Buying pot online? Risks go beyond breaking the law

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The black market is now an open market, even if it is a little confusing.

By 2020, 11 states will have legalized recreational marijuana, and North Carolina is not among them. In fact, the Tar Heel State considers both recreational and medicinal pot illegal.

On the federal level, moreover, marijuana is still considered a controlled substance on the same level as heroin.

"I didn't know what to think," a Raleigh resident told ABC11 on condition of anonymity because he acknowledged he was potentially breaking the law.

The man, who says he suffers from anxiety, searched online and found several websites claiming to ship marijuana from places like Colorado and Washington.

"I contacted (one) website about medical marijuana. No one answers the phone but they will text," the man writes on the Better Business Bureau's Scam Tracker. "They had me send them $130.00 for oz. I sent them the money and they later contacted me and wanted an additional $80 for insurance. I didn't send them anymore money but I did lose $130.00. These people are scamming lots of people with this online scheme."

In another complaint posted on the Scam Tracker, a woman says she was almost scammed out of $500 trying to buy "medical alternatives" to relieve pain from a "terminal" condition.

"They charge 'medical' cannabis (and other similar products) at outrageous prices and has social media workers who claim to have benefited from these products," the woman writes, adding that an associate instructed her to purchase and take a picture of a Walmart gift card, which was the red flag that stopped her sale.

Indeed, even if the transactions were legitimate -- and the customers received their products -- they would be breaking state and federal laws. The I-Team reached out to federal, state and local law enforcement, which acknowledged that fact but conceded the difficulty in tracking small shipments.

Still, legal ramifications and the loss of money may not be the only serious risks involved with shopping for pot online; buying marijuana products online could also pose health concerns.

Da'Quan Myers and Sirsha Davis are the co-owners of Your CBD Store in Fayetteville, which sells legal hemp products that lack the THC that makes you high. They explain that states with legal marijuana mandate robust regulations, including the prohibition of shipping out of state. Those regulations also ensure the purity of the product, which may be lacking in an unauthorized store.

"Anywhere you go to, even if it's California or Colorado, they should be able to tell where it's from, where it was planted, when it was planted, the lot number, what kind it is," Myers said. As for buying online, "It's like taking a chance getting it off the street. That's scary."

More specifically, Myers warns that unregulated marijuana could be infused with synthetic materials.

According to Davis, several customers have also complained about scams related to CBD oils and other hemp products.

"For the last couple weeks we've been getting people coming in buying CBD from Amazon or other websites. A lot of them don't send proper lab reports, they don't know where they come from," he says, adding that his store is as much about education as it is about sales.

"Since CBD is so popular nowadays and so influential, people are just purchasing on the strength of 'CBD' instead of getting trained on it."

As for tips on how to spot legitimate versus fake products, Myers and Davis point to the ingredients on the label.

"If it starts to say oxiden or oxy that means something is wrong with the bottle. It's almost anything that you can't pronounce. These are chemicals but we're supposed to be talking about all natural products not something with chemicals inside of it."

The Better Business Bureau offers the following tips for general online shopping:

  • Know the advertiser. Some of the best deals are only available online, but be careful. It's easy for a fake site to mimic a famous retailer's website, so make sure you are shopping with a legitimate site. Check out retailers at bbb.org before you shop.
  • Be aware of grammatical errors and inconsistent content. Websites created by scammers often times have misspelled words or incorrect sentence structures because English is typically not their first language. Another red flag is if the content is inconsistent with the products being sold on the website. Scammers will sometimes copy and paste text from other websites that have nothing to do with the items that are listed.
  • Check a site's security settings. If the site is secure, its URL (web address) should start with "https://" and include a lock icon on the purchase or shopping cart page.
  • Be a savvy shopper. When shopping online, be sure to take your time, and read the fine print before submitting your order. Look for the return policy; although many online orders can be returned for a full refund, others have restocking fees. Some items cannot be returned; know before you buy.
  • Protect personal information. Read a site's privacy policy and understand what personal information is being requested and how it will be used. If a site doesn't have a privacy policy, that's a big red flag that it may be a scam.
  • Think before your click. Be especially cautious about email solicitations and online ads on social media sites. Many sketchy retailers advertise great deals or trendy clothing that don't measure up to the promotional hype.
  • Beware of too-good-to-be-true deals. Offers on websites and in unsolicited emails may offer free or very low prices on hard-to-find items. There may be hidden costs or your purchase may sign you up for a monthly charge. Look for and read the fine print.
  • Beware of phishing. Phishing emails can look like a message from a well-known brand, but clicking on unfamiliar links can place you at risk for malware and/or identity theft. One popular scam claims to be from a package-delivery company with links to "tracking information" on an order you don't remember making. Don't click!
  • Shop with a credit card. In case of a fraudulent transaction, a credit card provides additional protections; it's easier to dispute charges that you didn't approve. Debit cards, prepaid cards or gift cards don't have the same protections as a credit card.
  • Keep documentation of your order. Save a copy of the confirmation page or email confirmation until you receive the item and are satisfied. Be sure to know and understand the return policy and keep this documented with your purchase records.
  • Keep a clean machine. Install a firewall, anti-virus, and anti-spyware software. Check for and install the latest updates and run virus scans regularly on your computer, tablet, and smart phone.
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