Going once, going twice . . . no sale

Here's how you can protect yourself from online auction scams

Are you anxious to scoop up deals by bidding on items over the Net? You’re not alone. Just be aware that these deals aren’t all bargains. The National Consumer League (NCL) reported that online auction complaints were the No. 1 Internet offense in 1999, representing nearly 90% of all calls.

“The main problem is consumers aren’t getting the goods that they’ve bid on or they sometimes receive damaged goods,” reports Paul Luehr, assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). As the person responsible for supervising federal cases surrounding Internet fraud, Luehr has been working with auction sites to enhance security measures. “Some auction sites are checking out their sellers much more thoroughly. They are requiring a credit card number from the seller and some additional identifying information about the seller above and beyond an e-mail address. In addition, some of them have also instituted rating systems. So if you have problems with a particular seller, you can let other people know. Plus, there are sites that offer buyer’s insurance for a very small fee or a money-back guarantee up to a certain amount.”

Although Luehr has found that the dollar amounts and the types of products involved in these cases vary widely, the NCL has found that sales involving items such as Beanie Babies or other rare products are frequently the center of these fraudulent schemes. In one case, a woman sent a $1,700 money order for a rare Beanie Baby called a Wingless Quacker. When she received the product, it wasn’t the rare item that was advertised but a $5 Beanie Baby with the wings raggedly snipped. Her investment was history. “It’s easy to perpetrate fraud online,” comments Holly Anderson, director of communications for NCL. “By the time you realize the item isn’t coming or has been misrepresented, your money is gone.”

Don’t, however, disconnect your favorite online auction site just yet. First try these precautions to ensure your cyberbid is secure:

  • Shop on reputable auction sites. Use Websites that are familiar to you. Also, ensure that you have valid contact information, including a street address and telephone number. In addition, seek out sites that are affiliated with established retailers or that are actually auctioning products themselves.
  • Do your research. Know how much an item is supposed to cost before you log on. Find out whether you’re purchasing a new, refurbished or used item, and have the seller guarantee the product’s condition in writing. Also, avoid impulse purchases or bids. And don’t forget to read the posted comments from past users.
  • Find out how the site works. Does the site verify that the item actually exists? How much information does the site acquire about the seller? Is there any way to verify the seller’s identity? Are you comfortable with the site’s return policy? The answers to these and other questions may help you determine if this site is for you.
  • Pay by credit card-if possible. “Under the Fair Credit Billing Act you have the right to dispute things purchased on your credit card, including
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