Tips For Buying At Auction

The Internet Fraud Watch, operated by the nonprofit National Consumers League, receives more reports about problems with online auction purchases than about any other type of Internet fraud.

The most common problems: the merchandise was never delivered, the item was misrepresented, goods were damaged in shipment or were defective.

Online auctions can be a fun way to shop, but remember that in cyberspace what you see isn't always what you get. Use caution and
common sense, and you'll be less likely to have a bad online auction experience.

Here are the tips from the National Consumers League:

  • Understand how the auction works. Many online auctions simply list items that people want to sell. They don't verify if the merchandise actually exists or is described accurately.
  • Check out the seller. For company information, contact the state or local consumer protection agency and Better Business Bureau where you live and also where the company is located. Look at the auction site's feedback section for comments about the seller. Be aware that glowing reports could be "planted" by the seller, and that a clean complaint record doesn't guarantee that someone is legitimate.
  • Be especially careful if the seller is a private individual. Most consumer protection laws and government agencies that enforce them don't deal with private sales, so if you have a problem, it could be impossible to resolve.
  • Get a physical address and other identifying information. You'll need the seller's name, street address, and telephone number to check them out or follow up if there is a problem. Don't do business with sellers who won't provide that information.
  • Ask about delivery, returns, warranties, and service. 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.
  • Be wary of claims about collectibles. Since you can't examine the item or have it appraised until after the sale, you can't assume that claims made about it are valid. Insist on getting a written statement describing the item and its value before you pay.
  • Use common sense to guide you. Ask yourself, is what the seller promises realistic? Is this the best way to buy this item? What is the most I am willing to bid for it?
  • Pay the safest way. Requesting cash is a clear sign of fraud. If possible, pay by credit card because you can dispute the charges if the goods are misrepresented or never arrive. Or, use an escrow agent, who acts as a go-between to receive the merchandise and forward your payment to the seller. Another option is cash on delivery (COD). Pay by check made out to the seller, not the post office, so you can stop payment if necessary.
  • Let the auction site know if you have a problem. Some sites investigate problems like "shill" being used to bid prices up or other abuses of the auction system. They may also want to know about sellers who don't deliver or misrepresent their wares. A bad record may result in a seller being barred from using the site again.

    To file a complaint, go to National Fraud Information Center

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