and Fakes

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 had a massive data leak).

I’ve had various credit cards stored in my AliPay account for over a decade now, and never experienced fraud.

But Why is AliExpress so Cheap?

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.

You won’t typically find branded goods on AliExpress; they will almost certainly be fake.

Never Buy Branded Goods on AliExpress

Brands are offered special protection in most countries. You may not care if a product is legit or not, but 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.

The exception to this rule are Chinese brands, which will often have an official AliExpress storefront.

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.

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.

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.

How to Get a Refund on AliExpress

If a package just doesn’t arrive or you have some other issue, open a dispute with the seller. You start the process by using the “helpful” Eva customer service bot, located in the bottom right after you’ve logged into your orders overview page. Click the relevant problem from the choices given, and wait as the bot loads your orders.

At this point, it’s important to remember that the shipping time was extended to 90 days as of March 1st 2020. If your order is still within this delivery window, you will not be able to open a dispute.

If the delivery window has expired, or you’re reporting some other quality issue, Eva will ask you to confirm that you want to open a dispute; then the process of negotiating with the seller starts.

You can add evidence to support your claim if needed. The seller may reject your claim, or suggest some alternative, like a partial refund; which you can then accept or reject. This continues until both parties have accepted a resolution. If a resolution is not found within around 45 days (it’s not exactly clear how they derive this date), an AliExpress agent will then step in and make a judgement.

In the example above, the order was made in early November; one part of the order arrived in early December, and the seller was unable to provide tracking for the rest. AliExpress won’t step in until end of January.

While I’ve personally never had a refund request denied, it’s clear from hearing feedback of other users that new customers are treated differently to existing customers. If this is your first order, it’s possible that any refund request will be rejected, because AliExpress has no reason to keep you happy.

In this case, filing a chargeback on your credit card may be the only option.

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.

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