How to Pay Someone You Don’t Know

According to the 2017 BBB Scam Tracker Annual Risk Report, online purchase scams are now the riskiest type of consumer fraud.

These cons often involve purchases and sales on direct seller-to-buyer sites such as eBay, Craigslist and Facebook’s Marketplace. Most online purchase scams occur when a payment is made online in exchange for a good or service, but nothing is delivered. In other cases, the scammer may pretend to purchase an item only to send a bogus check and ask for a refund of the “accidental” overpayment.

These scams can encompass several different types of purchases. The most common online purchase scams reported to the Better Business Bureau in 2017 were related to pets, clothing, cosmetics, electronics, and automobiles.

The use of mobile peer-to-peer (P2P) services, like Apple Pay, Zelle, and Venmo, may seem like an appropriate way to pay individuals when buying goods and services. However, P2P services aren’t meant for commercial use – which is what buying and selling online is. If your transaction is flagged as commercial, your funds could be held temporarily, and you could be banned from the service in the future. Additionally, P2P services warn of the risks associated and highly discourage using their services to exchange or send money to people you don’t know.

But there are better alternatives. BBB and Consumer Reports recommend using a payment system that protects your purchase as well as your privacy. Online marketplace sellers also need a way to safely receive funds, ensuring they get paid for their goods and services. Use the following tips when you’re exchanging goods and money with someone you don’t know.

Using an Online Marketplace

  • Pay with a credit card. You’ll get the most legal protections using a credit card, including the right to a chargeback. Only credit cards give you the legal right to reverse a payment if there’s a problem with what you get or if you don’t get what you ordered at all.
  • Be sure to check a website’s consumer protections. Some commercial sites, including Amazon, eBay, Airbnb, and StubHub, offer refunds to buyers when purchases go wrong. For example, with eBay’s Money-Back Guarantee, you have 30 days from the estimated delivery date to report an item that wasn’t delivered or differed from the seller’s description. But be sure to check for limitations, coverage doesn’t apply to vehicles, and real estate, among other things.
  • When it’s available, choose PayPal. With PayPal’s purchase protection program, if you don’t get what you ordered, or you get something significantly different from what was described, you may qualify for a full reimbursement, including original shipping cost. PayPal also can act as an intermediary between buyer and seller, adding another layer of consumer protection above what’s offered under law through your credit card.
  • Avoid alternative payment options. Some sellers participating in online marketplaces may suggest you pay by gift card or by wiring money. Don’t do it. That’s a sign of a scam, and if you pay that way, it’s nearly impossible to get your money back.

Dealing Face-to-Face

When making a Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace purchase in person with a stranger, don’t offer to pay by personal check. By doing so you’re providing your bank account information, which can put your money at risk. Instead, consider these payment options and best practices.

  • If it’s an option, use a credit card. Some individual sellers may use a point-of-sale service like Square or QuickBooks GoPayment to accept credit card payments. As with purchases online, paying by credit card offers the most consumer protection.
  • Find a safe space to make the exchange. Be sure to meet in daylight in a well-lit, well-trafficked public place, such as a coffee shop, bank, or shopping center. Consider paying by certified check, not cash, so that you’re not carrying around large amounts of money.
  • Try before you buy. Be sure to inspect or test an item before you make a purchase. Take a test drive or plug the item into an outlet to determine that it runs as promised. If you discover a problem later, you may not be able to resolve it.

Visit the BBB Scam Tracker website at to learn about and report scams.





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