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This half-price Facebook ad for brand-name hiking boots was too good to be true

Behind that polite email was an international operation tied to hundreds of businesses with curious names and reputations.

Buyer beware: Online purchasing scams are growing ever-more prevalent  amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Buyer beware: Online purchasing scams are growing ever-more prevalent amid the Covid-19 pandemic.Read moreWilfredo Lee / AP

The soles of my hiking boots were balding and their inners pocked with holes — time for replacements after four years of happy use. With my birthday in sight, I started shopping online for deals during the spring lockdown. I’m sure that’s what got Facebook’s attention because soon it was tempting me with offers that another shopper might find too good to be true:

Just $49.99 for a pair of Merrell Moab 2 Vent hiking boots — they can go for twice as much. And I was in time, as the sale was ending the very next day. I used PayPal and sent off $55.98, including shipping. The vendor went by the name Elivelike.

When after one month the shoes had not arrived, I emailed the company. The reply was most polite, attributing the delay to “customs and the coronavirus.” The shoes were coming from China.

A clear, plastic bag soon arrived by China Post containing spongy, stinky knockoffs. They didn’t say “Merrell” on them. They said “DQ.” I tried them on anyway, and when I tightened the laces, one of the loops pulled away from the uppers with one tug. Unwearable.

I wrote an email documenting what was wrong. Again, the reply was most courteous:

“Hello, Nice to hear from you. Are there any problems with the product you purchased? Could you pls briefly describe it and provide photos for us to verify?”

I repeated my objection and added a photo of the dangling loop:

I wanted my money back.

This time the reply was more formal:

“Deducting purchases, commodity costs, promotion costs, and store maintenance costs, our profits are very low. Because the price of this product is low, and our profits are meager. So it’s hard to be perfect so we suggest refunding you the 10% of the value you paid as compensation. Do you think this is acceptable? You can keep this product yourself without returning it to us.”

By now this was sport. We went back and forth. Another offer came in: 20%, tops, and this involved shipping the goods back to China. I declined.

I Googled around. A site called FakeWebsiteBuster suggests I was snagged in a sprawling web of fakery. Though I had been corresponding with “Elivelike,” that was just one of several hundred entities with curious names and reputations with the same parent company: Middle Bridge LTD, of Cambridge, England. Kelly Nhat Hong Nguyen and Shanshan Wang are listed as its directors.

I suggested to “Elivelike” that I could send the shoes to England. As a sign of good faith I would throw in a Philly cheesesteak.

I groused to a friend at Facebook who said that it was unfortunate what had happened to me, and that I should complain to the social media giant. But if I posted about what happened, he cautioned, don’t be surprised to find more ads for Merrells on my feed.

I did and I wasn’t.

Now, lots of people call in a credit card company for reinforcements after something like this happens, but the vendor had insisted on PayPal, and the credit card associated with my account had expired. So PayPal had withdrawn the money from my bank.

I complained to PayPal formally, and on one of its community pages saw that I had lots of company. Dupes with more experience counseled patience — getting a refund could take three months. All we had to do was ship back the shoes.

Which was a problem.

My wife had tossed them.

“Why would you keep them?” she asked. Or more precisely, why would I keep them on the TV stand, where they’d aired out for a couple months.

PayPal promised its probe would be done by late September. Just before I heard from its resolution department a last email arrived from overseas, this time from “Corinna.”

She was very sorry for my “unpleasant shopping experience.” And if I’d just close out my PayPal complaint first, the company would refund 70%.

Her only problem was that she’d replied not just to me, but to 177 other angry shoppers who had complained to PayPal.

What fun. We wound up swapping stories of what we’d purchased — Birkenstocks, Lucky Star Gazer camping chairs, Dooney & Bourke handbags — and what arrived — “cheap,” “knockoffs,” “hideous.”

The group was a font of practical suggestions: Call PayPal, they counseled, don’t write. The FBI has a division that investigates suspected internet crime. And check out horror stories and shopping tips on a Facebook page called “What I Bought vs. What I Got.” The administrator of that page, Marisa Hadland, told me she is an MBA who has been volunteering her time for a year and the problem has exploded during the pandemic.

“The global, unregulated marketplace," she said, "is offering such easy access to these unsuspecting users for scammers in the developing world.”

The next day judgment arrived from PayPal:

Case closed. Look for $55.98 USD in my account.

Which will go a long way toward paying for the pair of Merrill Moab 2 Vents I picked up at DSW for $70 when the lockdown loosened. You can find them online for as low as $62. Real ones, apparently.