National Consumers League

Personal Finance

NCL Personal Finance Issues

Going once, going twice ... scammed!

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For more than a decade, online auctions have been one of the top-reported frauds to NCL’s Fraud Center. Both buyers and sellers can benefit from online auctions; many people make their living selling items online, and millions of consumers have had positive experiences making purchases. But there are many risks as well, and both buyers and sellers can take steps to avoid becoming a Fraud Center statistic.

 

  • Understand how the auction works. Many online auctions simply list items that people want to sell. They don’t verify that the merchandise actually exists or that it is described accurately, and they can’t guaranty that the sellers will keep their promises.
  • Check out the seller before you bid. Some auction sites have feedback forums with comments about the sellers based on other people’s experiences. Be aware that positive reports may have been “planted” by the seller and negative comments could be from a competitor. Other sources of information are state or local consumer protection agencies and the Better Business Bureau. Negative information is a good warning sign, but a clean complaint record doesn’t guarantee that your transaction will go smoothly.
  • Be careful if the seller is a private individual. Many consumer protection laws don’t apply to private sales, though government agencies may take action if there are many complaints the same individual or criminal fraud is involved.
  • Be especially cautious when dealing with sellers in other countries. If you have a problem, the physical distance, difference in legal systems, and other factors could make resolving it very difficult.
  • Beware of “shills.” The seller may try to raise the price artificially by making bids under fictitious names or recruiting other people to make bids. Using bogus bidders is illegal and a violation of online auction policies.
  • Get the name and contact information of the seller. The name, physical street address, email address, and phone number are helpful to have for checking the seller out and following up later if there is a problem. Don’t do business with anyone who refuses to provide that information.
  • Be wary of claims about collectibles and other expensive items. Since you can’t examine the merchandise or have it appraised until after the sale, don’t assume that claims about its condition or value are true, or that photographs are accurate. Print out and save the description and any photos to document the claims that were made.
  • Ask about delivery, returns, warranties and service before you pay. Get a definite delivery time and insist that the shipment is insured. Ask about the return policy. If you’re buying electronic goods or appliances, find out if there is a warranty and how to get service.
  • Look for information on the auction site about insurance. Some auction sites provide insurance that covers buyers up to a certain amount if something goes wrong. Others may have links to third-party programs that offer insurance for a fee. Read the terms of the insurance carefully. There is often a deductible, and there be other limitations or requirements that apply. For example, you may not be covered if the seller had a negative feedback rating on the auction site at the time of the transaction.
  • Pay by credit card. Under federal law, you can dispute the charges if you paid the seller with a credit card and the goods were never delivered or if they were misrepresented. If you are paying through an intermediary service, ask what happens in the case of disputes.
  • Look for bonded sellers. Some sellers are bonded through programs that have investigated their business backgrounds and credit histories and guaranty your money back if they don’t fulfill their promises. Click on the program symbol to learn how the bonding program works and verify that the seller is a member in good standing.
  • Consider using an escrow service for expensive purchases that aren’t covered by insurance or bonding. For a small fee, an escrow service takes your payment and forwards it to the seller once you confirm satisfactory delivery.  If there is a dispute, the escrow service may act as a referee.  Ask if the service is licensed and bonded, and how you can confirm that with the appropriate agency.
  • Try mediation to resolve disputes. Not all problems are due to fraud. Sometimes people simply fail to hold up their side of the bargain in a timely manner or there may be a misunderstanding about something. Some auction sites provide links to third-party mediation services that help people resolve disputes. There may be a small fee that is usually paid by the party who requests the mediation.
  • Inform auction sites about suspected fraud. They may have policies to remove sellers from their sites if they use “shills” or don’t live up to their obligations.