No Questions Asked: How Chinese consumers scam Tmall and JD stores and what you can do about it

Imagine you get a huge spike in orders.

Thousands received into your Tmall store backend for no good reason. You’re not running any special promotions, there’s no major shopping festival like Singles Day on the horizon, no big influencer campaigns that might trigger it. It’s just an average day. So why are sales exploding?

Something doesn’t seem right. These orders are suspect and you know what comes next. The thing is, you can’t prove it. So you prepare them for shipment, confirm delivery with the consumers who all say they’re eager to receive their order.

Then the trouble begins. Your biggest sellers – the heroes of your store – automatically go out of stock and are delisted. Revenues fall off a cliff. Days into the delivery cycle, a wave of bad reviews hits. Rank drops so far that you’re suddenly disqualified for events like 6.18 and 11.11. The platform threatens to slap you with fines. What looked like one of the best days of the year turns into an operational NIGHTMARE. A year of hard work undone and you don’t know what to do.

The ship is sinking. You have no recourse. Or do you?

This situation may sound extreme but it is exactly what happened to one of our clients a year after launching their Tmall store. It happens all the time. It happens on every online platform in China. And it could happen to you. It’s likely something HAS happened and your team or local partner has kept it from you. Maybe it wasn’t such a big deal. Perhaps an isolated incident.

The truth is that you can do something. You can fight back on all manner of fraud but first you have to understand how it works.

 

The last thing on everyone’s mind when they enter China is fraud

Mechanics must be right for a good start. We might think about how competitors will respond to a new and visible player in the category. We know there may be some backlash. But still we assume that things will run smoothly with end users.

After all, consumers have been waiting a long time for our typical client to launch an official flagship and our veteran customer service team has seen it all and knows how to handle sticky situations. This is their job and they do it well.

Any questions about returns have more to do with the efficiency of the handling process not whether we may get cheated. The consumer isn’t seen as a hazard.

Brand teams often have inflated views of what their typical Chinese consumer looks like. They see them through rose colored glasses. They categorize them as “guests” and “fans” and “ambassadors” and “nano influencers” and “evangelists.”

They can do no wrong. And, even if they do, it doesn’t matter.

That’s because outside China, policies tend to favor merchants

We had an American client who filed a lawsuit against Amazon that took more than 2 years to resolve. Until they won in court, thousands of fraudulent listings pretending to be the original brand sold fake, counterfeit or deeply discounted parallel product.

I was shocked, mostly because that behavior was permitted by America’s largest ecommerce retailer. They have recently done some policing themselves under fire from consumers for allowing faulty reviews on a litany of bad products out of China and have removed thousands of merchants from Seller Central.

Consumers often buy from brands directly on their own .com websites where they can make their own private rules for handling complaints and returns. Consumer protections are limited and inconsistent.

But China’s big platforms are notoriously consumer centric

As a merchant on Tmall, JD and other major platforms, brands entering Tmall and JD find three things disheartening:

  1. Chinese consumers won’t buy direct on their .com, .cn, WeChat or other private stores where there is no public accountability or satisfaction guarantee
  2. A small, but extremely vocal (and dangerous) group of Chinese consumers game the system and manage to squeeze every last drop out of merchants
  3. There is a cottage industry of industrial saboteurs who orchestrate attacks that can cripple a going concern and ruin a brand’s reputation

We’ve seen our fair share of fraudulent shoppers over the years. These cases sometimes end up in the supreme court of Alibaba where the system isn’t perfect. Here are some things that happened to us:

  • A customer returned an item that was clearly not what we had sold them. He asked for a refund and we refused. He then escalated the dispute in Taobao. The jury sided with the customer. We lost the money and the original item.
  • Another customer reached out to customer service well after the 7-day guarantee period. They complained that there was a problem with the product’s fabric. When we received the returned item, we realized that they had made a cut with a knife so that they can return the item free of shipping (buyer doesn’t have to pay shipping for returning defective items).
  • In one incident, a customer purchased about 3000 RMB worth of goods and then complained to customer service saying that they got charged 9000 instead. He showed a screenshot of the 9000 RMB transaction on Alipay and demanded an immediate refund.

As our team responded saying we need time to verify with Alipay, he left us some strong words together with a negative review. A definite blow to the store’s ability to rank. We soon confirmed that there was indeed nothing wrong with the payment. We had our design team investigate the screenshot and confirmed that it had been retouched with Photoshop. Thankfully Tmall sided with us and blocked the invalid negative review.

You need to be able to take multiple hits to survive ecommerce in China. The customer is always right – even the bad ones – and you are always guilty until proven innocent.

Whereas scams can happen anywhere, China’s digital marketplaces are particularly fertile ground for all kinds of “organised” mischief. There’s a simple reason for this.

You must accept returns within 7 days, no questions asked

True for Tmall. True for JD. True for most online platforms in China.

If the store owner decides not to do it, they face punitive measures. Those include automatic (public) rank drops, permanent marks on reputation in the form of bad reviews, fines, forfeiture of deposit and, in extreme cases, store closure.

Such rules began with good intentions at the turn of the century. Tmall and JD put wonderful policies in place to protect consumers. They were designed to create trust between buyer and seller and facilitate trade between individuals and businesses.

This strategy was a wild success. It made China’s transition to etail that much faster. Keep in mind offline retail was then in a sorry state and is still difficult to navigate. Even in Shanghai, it’s often easier to buy a luxury handbag than find shaving cream.

Giant digital ecosystems like Alibaba and Tencent improved quality of life and liberated a billion people from the constant frustration of trying to do things in person.

Those policies are now a breeding ground. Originally designed to protect the rights of consumers, they have become a medium for all kinds of return fraud.

Common types of consumer fraud in China’s digital ecosystem

While no means an exhaustive list (new schemes pop up daily), the ones we encounter most often are:

Free Rent

A woman bought 18 dresses for a trip during the Labor Day holiday, took pictures and posted on her social media to show off then returned all the items before the seven days expired.

Bait & Switch

A man bought 60 pairs of Nike shoes on Tmall and used the policy to return 60 pairs of FAKE Nike shoes, then sold the real shoes in private channels to make a profit.

Chain Gang

There are “Mutual Help Groups” for product returns. Consumer A buys a dress online, leaves the tag intact, wears for two months. Consumer B buys the same dress, returns Consumer A’s old dress within seven days. Consumer C does the same with Consumer B’s dress after a few months. The cycle repeats.

Sabotage

A group of “paid” consumers buy out all the inventory of a brand’s Tmall store using different accounts and user IDs. Then they return all the merchandise within 7 days after logging oodles of fake complaints about the product quality. This destroys store rank, causes higher bounce rates on product pages and blows products out of the search engine (once something sells out it is automatically delisted).

Extortion

A consumer buys a set of products and then complains about minor issues with the material or packaging. They offer to keepthe merchandise for a deep discount or additional gift with purchase. If not, they create a bad review and refuse to take it down until they are fully satisfied with the merchant’s compensation.

More powerful and manipulative than you can imagine

The typical Chinese consumer for an overseas brand tends to be rather affluent. But with luxury goods, we’re talking about a whole different level.

These folks have a huge disposable income and indulge in all manner of personal luxuries and leisure activities. But did you ever consider HOW they got there?

To make it in China, you have to be extraordinarily clever or lucky (or both). The opportunity and growth rates of industry, commerce and technology have minted more millionaires in a shorter time than any other moment in history. But the competition to get a share of that pie is outrageous and gets tougher every day.

So what you’re up against is a highly sophisticated and resourceful shopper born of a trader’s mentality and raised in a culture of one upmanship. Someone who has fought in the trenches, worked extremely hard and reached a level of success only the very few ever can. They are masters of their own destiny.

Take one of our clients who sells European performance apparel. Jack Ma himself is one of the most visible “consumers” of this brand. Their average ticket is 10,000 RMB. Their products are super popular in China and they are #1.

Here’s what happened a few months ago:

  1. A customer bought a jacket and asked for a refund and he returned the product to the client’s warehouse
  2. Warehouse staff considered the returned product to be fake and refused to accept the return
  3. The customer then asked the JD.com category manager to be the judge
  4. We talked to JD.com to explain and we won the case
  5. This customer refused to accept the result and reported the case to China State Administration of Industry and Commerce
  6. We refused the mediation
  7. The customer filed a lawsuit and asked for 18,000 RMB compensation
  8. Our client planned to offer the customer 30,000 RMB and let the customer withdraw the lawsuit
  9. We suggested our client appear in court without a lawyer
  10. After mediation, we only gave 4,500 RMB back to customer

 

Now not everyone is this persistent and most people don’t take advantage of others. But the fact is our client had to accept a fake and pay the consumer to go away.

This certainly happens outside China. But how often?

For this particular brand, returns fraud is quite common. They’ve seen everything from “free rent” to “bait and switch” to “extortion.”

One consumer even set a trap. His plot was brilliant. He replaced the genuine product with a fake and returned it within the 7 days. But when our client rejected the return, the consumer submitted video footage to Tmall showing from the time he received the package at night until he woke up and opened it, he never touched it. He cast “reasonable doubt” on our client’s warehouse management and insisted they submit conclusive footage someone on their staff didn’t switch the product during order prep. Because there was no way for our client to prove they didn’t do it, Tmall sided with the consumer and our client had to honour the refund.

 

How To Combat Returns Fraud

We’ve found a few strategies to be quite effective. While we sometimes lose to the most devious (as you’ve seen here), amateurs can usually be stopped dead in their tracks:

Keep your friends close

You must have a strong relationship with Tmall and JD.com’s category managers. If the platform sides with you, consumers with bad intentions can’t get what they want and the platform team will help repair any damage to store rank and reputation by removing fake reviews and consumer profiles, bad scores and returning the store to its original status in the listing engine.

Make them prove it

“The customer is always right” is bad advice. “Guilty until proven innocent” is more in line. Always make them prove that you’ve done something wrong. Your instinct may be to pay them off for fear of a bad review or a lower score. But remember, many are working in groups to achieve an end…your demise. So you can’t give them the benefit of the doubt and the process of proving you are at fault can be lengthy and frustrating for them.

Record everything

Make sure you document and film everything you do as if you were going to court and needed evidence for a case. Our client who couldn’t provide video evidence in favor of their warehouse operations now has security cameras throughout their facilities. Especially your unloading, pick and pack and delivery process. It is important that you can prove that the consumer is pulling a fast one.

Show precedent

Always keep an archive of similar cases and how the platforms and courts handled it. Not just yours. High profile cases where the consumer LOST is ideal. If a consumer tries to play games, they are often overwhelmed with an organized, professional response and know we are prepared to go all the way. They back down when the odds are against them.

Never hesitate

A show of immediate strength and resources, including platform managers in group chats with the scammer, is a winning strategy. Consumers under fire (especially from the platform) will either admit fault or stop pressing for a resolution.

Reject third parties

Only the platform’s decision matters. Government bureaus and Chinese courts don’t have authority over the platform’s own return policies. These protections inside Tmall and JD aren’t based on a Chinese law. They are private guidelines. As shown previously, the local bureau sided with the consumer to overturn Alibaba’s decision but Alibaba refused to accept it. The consumer was forced to sue. In the end, they received a paltry settlement.

Settle upon admission

Until the consumer admits fault or takes responsibility, never settle. We hold out at all costs and insist on a reversal of any damages to the store’s reputation, a public and meaningful admission to the platform (in writing) withdrawing the complaint and some type of restraining clause. We’ll go public, fight back on their bad review (which can’t be deleted) with our fans. Even if you decide to pay, you must be sure they can’t come back.

Remember: Alibaba and JD’s public ranking system leaves brands sitting ducks. There is no way to stop people from taking advantage of favourable policies. But you can be READY. 🙂