Scammy Facebook Retailers Still Ripping Women Off

Several Chinese clothing retailers were nailed for misleading customers. Why hasn't Facebook done anything? And why do shoppers keep falling for it?

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
May 12, 2016 at 1:07 PM ET

Online shopping has made it possible for the fashionable to overhaul their wardrobes from the comfort of their pajamas, but it’s not always as simple as selecting three- or five-day shipping.

For years, thousands of women have complained about a spate of online retailers that offer trendy fashionable clothing at unbeatable prices, advertise aggressively via Facebook, and then never deliver the goods. Following a recent Buzzfeed exposé, Facebook said it takes the situation “very seriously” and is working on a solution. But in the weeks since the report exposing the widespread dissatisfaction, little has changed.

On April 5, Buzzfeed published an investigative report detailing a single Chinese company that behaves as several individual companies hawking discount clothes on Facebook: Shenzhen Globalegrow E-Commerce Co. The company netted over $200 million in annual sales for 2014 and is a subsidiary of a larger company helmed by Yang Jianxin, who is a pioneer in e-commerce and one of China’s richest men.

According to Buzzfeed, the companies go by names such as Zaful, SammyDress, DressLily, RoseGal, RoseWe, TideBuy, Choies, and RomWe. The ads feature high-quality photos—many of which are stolen off the web—and sometimes feature celebrities like Katy Perry. But when the merchandise arrives, sometimes weeks or months later, it’s allegedly several sizes too small, poorly made, and/or uses cheaper fabrics than advertised. Images that compare the advertised item to the actual item are abound online, like this one from an unhappy customer who ordered a pair of lacy pants from DressLily:

When dissatisfied customers try to return the goods, they claim that the customer service numbers don’t work, emails go ignored, and refund requests are denied. Yet, women eager to find in-the-moment styles for nothing continue to patronize these companies in the hopes that they are legit, and we can’t talk about this state of affairs without exploring why these are women have come to expect an insane deal on a good-looking piece of clothing. Why doesn’t a $10 dress that looks like it should cost $100 set off scam alert bells? Industry experts say we can blame fast fashion for our unrealistic expectations on how little clothing should cost.

“Given the existence of very established fast fashion retailers, such as Forever 21, H&M, and Zara, we have become very accustomed to prices that we would otherwise find to be completely unconscionable,” Julie Zerbo, founder and editor of The Fashion Law, told Vocativ. Zerbo says the number of women duped by the sites may seem surprising, but those sites go to great lengths to trick consumers.

“A pair of pants or a dress for $20 or a top for $12 is completely commonplace as a result of their mainstream availability and marketing by these truly international mass market retailers,” Zerbo said. “So, we simply do not have that level of cautiousness associated with extremely low prices anymore, which has only made it easier for these websites.”

In such a climate it’s easy to see why women would come to expect a great retail deal. But Zara and other brick-and-mortar fast fashion purveyors offer, if nothing else, a place to return your wares should they not meet the standard—and some reliable form of complaint resolution.

After Buzzfeed’s report, Facebook’s Vice President of Engineering, Ads and Pages Andrew Bosworth responded, telling Buzzfeed that Facebook “understand[s] the gravity of this issue and we’re taking it very seriously.” Currently, Facebook doesn’t monitor what happens after someone clicks an ad and leaves Facebook—they can report to the social network that the ad didn’t take visitors where it said it would, but after that, they’re on their own.

“We’re looking at ways to incorporate new signals that will help us identify which of the over 50 million active businesses on our platform are delivering products and services that are overwhelmingly unsatisfactory to people,” Bosworth told Buzzfeed. “It’s a complex problem, but we are working on it and will do everything we can to make sure people trust and enjoy the content they see on Facebook.”

But in the ensuing weeks since that statement, the retail sites in question still have functioning Facebook pages and millions of Facebook fans, without a single warning to Facebook users about treading cautiously.

It’s not that there isn’t a way to warn Facebook users, either: According to Buzzfeed’s report, big search engines such as Google often gauge a company’s trustworthiness by looking at, among other things, customer complaint volume. They can either charge those companies more to advertise, making it harder for them to research customers, or remove them from Google Shopping altogether. As of this writing, you can still find Choies and RomWe items for sale on Google Shopping, but RoseGal, RoseWe, DressLily, SammyDress, Zaful, or TideBuy are nowhere to be found. However, searching for RoseGal specifically returns vendor results for Tidestore, another iteration of the company.

Meanwhile, customers are still receiving shoddy products, and are flooding the company’s Facebook pages with complaints and warnings to others. On a recent post on the RoseGal Facebook page advertising that the retailer is “raining deals,” commenters offered nothing but complaints nearly 300 deep.

Because Facebook’s efforts to combat shoddy retailers hasn’t been entirely successful, users are taking the task upon themselves. Scam and warning pages on Facebook such as Knockoff Nightmares, SCAM Alert & Real Customer Reviews and Don’t Do It Girl are thriving communities that keep a running tally of purchases gone wrong. On the Don’t Do It, Girl Facebook page, spurned shoppers swap war stories and warn other would-be shoppers from the offending outlets. One user said RoseGal offers customers points for positive reviews. “…they send you an email that says if you only have good things to share about there business then it will be displayed and they say they will give you more “points” for saying good things and extra “points” for posting pictures,” wrote one user. “This business is so wrong in so many ways! Shut them down!!”

This has been going on for awhile. Two years ago, a weary shopper asked Reddit users if anyone had purchased anything from RoseGal. “The prices and products seem to good to be true,” one user asked. “Free shipping worldwide? Dresses for $10? Ships within 24 hours? There aren’t many sites that I’ve found where I actually like the majority of the styles and it won’t cost me an arm and a leg just to ship something I may or may not like. So I was wondering if anyone has bought anything from this site or similar sites that always seem to be advertised on Facebook.”

Responses concurred, detailing account after account of the company having “NO customer service,” and that even with following size guides offered on the sites, that the items received were still far too small. “I honestly would not even donate these “clothes” to goodwill, as they are not only unfashionable, they are not even functional as real clothing,” one user responded. “Paper-thin and laughably assembled, their items are the equivalent of something you might win at a roadside carnival. Basically, it’s the clothing equivalent of hollow speakers (more like the even more reprehensible speaker-sized box full of rocks) sold from a white van.”

To add insult to ill-fitting injury, shoppers say the company often refuses returns. RoseGal does promise a “comprehensive” 30-day return policy, but because the items were so cheap in the first place, and the customers are responsible for what can be exorbitant shipping costs for returns, most customers just eat the cost and turn to the Internet to commiserate.

That’s exactly what happened with Dawn, a member of the SCAM warning Facebook page, who wrote about a purchase gone bad:

Collective digital vigilantism shouldn’t be the only recourse for getting ripped off, but given Facebook’s inaction, it’s what jilted shoppers have left.

A Facebook spokesperson said they had no comment on record beyond what had already been said in the Buzzfeed story. All the while, RoseGal, DressLily and others keep offering those massive spring sales on Facebook—as much as 90 percent off. Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?