Avoiding Online Auction Fraud

Online Auction Bid

Online auctions are a great way to buy almost anything. Like the world's biggest and strangest shopping mall, there are people selling things you didn't even know existed. For the most part, people who are selling items in online auctions are friendly and honest and the transaction is smooth and easy. Unfortunately, not all people are honest. Sometimes dishonest sellers try to dupe buyers. Once you've learned their tricks, you can be on the lookout for them and avoid getting involved in online auction fraud.

Seven Ways to Protect Yourself Against Online Auction Fraud

Auction fraud isn't always about paying for an item you don't receive; it can often be buying the wrong items, not getting what you paid for, or being mislead about the condition of an item you are buying. Luckily, there are ways to look for fraud and avoid it.

1. Check Seller Ratings

Check out the seller's rating and feedback received for past sales before placing a bid. This can be an indicator of how trustworthy they are, as well as give you an idea of how many auction transactions they have completed via the site. However, keep in mind that not all people will leave feedback. Due to fears of retaliation, some buyers will avoid leaving negative feedback and leave either neutral or no feedback, and even some who have positive experiences won't take the time to rate a seller. Read the comments that are left; don't just look at the numbers.

2. Watch for Fake Photos

Almost every listing has a picture of the item with it. Dishonest sellers will put up a misleading photo or even a photo of a different item. It may even be a stock photograph. There are a number of ways to spots potentially fake photos:

  • Is the image too perfect? If it is a professional-looking picture for a $10 item, then something could be amiss.
  • Has it been tampered with? Take a close look at the photo to look for fuzziness or unnatural lines which could indicate that the photo has been altered.
  • Finally, does the photo match the description? Be sure you are seeing what you are bidding on.

3. Standard Product Photos

Some auction sites, including ebay, feature some stock images for movies, books, and anything else with an ISBN. The image you see may not be the true image of the item, but just a standard photo provided by the website when the seller put the item number in. In this case, the photo isn't proof that the seller even has the item.

  • If the photo seems to be a standard picture, you may want to check out more information about the seller, such as the rating.
  • If they have never sold an item before, and if the item they're selling is expensive, then you may want to look elsewhere.
  • Ask to see additional images not available as stock graphics, such as a photo of the copyright page of a book or of the DVD itself rather than just the package.
  • Remember that if a deal seems too good to be true, you may want to avoid it.

4. Be Alert to Misleading Descriptions

Sometimes descriptions include too much flowery language or important details are omitted. Make sure you match the description to the photo to see if they line up.

  • When possible, use the Internet to research similar items to make sure the description makes sense.
  • Contact the seller if you have questions to get clarification. If they can't give you more details or they are inconsistent with their information then it may be a sign that something is wrong.
  • Another good way to make sure that the description is honest is to look for similar items. If it's an exact match, then you may have a seller simply "spoofing" something that sold previously.
  • Make sure the the description matches the item exactly. For example, if the image is of a television and DVD player, read carefully to see if both items are being sold or if you're actually only bidding on the DVD player. Sellers may use intentionally misleading images to make something seem to be more than it is.

5. Take Care to Avoid Pirated and Stolen Goods

If the price is way too low; it may be a counterfeit item or pirated item, or it could have been stolen. Be careful not to buy something illegal. Keep in mind that if you buy stolen goods, then you may lose them. If someone has filed a police report for the item in question, then the original owner has a right to have the item returned. You could lose the item and face having to try to get your money back from the dishonest seller.

  • Computer software, electronic games and DVDs are particularly vulnerable to piracy. Make sure these goods are in their original packaging. If the prices are significantly below retail, chances are they are not legitimate copies.
  • Stolen goods, particularly electronics and jewelry, often find their way on to auction sites. If you are uncertain about the product, ask the seller about the history of the item. If the story doesn't seem to make sense, don't buy the item.
  • Counterfeit designer goods often show up on auction sites as so-called bargains. Know how to tell the signs of fake designer handbags and other high-end goods before ordering them through an auction.
  • Disreputable sellers may attempt to pass off costume jewelry as real via auction sites. Ask for certificates of authenticity or appraisal records before buying an engagement ring or other piece of jewelry through an online auction.

6. Follow Up On Items Not Received

Since you pay for an item before it is shipped, dishonest sellers can receive your money and not send you anything.

  • Generally, once an auction ends, the seller will confirm the sale and mark the item "shipped" within two to three days. Depending the auction site and shipping method you're using, you will often get a confirmation email with a tracking number, if available. If you do not get a confirmation within three days, try to contact the buyer. If you do not hear back within a week, most auction sites allow you to file a complaint.
  • To protect yourself, it is best to pay extra to have your item insured and use a shipping method that can be tracked, like USPS Priority Mail or UPS Ground shipping. You can also choose to pay extra to have a signature required at the time of delivery if it makes you feel more comfortable with the purchase.
  • If necessary, implement the auction site's complaint process. In most cases, the site will first attempt to contact the seller. If that fails, then the auction site will investigate. In most cases, the transaction will be cancelled and your money will be refunded. However, keep in mind that the process can take time. From the time of the sale to the time of the refund, it can be almost a month.

7. Use Preferred Payment Methods

Auction websites have limited how buyers can pay for the items they have won as a way of providing increased purchase protection. Check the auction site you are using for their own policies, and be aware of their rules and regulations. Never "go around" site requirements to pay sellers directly as a way of avoiding fees. Doing so will keep you from being able to fall back on auction site policies and procedures, and a seller that asks you to do this is likely planning to scam you.

  • Paypal: As of January 2013, eBay's preferred method of payment is PayPal. This is because PayPal "hides" the credit card number from the seller, and PayPal can trace the payment. Because of that, if there is a problem, the buyer can invoke the eBay Buyer Protection, which covers up to the full purchase price of the item, including shipping charges.
  • Similar services: Other online services, such as Skrill and Paymate, are also options that include the eBay Buyer Protection.
  • Escrow.com: For large items, such as eBay Motors, it is possible to use Escrow.com for the purchases. When purchasing items, eBay does not recommend or allow checks, money orders, or even bank wire transfers for most purchases because of the risk of fraud.

Be a Careful Consumer

While there may be fraud in some online auctions, as long as you are a careful consumer who does your research and uses only approved payment methods, you can stay safe and get good deals. Just be sure you know what you are bidding on and are comfortable with the seller before you buy from them.

Avoiding Online Auction Fraud