The Latest in Online Auction ScamsKim Boatman
Sydney Johnston thought the exercise equipment she spotted on an online auction was a real deal at $200. But the New Jersey seller never delivered the goods.
Johnston’s might be just another cautionary tale about taking care while participating in online auctions but for this: The Atlanta resident is a long-time eBay buyer and seller. She also teaches online auction training courses. And she smartly offered herself a measure of protection in the transaction.
“I used a credit card, so I was safe,’’ she says. “I’m really careful.’’
Online auction sites such as eBay serve these days as the world’s flea market, a chance to empty out your closet or garage and to trade stuff with other folks emptying their closets or garages, sometimes halfway around the world. Auctions are a source for collectibles, from Pokemon trading cards to antique potato mashers, consumer electronics and even big-ticket items such as cars.
Most of us don’t think twice about buying from and selling to strangers through online auctions. And the vast majority of transactions go off without a hitch. But online auction scams continue to top the complaints received by the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership by the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center. Online auction fraud accounts for about 45 percent of the complaints the center receives.
Don’t want to become a victim? Be on the watch for these scams, new ploys and old standbys for auction fraud.
1. The “traveling” salesman
Online auction fraud is big international business. Sellers may make it appear an auction is based in the United States, and then tell you they must leave the country for a family emergency or a similar excuse. They’ll then ask you to wire money via Western Union or a bank-to-bank transfer, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
“If you use Western Union, once it’s gone, it’s gone,’’ says Johnston of your payment. “If you use a credit card, you’ve got recourse.”
Credit card purchases, of course, carry protection. You’ll have little to no hope of recovering your money if you pay via check, cashier’s check or wire transfer.
2. Fake escrow companies
Crooks may offer to use a third-party escrow service to hold funds until goods are delivered. This is another case of buyers and/or sellers beware: The crooks are in cahoots with the fake escrow company, and either your merchandise or your cash is never seen again. Use a reputable escrow company such as Internet Escrow Services, and be particularly wary, since the bad guys will attempt to duplicate the appearance of the escrow company's web site.
3. The old switcheroo
Passing off inferior, counterfeit merchandise as the real deal is a time-honored con. It’s no different in online auctions, where there’s a huge market right now in counterfeit designer handbags, says Johnston. It’s quite simple for a con artist to either post a photo of a real designer bag or to buy one designer bag to use in photos, then send you a cheap knockoff, says Johnston.
“If it looks and sounds too good to be true, it probably is when it comes to online auction fraud,’’ says Craig Butterworth, a spokesman for the National White Collar Crime Center. “If you do your homework, where does your intuition take you?”
4. Counterfeit cashier’s checks
The bad guys, often located out of the country, offer to pay with a cashier’s check made out for more than the transaction amount. You’re asked to wire the excess back on a false pretense, such as paying some associated cost. But the check is actually fraudulent.
Phishing, or soliciting your valuable personal information by impersonating a legitimate business such as eBay, remains prevalent, says Butterworth. Criminals will attempt to hijack your eBay account by getting you to respond to emails asking for account information such as your password. Once they have the necessary information, they can commit fraud by conducting bogus sales on your account -- and damaging your reputation as a seller.
And now that you know the kinds of scams floating around out there, the next step is to avoid them. Online auctions might be favorite targets of scam artists, but there are practical ways to stay safe, says Johnston.
Know the seller. Evaluate a seller’s rating and check out his or her sales history. Make sure you understand your obligations as a buyer and/or seller in every transaction.
Avoid live links inside an email. Never log onto eBay or PayPal, by using a live link that it is included in an email to you. Review with caution any email purported to be related to an online auction.
Know the merchandise. Make sure you understand both the item you’re buying and the market for that type of item. Make sure you’re conversant in the vocabulary for collectibles, and ask plenty of questions.
Start small. If you’re new to online auctions, begin modestly, says Johnston, with transactions that won’t make or break you.
Educate yourself. A number of organizations, including the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission, offer practical tips related to online auction fraud on their web sites. The Federal Citizen Information Center offers information about all sorts of scams and consumer-related fraud. You can even sign up to have regular updates on frauds and scams sent to your email address. The Internet Crime Complaint Center provides information about current trends in online fraud.
“There are some really good deals out there,’’ says Johnston. “But people want to believe so badly that they’re going to make a fortune that they talk themselves into things when they should know better.”
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