How Does Bait And Switch Work?

You may be familiar with the situation. Out of nowhere, you find an ad that sounds too good to be true. The offer sounds simplistic and doesn’t get into detail.

You give it a try, go through the process, and the offer quickly turns into something different. It doesn’t take many questions to start hearing excuses of why you can’t get the advertised price.

The offer may exist, but it has nothing to do with the promise.

The next time you find such a promotion, will you trust the brand?

Contradictory Expectations


Although these tactics are unethical, some variations touch the grey area between manipulation and persuasion

All the time, in business, sellers are trying to get your attention. Whether that’s good or bad will depend on the product they offer. But as far as logic works, those who spend more time advertising will have less time to create quality products. Your favorite brands probably don’t need to abuse persuasive marketing to advertise an already brilliant product.

Then, when do bait and switch make sense?

  • You trick people with a low-entry price or free trial for a service. Sellers may agree that the client may not know how helpful their products are until they try them.

These offers don’t intend to give you the best deal, but a testing opportunity.

  • Keyword baiting. Some marketers think: if they only had all the eyeballs in the world, they’d be making far more money. So they go broad with advertising and target far keywords. Although it may help to boost sales, most visitors will be confused to see different results from their search intent.
  • In a store, you only need to lower a few items in price to advertise them all as discounted. When they advertise “up to 70% off on eligible items,” they get people into the store to watch, even though they may not want the discounted ones.

When Bait And Switch Becomes Unethical

Fraudulent Bait-and-Switch creates misleading expectations. They never tell you the total price. Instead, they play on conditions:

How long is the offer valid?

Do you require subscriptions to qualify?

Are there limited quantities available?

If you had to commit, how much money does it save you long term?

It can be deceiving to see ads omitting this data on purpose. That’s because they crafter them to catch attention, not to give you a good deal!

If you think to be the lucky one who qualifies for that high-entry promotion, be ready for the surprise. The offer doesn’t exist except in the sign.

Bait And Switch Strategies

Bait And Switch Strategies

If it’s too good to be true…

Is it always like that? 

Cannot a good offer be real? Does it always lead to an excuse?

Unless you ask the seller, we lack the information to know whether it’s worth it or not. Even if you do, they may still con you in different ways:

Fake Fees

Imagine you buy an expensive product for a few grand. It turns out the product is fake, or sellers don’t deliver in quality, so you request a refund.

The seller returns you the money except for a tiny amount, about $50 to $200. If you spent over $3000, for example, this steal might look as if you had to pay for some processing fees.

Research a little, and you’ll see: the fees don’t exist, nor does the product. The seller wants to get a few easy bucks.

Fake Trials

Free trials work great, except when you don’t like the product. Try-hard salespeople will make it easy to sign up and hard to unsubscribe. Be ready for unexpected charges and refund disputes.

Trials can lead to nasty advance payment tricks:

Say you join a $50 program with a one-month free trial. The brand will ask for your credit card and take the amount. They will reserve it for the second month if you like it. If you don’t, the refund and cancel your subscription.

If the server doesn’t exist (fraudulent), sellers will make this upfront charge and disappear. If you bought through their store, they never refund you.

Hidden Costs

People often reserve services to earn discounts. What they may not know is that there may appear more costs once they arrive.

  • You rent an apartment, but the owner didn’t cover the repair.
  • You reserve a hotel room, but they don’t include all the services on the deal.
  • You rent a vehicle, but the tiniest details end up doubling your bill.
  • You get a prize, but there’s an endless obstacle course to claim it.

You pay just as much as you would for the average price, if not more.

Common Bait and Switch Red Flags

Common Bait and Switch Red Flags

Everybody can fall for one once. But after baiting so many times, one learns to recognize them. Given how often they appear in marketing, they will catch you if you’re not prepared.

It doesn’t take much detective work to spot the bait and switch. Whether you should take it or not depends on your risk tolerance.

Make sure to weigh these red flags by quantity. Two could be a coincidence, but five may not!

You don’t know who’s selling it

If a shady stranger offers you something for free, would you take it?

That’s the problem with sellers with no history.

  • You find a deal on Amazon/Etsy/Ebay, but the seller has no reviews.
  • The seller hasn’t sold anything and signed up this month.
  • The seller has a website with no comments on Glassdoor, Trustpilot, or similar.

You have no guarantee that the offer you see is what you actually get. If it were that good, everyone would be talking about it.

Multiple instances

Let’s say you find the same item sold by different sellers on other websites for other prices. What if they’re all the same seller, and that only one of the offers is real? Which one would you pick?

It doesn’t take impressive skills to copy and paste a listing onto another account or platform. If the site doesn’t require you to prove that you own the item, it gets even easier.

When you can’t trust the listing, trust the seller. Ask the most reputable retailer, preferably by phone.

In any case, they have very likely baited you with the wrong offer.

Undisclosed information

You respond to the ad and intend to buy the product. But the seller mentions some other charges may add up (you know, they do it all the time). They say the offer is only valid if you use the eligible payment methods and buy it today.

In short, they’re restricting your payment options and adding time pressure. And you already know you won’t get what they advertised for some factors they didn’t mention. What are the chances that some other fees add up that way? Many.

  • The item may have a different condition.
  • The promotion doesn’t qualify for full refunds.
  • An imposter redirected you to a cloned website (and a fake listing)

Too good to be true

When the offer doesn’t make sense from your side, take the opposite approach. If you were the seller, would you place such a no-brainer deal? Why do you think they do?

If you can’t find an answer, then there’s only one left: to scam.

By thinking like a seller, we mean looking at the average market value. You observe how many people sell the same thing and how their offers differentiate. If one goes far beyond the market, they’re hiding something.

Condition marker

You find the best deal ever, with disclaimers. Rather than tell you the actual price, they make you consult conditions by yourself.

  • Overly simplistic ads show a low price with a “*” next to it.
  • The ad ends with “check the website for conditions”
  • They include a warning in the fine print

Preventive buyers will see these markers, while impulsive shoppers will ignore them and set wrong expectations.  

Scammers show these markers too. Since they want the easiest target, these clues help them filter those who are “too smart” to bait.

Offer not available

A brand runs an ad campaign promoting discounted products starting next week. You arrive there in the first hour in the morning on Monday, ready to buy:

“Our apologies. The item is no longer available.”

How could they run out of stock so fast? Well, they didn’t have it in the first place!

Stock problems aren’t suspicious. What alerts us is that:

  • They never mentioned limited quantities available on the ad.
  • They push you a different, costlier product at the same time.

It was all a dog and pony show to promote an average product nobody was interested in.

Paying outside the platform

The seller mentions a 3rd party their brand uses for payments. It’s the only way to claim the promotion.

What if they are already selling it in a 3rd party e-com platform? Why leave the platform? They want to remove the intermediary to pull a payment trick.

It may cost less to deal with them directly, but if they have no online reputation, you’re opening yourself to uncertainty.

Bait And Switch Variations

Dishonest sellers offer what seems to be the promotion. Even though the packed product may look similar, the value can change greatly. Here are some examples:

#1 Store Refunds

The seller showcases a high-tech product for sale. As new models come out, their prices can double even though they look almost the same. Dishonest marketers may use this distinction to profit from clients who don’t know much about technology. Thus, they spend hundreds of dollars for fewer capabilities.

Customers do it too. Think of small sellers who may lack the tracking technology. Once the buyer receives the product, they swap it for a replica— or a cheaper model— and returns, keeping the real one.

Take a look at the our guide to refund scams.

Not only does it costs dollars, but other clients will start receiving this faulty product and sink the seller’s reputation.

#2 Re-loan

A common bait-and-switch in lending is loan debt forgiveness. After spending mindlessly, debtors start accumulating debt faster than the money they make. Unless you win the lottery, your way out is loan negotiation.

Mind that, whenever you avoid paying what you should, it impacts the credit score, which can limit your financial privileges. Declaring bankruptcy, for example, may help to get rid of most of the debt, but the adverse effects can last years.

Bait-and-switch lenders sell borrowers the debt-free dream for a few hundred dollars. What they do is offering them a second loan that pays for the first. Although it may help the victim to win time, they get tied up to a loan with more interest. Thanks, scammer.

#3 Travel Scams

When traveling abroad, homestays and hotels can make you feel like home. The problem is, you don’t know what to expect until you visit the actual lodging. 

Sometimes, it is different from what you saw in the photos. Some of them redirect you to another location, and others just don’t exist. They give you an unreadable address, or the map shows no hotels.

Of course, they didn’t mention this issue when reserving the room. Once you arrive and can’t get your money back, scammers rip you off.

The hotel may exist, but the listing may not be theirs, but created by an imposter instead.

There are so many variations of fraud in the hospitality industry that we made an ultimate guide to travel scams here.

#4 Real Estate

Here’s the problem with listings: what you see may be an ad placed by mistake, an already bought property, or not exist. The owner will warn you about these listings when you call him by phone.

What if you contact the wrong person, someone who “claims to be the owner”? They will sell you something they don’t have, and there will be nobody to help when you request your money back.

Bait-and-switch also appears in the form of hidden costs the seller didn’t mention. The asking price wasn’t your total cost.

A realtor could also bait clients by offering half fewer commissions, but then charge the ordinary amount:

  1. The agent gets the seller to sign an Exclusive Listing Agreement
  2. The property never uploads to the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), which is where you find 90% of buyers.
  3. The listing doesn’t sell for over a month, and the seller considers switching plans. Then, the realtor uploads to the MLS and charges full commission.

If you start with a realtor, you will likely stay with the same one. If your realtor reduces your costs, make sure he doesn’t lower your chances to sell.

#5 Retail advertising

Take any high-demand product and make a no-brainer offer. Clients will notice the opportunity and try to get one. Then, you say:

” We’re out of stock.”

“This specific variation isn’t available.”

“We placed it by mistake.”

“The ad is outdated/expired yesterday.”

Now that they got their attention, they pull their usual products and boost conversions a little bit. The buyer doesn’t get what they promised, which reduces the brand’s credibility.

#6 Counterfeits

When selling to inexperienced buyers, counterfeits can make a quick buck. As long as the buyer doesn’t intend to sell it, the con will go undetected.

Now, most purchases happen online, where it’s harder to check for authenticity. You have no choice but to trust who they are and what they sell. If they don’t deliver, you use your buying rights and refund.

If you already bought the counterfeit, the seller may still win the refund. They will say they sold the real product, and you swapped it for a fake one. 

Scammers will likely switch counterfeits because they’re easy to fabricate, look real, and offer decent profits. These are the same sellers who want you to pay outside the platform and dislike buyer-protected methods.

Where it may get really dangerous is when you are buying counterfeit medications.

#7 Pigeon Drop

A pair or a team of swindlers will usually work together to accomplish the pigeon drop. The key element is supposed found money or a valuable which will be shared between the one who found the money and the victim (pigeon).

Take a look at the pigeon drop in full detail here.

How To Prevent Bait-and-Switch Scams

How To Prevent Bait and Switch Scams

Bait-and-switch is everywhere. If you don’t have a plan to cover these schemes, you will waste a lot of time on deals that are as absurd as their price.

Remember that sellers have dealt with countless customers and already know how most think. The strategy? Reveal all the hidden information.

#1 Make Accurate Price Questions

If the promotions add limitations to the price, make sure to learn what those exceptions are and beware of any confidence tricks. Assume the shown price is only there to catch your attention, not because they’re making you that deal.

Legit businesses will disclose their conditions before the purchase. It’s illegal to advertise products you don’t have. 

#2 Ask For A Rain Check

In response to the out-of-stock excuse, reserve a unit to buy at the promotion price as soon as it’s available. They made you waste time driving to the store, so the least they can offer you is a rain check.

Remember, you don’t need to buy just because:

  • You’re already in the store.
  • You’re testing the product.
  • You came with the purchase intent, and the seller didn’t deliver.

#3 Learn About Eligible Items

Before you rush into the store, check whether the discount applies to the product you want. Sellers only need to discount two or three models to justify placing discount signs everywhere. You should find those items online or by calling the seller before visiting.

#4 Read Purchase Terms

Clever bait-and-switch scammers will get you to buy before you realize what you are buying. But no matter how many promises they make, the invoice is usually objective. 

Let’s say you pay online with Paypal. Right one click before you buy, a text explains what you will be purchasing. What it says may not be what you thought it to be. Pay attention to detail; terms may change at the very last moment of the sale.

#5 Always have the option to refund

Whenever you pay for a misleading advertisement, you reserve the right to get your money back. If you don’t get that option, and the offer sounds too good to be true, you shouldn’t be buying it.

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