Not being able to trust the person selling you something is as old as time. For the ancient Greeks, it was “caveat emptor.” These days, you might tweak that to “never buy something from someone you won’t be able to find and sue later.” Either way, any time you buy something from someone you don’t know — or at least someone working for a company you don’t know — you’re taking a chance. And in the case of some items, an enormous chance. Because while you can only get bilked so badly when you’re paying $5 for a bucket of used golf balls, finding out that “vintage” engagement ring is actually glass is something entirely different.
So, here’s a look at 25 things you should never, ever buy from a stranger.
Last updated: Nov. 8, 2019
OK, to be clear, if you’re just buying something you think looks nice from someone at the local art fair, don’t think twice. If you think the price is fair for the enjoyment you get from looking at it, fire away. That’s what it’s for! However, if what you’re paying has anything at all to do with wanting to own an original by a particular artist, don’t buy from anyone who’s not a reputable dealer. Forgery and fraud in the art world are as old as, well, art.
So, if you think the satisfaction of putting in that last piece is just a tiny part of the great joy of doing a puzzle, congratulations, you’re a psychopath. There are few things in this world as wonderful as putting in the last puzzle piece and few things as miserable as discovering your puzzle is missing pieces. And there is no earthly way to confirm a puzzle isn’t missing pieces short of counting them or buying it new. And do you really want to be the person counting puzzle pieces at a garage sale?
Some items are fine to buy from a smoking household because they won’t hold the stench of cigarette smoke, but clothing is not one of them. It can be very difficult or even impossible to remove smoke odors from apparel, meaning you’ll be forced to either wear foul-smelling attire or get rid of the item without having the opportunity to wear it.
At first thought, buying baby items at garage sales might seem like a great way to save cash, but it’s not worth the safety risk. Consumer Reports warns sellers not to put recalled items up for sale, but that doesn’t mean they’ll abide. The publication advises garage sale hosts against selling high-risk baby items like cribs, bike helmets and car seats, so that also means you shouldn’t buy them.
Laptops, Tablets and E-Readers
Electronic devices are expensive, so you might think you’ve hit gold if you stumble upon a seemingly working laptop, tablet or e-reader at a yard sale. Despite what it might appear like on the surface, this is a risk you don’t want to take because you don’t know the device’s history. It might black-screen shortly after purchase, leaving you to foot a hefty repair bill.
At first thought, makeup and perfume might seem like a real find at a garage sale, but you’ll want to pass on these items. Using other people’s makeup is unsanitary, and even if items are still sealed, they have a shelf life which has likely passed. The composition of perfume also breaks down over time, causing the scent to change or disappear.
Tires are expensive, so if you find one at garage sale prices, you might think buying it is a no-brainer. However, even if it appears in great condition, it might’ve been driven overloaded, underinflated or at an extremely high speed, which could cause internal damage that won’t be visible on the surface, warns Consumer Reports. It’s best to play it safe and invest in brand-new tires.
If the thought of buying a used mattress at a garage sale doesn’t already make your skin crawl, think about what’s at stake. The mattress could be infested with bedbugs that will infiltrate your home. Beyond that, it could contain mold, odors and stains that will not allow you to rest easy on top of it.
Garage sales might seem like a great place to get a deal on a sofa or an armchair, but they can come with some unwanted extras. Just as with mattresses, upholstered furniture can harbor bedbugs or even fleas. The money you save on the item won’t be worth the time and effort you’ll spend trying to get these pesky insects out of your home.
Before you scoff at the idea of eating at a restaurant with a “C” grade from the health department, maybe keep in mind that there is absolutely no chance your own kitchen at home could even pass a health inspection. And then remember that prior to paying someone for unpackaged food — even if it’s just them selling something they made. Food safety is not easy, and if you don’t know the person making the food, you won’t know for sure if they’re the sort of person who has “never heard of salmonella.”
Sure, a lot of people do this anyway — the used car market is a tricky one. However, there’s a difference between buying a car from a stranger who works at a dealership and trusting someone you meet through Craigslist. Major issues with the engine won’t necessarily show up during a test drive, so stick to buying a car from someone you know you’ll be able to track down if it’s a lemon.
The bicycle helmet is typically designed to break. The styrofoam does an excellent job of protecting your head. Once. But after it’s been in a major collision, your helmet’s ability to actually protect your head is greatly reduced — and the signs might not always be visible. Of course, even the people buying bicycle helmets from strangers are better off than the fools who ride without one, but it’s still well worth it to get one from a vendor you can trust.
Anything With Paint
Unfortunately, people didn’t realize just how dangerous lead was until well after it had been used in a wide variety of goods. In particular, lead-based paints are still all over the place and can pose a major risk — especially to children who might consume the flakes. As such, anything painted could contain dangerous levels of lead.
Toy recalls are not uncommon, and in some cases, they’re sparked by a rash of injuries or deaths. Even if you recognize the toy, it could be a clever counterfeit that’s not safe. When it comes to the stuff your children play with, it’s probably better to be on the safe side.
No matter how magical your new saucepan is at letting beautifully over-easy eggs slide from pan to plate, it’s eventually going to lose its Teflon coating if it’s not well cared for. If you’re buying a nonstick pan at a garage sale, you can’t be sure how the current owner has been maintaining it. While big scratches or missing patches of coating are easy to spot, plenty of damage from wear and tear isn’t.
The problem with electronics is that, unlike a car, there is no odometer. It’s hard to say just how much wear and tear there is on a TV set. And older sets can have any number of things wrong with them, many of which you’ll never be able to spot just by looking at it.
Vacuum cleaners do not age well. No matter how good of a deal you feel like you’re getting, you might be getting an aged model that’s on its last legs. If it stops working in a few months, your money is not well-spent. A new vacuum might cost, but you can get a warranty. And if you’re buying from a stranger, how sure are you that it’s not one that put in a few hard years with the housekeeping staff of a large hotel?
Setting aside the fact that many people might consider it really gross to wear a used wetsuit, it’s worth noting that the neoprene in most wetsuits degrades over time. The more wear, the less effective the suit will be. Unless you can really trust the person telling you it’s “lightly used,” better to just pay extra to get it new.
So the days of software coming as an installation disc are long gone but don’t let nostalgia lead you to jump on that version of Quicken that seems like a sweet deal. If the product has already been registered — or even if the CD is scratched — you’re really just paying for the box. Or, even worse, you might be getting dangerous viruses or spyware along with your new app. Even if it’s a download, don’t trust software from an unrecognized source.
It’s hard to know just what’s happened to that DVD player. It might have fallen out of a moving truck, and as long as the exterior isn’t scratched up, there’s no sure way of knowing how long it’s going to last. Not to mention, when a new combination DVD/JPEG/CD-R/CD-RW/CD player can be had on Amazon for a little over $20, it’s not clear why you would be considering this in the first place.
A used digital camera has any number of things that could be wrong with it. Cameras are hand-held and therefore stand a much greater chance of having been dropped repeatedly. Again, unless the exterior shows visible damage, it can be impossible to tell. And if you’re thinking that you’re safe as long as you go analog, think again. Even the tiniest of light leaks will mean every picture you take is ruined before it even gets developed.
Do you know about the whole “mic drop” thing? Popular with comedians and other performers, hated by stage managers. That’s because it’s generally a great way to ruin a perfectly good microphone. Speakers and microphones both work with vibrations, either detecting them or putting them out. As such, there’s plenty of internal machinery that can be especially sensitive. And if it gets jostled the wrong way by an impact, the whole thing won’t work quite right anymore.
Can you spot the difference between diamonds and cubic zirconia? Are you sure? Like, a few thousand dollars worth of sure? Because that’s basically the choice you’re making when you buy jewelry from someone you don’t know. And while the people who counterfeit U.S. dollars have only been at it for a couple of hundred years, the techniques for faking things like gold, silver or gems have been honed for millennia. Unless you like a piece enough that you don’t care if it’s real or not, don’t buy jewelry you can’t have appraised first.
Memorabilia (Especially If It's Signed)
Do you know what Carl Yastrzemski’s signature looks like? For that matter, how sure are you it was just spelled correctly there? If not, why would you pay an extra $100 for a baseball with his John Hancock on it? Given that thousands of middle schoolers are successfully passing off forged signatures on sick notes every week, maybe don’t trust the veracity of any memorabilia or autographs to the word of someone you’ve never met.
OK, so as long as you’re not paying a lot of money, you shouldn’t worry too much about getting a used bike — even from a stranger. However, in the event that you’re actually spending a little to get a decent ride, there are a lot of pitfalls. The actual frame of the bike is actually just a small part of its total cost. From the wheels to the gear shifters, the quality of the parts can be an enormous part of what gives a bike its value.
Can you determine whether or not those are quality spokes just by looking at them? Or whether the rear derailleur is going to hold up for more than a month? Probably not, so don’t get taken by someone putting cut-rate parts on a fancy frame.
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Laura Woods contributed to the reporting for this article.
About the Author
Joel Anderson is a business and finance writer with over a decade of experience writing about the wide world of finance. Based in Los Angeles, he specializes in writing about the financial markets, stocks, macroeconomic concepts and focuses on helping make complex financial concepts digestible for the retail investor.