Online auctions can be a great place for finding deals at any time of year, but over the holidays such sites become hot spots for tracking down popular and hard-to-get gifts — such as new game consoles or must-have toys. The Better Business Bureau offers advice to shoppers on how to avoid getting ripped off when searching for bargains through online auctions.
According to Jupiter Research, $38 billion will be spent on items auctioned through eBay alone in 2009.
For most buyers and sellers, the transaction is successful; however, online auctions can be fertile ground for scammers. In 2008, half of all complaints to the FBI related to online fraud were the result of online auction fraud and non-delivery of merchandise.
Online auctions can sometimes be the only place to find that must-have gift. Whenever demand for a specific item reaches a fever pitch, it provides a great opportunity for scammers.
When bidding online for items, BBB recommends that shoppers:
n Find out how the auction site protects buyers and sellers from fraud. A responsible online auction site will take steps to protect both buyers and sellers from fraud. Find out what actions the auction site will take in your defense if you become a victim of an unscrupulous seller.
n Compare the cost of the item elsewhere. Scammers will often price their items lower than the competition in order to lure in buyers. A lowball minimum bid for an item should be considered a red flag.
n Research the seller. Online auction sites often provide the opportunity for buyers to rate sellers and provide feedback on the transaction. These reviews are a great way to determine the seller’s track record, but keep in mind that reviews are typically not authenticated and some sellers will pay for flattering reviews in order to mislead buyers.
n Ask plenty of questions. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask the seller questions about the item, including how they came to own it, its condition and if you can return it if you’re not satisfied. Also, find out whether the cost of shipping is included in the bidding price and, if not, clarify what the added delivery cost will be.
n Don’t be lured away from the auction site. In some cases, scammers will try to convince bidders to complete a transaction outside of the auction site, perhaps by telling losing bidders that the seller actually has more of the same item available. Leaving the Web site means you are no longer covered by the protections and guarantees provided by the auction business.
n Use a secure form of payment. Use a credit card or a secure payment service, such as PayPal, when purchasing items through an online auction. If the seller insists on using an escrow service, always research that business fully with the BBB.
Never wire cash payments — such as through MoneyGram or Western Union — to someone you don’t know.
Kelvin Collins is president/CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Central Georgia and the CSRA Inc., serving 41 counties in Middle Georgia and the central Savannah River area. This tips column is provided through the local BBB and the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Questions or complaints about a specific company or charity should be referred directly to the BBB at (478) 742-7999, www.bbb.org or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.