Going, going, gone

Q: I really would like to participate in online auctions, but I am afraid of getting scammed. Is there anything I can do to protect myself?
– L. Jackson, Washington, D.C.

A: Unfortunately, online auction buyers are being ripped off all the time. Some send in their money and never receive their goods, or they receive fake or broken merchandise. In fact, there has been an increase in the number of Internet fraud cases. The National Consumer League in Washington, D.C., received 10,660 complaints about consumer fraud in 1999 (87% were for online auctions), almost a 36% increase from the year before.

Even the big three, eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo, admit to fraud on their sites. These sites also argue that they have programs in place to try to keep fraud to a minimum. You can get a refund if you get burned on Amazon and eBay. With eBay, you can get back up to $200, after a $25 deductible. All auctions are guaranteed up to $250 with Amazon. For those auctions in which the seller pays through Amazon’s 1-click program, refunds are guaranteed up to $1,000.

But until online auctions do a better job of policing their sites, which may come sooner than later thanks to recent lawsuits, your best form of protection is to follow the old adage “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware). Use your head. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
At one time, the primary way to protect yourself was to study feedback tables, which were comments by buyers about a particular seller. Of course, they didn’t keep scam artists from building up great reputations and then cashing in on their good name by later hosting phony auctions.

To better protect yourself from online scams, see the seven tips outlined in “Going Once, Going Twice . . . No Sale,” Shopsmart, March 2000.

For more information on online offers and fraudulent transactions, visit the Internet Fraud Watch hotline (www.fraud.org). Also read Internet Auctions: A Guide for Buyers and Sellers, a publication of the FTC. You can order a copy of the guide or file a complaint online at www.ftc.gov or call 887-382-4357.

ACROSS THE WEB