Are You Being Plant Scammed? 5 Smart Tips for Outsmarting Sneaky Sellers

updated Apr 6, 2021
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It’s no secret that the houseplant market is booming. In the months after COVID-19 hit in 2020, most people found themselves spending a lot more time at home. Not long after, all the pictures of pretty plants posted on social media enticed thousands to join the ranks of hobby plant collectors. Online swap and trade sites were swamped with gorgeous philodendrons, monsteras, and hoyas — all to be snatched up by the quickest thumbs or the highest bidder.

With that demand, the prices of “rare” houseplants have skyrocketed. Some of the most expensive tropicals being sold on the houseplant market are selling for thousands of dollars. Demand is increasing, which is, unfortunately, allowing space for price gouging and fraud. 

Have you caught the “rare” houseplant fever? Are you thinking about dropping a couple of Benjamins on one of your wish-list plants? Congratulations! But remember to be careful. It’s easier than you think to get plant-scammed through listings on online marketplaces, in online forums, via social media, or from small-scale online sellers.

If you’re in the market and shopping online, heed this advice to keep yourself from getting duped. These are a few tricks that scammers use to draw you in, take your money, and then spit you out — without your dream plant. 

Note the angle of the photograph.

If you’re involved in the houseplant world on social media, you’ve seen these photos. There are usually two subjects in the frame: the plant and the person holding the plant. The person is holding the plant with its leaves and crown (the center) in full view. 

What you don’t see is that the person is holding the plant out, straight armed, towards the camera. This is a simple trick of perspective that makes the plant look twice (or sometimes triple) its size. A photo from this angle can make a 4-inch potted plant look like an 8-inch one.

If you look in the background and objects look remarkably smaller than the plant in the foreground, you can bet the photo was taken with this trick. 

Sellers will post these types of photos to trick you into thinking you’re buying a much larger, fuller plant. Make sure not to go off the photo alone; the measurements, which should be listed in the description, are the best way to determine if a plant is worth its price.

Make sure the picture is of the plant you’re buying, and not just the mother plant.

When looking at a plant listing, it’s very important to read the fine print. Most of the time sellers will post photos of a larger, more mature plant before posting photos of the actual plant that is for sale. 

It’s not unheard of for a buyer to want insight on what the plant will look like when it matures, but it gets tricky when the seller isn’t explicit and upfront with the customer. 

Be sure and read the entire listing. Sometimes the information is hidden towards the bottom of the block of text, and will say something like “*photo is not of the plant for sale.’

Note that just because sellers post these types of photos doesn’t mean they’re trying to scam you — many want you to see what the plant will look like after it’s been given time to grow. Just make sure that, as a buyer, you read the entire listing. 

Beware shockingly low price points.

Many of the gorgeous “rare” tropical plants that everyone is coveting are selling for outrageous amounts of money. Sellers are shopping around unrooted cuttings or nodes for hundreds of dollars. For instance, a small Philodendron “Strawberry Shake” is currently going for upwards of $600. A mature (and ever-popular) Monstera albo borsigiana will sell for $1,000 or more. 

If you stumble upon a listing of a plant with a price that’s significantly lower than you’ve seen that plant sell for, the listing is probably too good to be true. (Sorry!) You can always feel the seller out, but more than likely you’ll find that it’s some kind of sketchy set up that you should stay out of. 

Credit: Liz Calka

Pay attention to a seller’s communication.

When buying online from a seller, communication is key. Go with your gut. If you’ve reached out with questions about their product and you get an odd response, pass. If you find that the seller is trying to string you along, pass on that, too. 

The world of online plant buying and selling can get into murky territory. You’ll have to purchase the plant before the seller will send it to you. There are cases of social media sales where the seller simply pockets the money, doesn’t send the plant (because it probably doesn’t exist), and then moves the listing to another forum. 

This is why a seller’s reputation is just as important as the plant you’re trying to buy. Online, word travels fast. It’s rare that a scammer will try to sell in the same place twice. If you’re curious or feeling iffy about a situation, ask around. If the seller has any kind of clout, folks will know. That also goes for the reverse. If the seller has scammed anyone, people will usually have heard. In some cases, as with sellers on Facebook Marketplace or on Etsy, there will be ratings and reviews to consult on the seller’s profile.

Closely inspect the listing photo.

Last, but not least, make sure to know what you’re looking for when it comes to the listing photo. Do your research on the plant that the seller is advertising, especially if the plant has bizarre coloring or variegation, so that you know what it should look like.

Last year, a “new” philodendron came on the market advertised as “Philodendron “Pink Congo.” The plant was marketed as having leaves that appeared to be completely pink, with no variegation. People lost their minds over it. These “new” plants sold for hundreds of dollars. In the end, though, it was a total scam. Growers were chemically treating Philodendron “Congos” with a gas that changed the color of the leaves temporarily. (Fun fact: it’s the same gas that distributors use to ripen bananas!) Buyers would get the plant in the mail and in a matter of weeks the entire thing would turn back green. 

You can still find these plants on the market, so buyer beware. 

One important thing to know is that leaves without chlorophyll cannot sustain a plant. This is one reason that variegated plants require special care. So if you see a plant for sale with leaves that are almost entirely white or pink, it’s most likely a scam or a chemically-modified plant that will not thrive as-is.