Monday, May 20

Wrong Orders and Fakes: Return Fraud Mishaps Make for Viral TikTok Videos

Bailey Cormier was browsing the Saks Fifth Avenue website one evening when she decided to buy a blue and white, porcelain ashtray, for $275.

When her order arrived a few days later, the 25-year-old attorney was excited to open the Dolce & Gabbana Casa box, wrapped in cellophane and nested inside a standard cardboard shipping box. Nothing seemed amiss, but when Ms. Cormier opened the sleek black package, she found something else entirely: a can of Bumble Bee Solid White Albacore Tuna, worth about $1.99.

Though she’d never posted on TikTok before, Ms. Cormier was so perplexed, she created an account specifically to share her bizarre tale.

“I thought I was being punk’d,” Ms. Cormier said. “I fully expected Ashton Kutcher to pop out. I picked it up and I was like OK, maybe it’s underneath? I put it up to my ear and shook it. It was sloshing!”

“Tuna-gate,” as Ms. Cormier is calling it, is one of a handful of TikTok posts from users claiming to be customers who were sent wrong or counterfeit items instead of what they actually ordered online.

Videos like these often tap into consumer frustration with an uptick in what is called “return fraud” — the process of returning fake items to retailers, with the intent to embezzle. Return fraud can take many forms, including the return of used items, stolen items, and returns of repackaged items with the same approximate weight in the original boxes they came in.

That might explain how a shopper could end up with a can of tuna fish instead of an ashtray — it’s possible the box was opened somewhere in the shipping process, the ashtray swapped out, the box recovered in cellophane and the original item returned, without anybody being the wiser. Still, it presents a major problem for companies fulfilling items ordered online. According to the National Retail Federation, in 2023 return fraud accounted for $101 billion in overall losses for retailers.

A representative for Saks Fifth Avenue told The New York Times, “Across the retail industry, there has been an increase in online fraud, particularly related to returns. Luxury continues to be a target given its high price points, and as such, we have implemented more rigorous steps in our return process, including additional reviews and stronger authentication.” The spokesperson confirmed that after investigating the curious case of Ms. Cormier’s ashtray, return fraud was indeed to blame.

In addition to a slowing economy, Saks Fifth Avenue, which split its e-commerce and brick and mortar businesses in 2021, now faces the wrath of unhappy shoppers with TikTok accounts. Its automated fulfillment centers manage millions of shipments every year, adding to the challenge of proving which complaints are real.

On Feb. 1, a shopper named Gloria posted on TikTok that she’d ordered a $4,800 leather and shearling bomber jacket from the luxury brand Khaite from the Saks website. But when she received the item, the TikTok user claimed that the jacket she’d been sent was entirely different in style, shape, cut and material than the one she’d ordered. The original tag appears to have been cut out, and replaced with a sewn-in Khaite tag.

Another woman, who goes by the TikTok username Baby Beau, posted on Feb. 2 that she ordered a replacement for a pair of $1,250 Bottega Veneta sandals that she had ordered from Nordstrom last year. When she received the new pair, from Saks they looked different from the other pair she ordered — the color was slightly off, and the dust bag seemed different. When she took them to the Bottega Veneta store to authenticate them, she claims they told her the sandals were fake.

With the rise of sites like DHGate, an e-commerce platform based in China where luxury counterfeit items can be found, determining authenticity has become more and more difficult. Now, it seems, scammers may be taking advantage of the overwhelming amount of e-commerce returns and exchanges that happen daily to trade in counterfeit items — or cans of tuna that may be of similar weight to $275 ashtrays — while keeping the real items. In November 2023, Gucci filed a lawsuit against Lord & Taylor, Sam’s Club and Century 21 for “profiting from the sale of counterfeit goods.” (Lord & Taylor and Century 21 have disputed the allegations in court; Sam’s Club has not yet filed a response to Gucci’s complaint.)

Ms. Cormier didn’t know about all of this when she decided to post her can of tuna. “I wasn’t concerned about Saks not making it right because I didn’t know that there had been all these other issues,” she said. “It was more just about the fact that it was so absurd.”

Ms. Cormier said that she spoke to a Saks Fifth Avenue customer service representative who asked her to send photos of the item she had received, then arranged a refund for Ms. Cormier and helped her reorder the ashtray again. Saks Fifth Avenue also sent Ms. Cormier a $100 e-giftcard for her troubles. When Ms. Cormier received the ashtray she had initially ordered, she posted an unboxing video on TikTok to show it off.

“I don’t even smoke,” she said. “I just put my jewelry in it.”