Aliexpress offers deals on hard-to-find items at unbeatable prices. It also offers deals on ordinary items at lower prices than usual, because it’s coming straight from China, with fewer middlemen. But is Aliexpress safe?
Aliexpress does offer buyer protections. But being overseas and dealing with overseas shipping times does mean Aliexpress is inherently riskier from buying from online sources that are closer to you.
What is Aliexpress?
Aliexpress is a division of Alibaba, the sixth-largest technology company in the world. Alibaba operates a consumer website in China that’s essentially the Chinese equivalent of Amazon or Ebay. Aliexpress is the version of that site for customers wanting to order from overseas.
You can think of it as an Amazon or Ebay that exclusively sells cheap Chinese goods. The difference is it’s all fixed-price, with no auctions, like Amazon, but it’s all third-party sellers, like Ebay.
But if third-party sellers on Amazon and Ebay have a poor reputation, Aliexpress is worse. Some Youtubers will order something from Aliexpress just to make a video about it, and you can tell from the beginning what their expectations are. Usually they aren’t high.
My experience with Aliexpress
I ordered some tin buildings from Aliexpress, intending to use them on my train layout. The price was much lower than I typically pay, and the designs were attractive and I’d never seen them before. The only drawback was the slow shipping. But I’ve ordered lots of stuff from overseas off Ebay before and it always eventually showed up, so why not?
Well, this one never showed. And unfortunately, with Aliexpress, you have a very limited time to file a complaint. About six weeks after I ordered I realized my buildings had never shown up, and I had no recourse. The seller ignored me, and so did Aliexpress. I wasn’t out a huge amount of money, but the principle stinks.
The other problem with Aliexpress is that of counterfeit or substandard goods. You can get hard to find computer chips, like MOS 6526 CIA and 6581 SID chips and Yamaha OPL3s more cheaply off Aliexpress than you can locally. Or, even if the price isn’t that much better, the selection sure is. A lot of e-waste ends up in China, and they harvest the chips off the boards, clean them up, and resell them. But sometimes the chips were substandard, or they get relabeled, so you get a chip that doesn’t work.
Counterfeit or substandard chips from Aliexpress seem to happen a lot, calling into question how safe Aliexpress really is.
Why Aliexpress has a reputation for being not safe
Aliexpress has a reputation for not being safe because my story is hardly unique. Almost every retro computer enthusiast I follow on Youtube has a story of buying a chip from Aliexpress for a project that didn’t work. In other cases, the chip worked, but had been tampered with. Sometimes sellers will grind off the writing on the top of the chip and repaint it to make it look better, a process known as remarking. But sometimes the remarking is nefarious, to make it look like something it isn’t, or a rarer or more desirable version of the chip.
Original printing on a genuine chip will hold up to a solvent like alcohol or acetone. The printing on a remarked chip frequently doesn’t.
This experience hasn’t soured all of them on Aliexpress. But if all of this doesn’t scare you off, you need to shop with a heightened sense of caution.
Staying safe on Aliexpress
When you pay on Aliexpress, use a credit card. Ideally use a card you’ve used before, and that has sided with you in a dispute before. Put a reminder on your calendar for a week and two weeks after you order to check on the status. E-mail confirmation that your payment has been processed can take more than a week. When you finally get your confirmation, it will give you a date when your right to dispute the order expires. The date varies, but it can be as little as 30 days. Set another calendar reminder for the day before that date. If the order hasn’t arrived by then, get your dispute in. That way your credit card is your backup plan, not your only recourse.
If your order arrives, check the item right away to make sure it’s at least initially good and keep the calendar reminder. If something’s wrong, file your dispute right away. If something goes wrong before your time runs out, file a dispute as soon as you notice.
Also check with your credit card company to see what additional protections they offer. Some do, though the protections they offer will vary.
If this sounds like a lot of trouble, it is. That’s why more often than not I order my cheap stuff from China off Ebay, even if it costs me a little more.
How disputes work on Aliexpress
Disputes on Aliexpress are a three-step process.
- First, contact Aliexpress support to report the problem with your order. Support will contact the seller, who has the option to rectify the situation.
- If the seller refuses to help, open a dispute with Aliexpress.
- If the seller does not respond to the dispute, then Aliexpress will return your money. It can take up to 15 days to get your money back.
The process can drag out a while, as you can see. Contrary to some who insist Aliexpress is safer than Ebay, whenever I’ve had problems on Ebay or Amazon, I’ve generally gotten my money back in a matter of a couple of days. Sometimes it’s faster than that. In the case when I bought a fake Babe Ruth baseball card, I got my money back very quickly with almost no hassle.
Maybe I’m talking about convenience more than I am about safety. But getting my money back quickly on a bad purchase is worth something.
Vetting the product
You’ll definitely want to look at the product carefully to ensure you’re buying what you think you’re buying. Look at the photos, and look for listings that don’t appear to just be stock photos. Also be careful of the reviews. Sometimes the reviews are scraped from other sites, and they may or may not even be for the product in question. So don’t buy something just because it has a bunch of positive reviews. Make sure the reviews are relevant. If it seems sketchy, move on.
Then there’s the problem where sometimes they send you a different product from what you ordered. You might or might not care, if the product is functionally identical to what you expected. If it’s not, you have reason to be upset, and it happens often enough that you should be prepared to handle it.
Vetting members to find safe Aliexpress sellers
Unfortunately not everyone is honest. The majority of Ebay and Amazon sellers are, but there are some fraudsters there. The same goes for Aliexpress. When you’re shopping for an item, be sure to vet the seller before you buy. There are four things you should look for.
Positive feedback percentage
Avoid sellers with very little feedback, or a high percentage of negative feedback. I sold on Amazon for years, so I can tell you it’s not super hard to maintain 98% positive feedback. Some small percentage of people are unhappy with whatever you do, but if your stuff is what you say it is, you ship your stuff within two business days of the order being placed, pack it decently and respond to questions within one business day, you’ll have 98-99% positive feedback.
While it’s true unhappy customers are much more likely to speak up than happy customers, people like to brag on their purchases. When they find something that was hard to find and get a good price, they want people to know about it. Sometimes with a religious fervor. So you’ll be able to find good sellers on Aliexpress, the only question is whether you can find good sellers selling whatever it is you’re looking for.
Look for seller ratings of at least four stars. This indicates a better-than-average seller. Avoid sellers with much less than that.
Also look at the seller’s history. A seller with a 12-month track record is much safer than an upstart. Also check the recent ratings compared to historical ratings. If a seller’s track record for the last 30 days is significantly different from their long-term track record, you might want to look elsewhere. Look for consistency. For a safe buying experience on Aliexpress or anywhere else, a consistently good track record is essential.
What’s in a name?
Also avoid sellers with long, random names, especially names that are mostly numbers. That’s a sign of a bot that’s just listing to collect money and hope that enough people forget about the order (like I did with my tin buildings) to make a little money before getting kicked off. Just like anywhere else, look for non-random names that look like they mean something.
Look at what guarantees the seller offers. The more guarantees the seller gives, the safer the experience. Some sellers do the minimum. But high achievers have a choice of offering on-time delivery, the ability to return and get a refund, the ability to return in your own country, and a guarantee of authenticity. Given the choice between a seller who guarantees nothing and a seller who offers one or more guarantees, favor the one with guarantees for a smoother experience. Even if it means paying a bit more, it’s probably worth it.
One last thing before clicking buy: Is it cheaper?
Aliexpress has a reputation for being cheaper than anywhere else. But before you buy, make sure you’re actually getting a great price. Shop around. Sometimes you can find a better price elsewhere, even on Amazon and Ebay, and then you have the benefit of their better buyer protection. Once a place has a reputation for selling at a discount, people will naturally assume all of its prices are great, even when they might not be. That’s an old, old trick at retail. You’ll find people trying it on Aliexpress too.
So look for a comparable price at all the usual places first. You may find a better one. Or even if you find one that’s close, you’ll probably get a more hassle-free experience elsewhere.
Positive experiences on Aliexpress
If I sound down on Aliexpress, it’s because I got burned. But not everyone has. I know of one train hobbyist who found a $2 electric motor on Aliexpress that fit his Hornby trains perfectly, and in some regards outperformed the original. You better believe he was happy. My Commodore buddies are happy when they find genuine 6526 and 6581 chips on Aliexpress. These chips were last made in 1992 and they’re extremely difficult to find in North America these days. Those buyers are happy.
You’re going to be happiest on Aliexpress if you proceed with caution, don’t spent more than you’re willing to lose, and want something that’s difficult or impossible to find closer to home.