Buyer And Seller Beware Of Online Auctions

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The good, the bad and the brain-scarringly ugly. In a nutshell, that pretty much describes the buying-and-selling spectrum in store for those who choose to dive head-first into the realm of Internet auctions.

But first, a word to the uninitiated.

Whether you're looking to sell a collectible or thinking about selling that treasure you discovered in the attic, Internet auctions can provide a fantasy world of possibilities.

Since their first appearance in 1995 when some guy in San Jose, Calif., created eBay, now the Web's largest auction house, to sell his girlfriend's collection of Pez dispensers they have become one of the hottest reasons to bother with surfing the Web.

How hot? Well, suffice to say that eBay now has approximately 1,500 online imitators.

Yet despite this growing popularity, many people don't know how to take part in them without being ripped off.

Internet auction fraud is on the rise, with an increasing number of consumers complaining about sellers who deliver their advertised goods late or not at all, or deliver something far less valuable than promised.

And now, back to good, the bad and the brain-scarringly ugly.

The Good

Payson real estate agent Tim Miles represents a fine local example of the unusually good electric-bidding-and-buying experience.

He's had three of them, in fact. And all were for big-ticket items.

Miles' first eBay purchase was a 1988 454 Chevy Suburban for $5,200. Then, hot to buy a 1958 Ford Fairlane Skyliner hardtop convertible, he used a multi-search engine to find one on sale in Florida with only 82,000 original miles and a $16,000 price tag not counting the one-way airline ticket Miles purchased on the Web to collect the car and drive it home.

But neither of those qualify as Miles' biggest Internet purchase.

A few months ago while browsing eBay, Miles happened upon a 1954 Ford fire truck, complete with front pump and hose, and with less than 5,000 miles on its odometer. But when the seller's reserve (lowest acceptable price) of $2,750 was not met, the fire truck was taken off the auction block unsold.

"When it didn't sell, I contacted the seller. He told me he was going to put it back on eBay, because his son was getting married and he needed the money ... but I got the money together before he put it back up for auction, and he said, 'Let's do it.'

And that's how Tim Miles ended up owning the antique but fully-functional vehicle for just $2,500 not counting the $800 it cost Miles to have it shipped from Iowa to Payson, or the $1,000 he spent on a brake job.

"Overall, my experiences with online auctions have been positive," Miles said. "But I'm the kind of person who believes in 'Let the buyer beware.' If you don't check out what you want to buy before you buy it online, and if you don't know your product, you'll end up having to accept some responsibility yourself."

The Bad

Experiences within this category can occur without the auction bidder even knowing it.

One local eBay seller who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons admits to having put a valuable watch up for sale, giving the auction 10 days to close, and setting his reserve at $2,000.

For the first few days, bidding was hot and heavy. By the seventh day, however, bidding slowed to a near halt at $3,000. With three days left on the auction, the seller asked a friend to bid on the watch, driving the price up even further.

The final sale price: $3,700, which the out-of-town buyer happily paid, thinking he or she had finagled a screamin' deal.

The brain-scarringly ugly

In this nightmarish realm, both buyer and seller know that a rip-off has been perpetrated, and formal complaints fly through the air like confetti.

Although no Payson online-auction addicts have come forward with any such tales of woe, they are abundant and increasing every day, from coast to coast.

One toy collector named Christina Platthy paid $1,815 for a what was described as a rare "Quackers" Beanie Baby manufactured without wings but was mailed a run-of-the-line version, worth about $5, with the wings obviously cut off.

Pennsylvanian Jamison Piatt was turned in by angry eBay buyers who never got the Furby toys he promised. He has agreed to repay them $3,600.

Bidders aren't always bastions of honesty, either. Some offered up to $200,000 for a jacket autographed by morning TV star Katie Couric. After bogus bids were sniffed out, the jacket sold for just $11,400.

The legal stand of virtually all of the online auction houses is that they can't be forced to protect consumers against bogus buys any more than a newspaper can be held responsible for the promises of its advertisers.

It is also their claim that Internet auction fraud is not as common as one might fear. In a recent interview, eBay CEO Meg Whitman said that fraud is "exceptionally rare" among its 1 million users less than 1/100 of 1 percent of its 700,000 daily auctions.

Of course, many victims report their problems elsewhere. The National Consumers League, for one, gets 600 complaints a month about Internet fraud and two-thirds of them involve auction fraud.

The moral of the story?

When it comes to Internet auctions, let the buyer and seller beware.

Online auction tips

To make Internet auction transactions as smooth and successful as possible for everyone involved, the Federal Trade Commission offers these tips and others on its Web site (www.ftc.gov):

For Buyers

Identify the seller and check the seller's feedback rating.

Do your homework. Be sure you understand what you're bidding on, its relative value and all terms and conditions of the sale. This includes the seller's return policies and who pays for shipping.

Establish your top price and stick to it.

Evaluate your payment options. If possible, pay with a credit card to ensure the most protections if something goes wrong. If the seller doesn't accept credit cards, consider using an escrow service.

For Sellers

Provide an accurate description of the item you're selling, including all terms of the sale and who will pay shipping costs.

Respond quickly to any questions bidders may raise during the auction.

Contact the high bidder as soon as possible after the auction closes to confirm details of the sale.

Ship the merchandise as soon as you receive payment.

Auction sites

Here are a few Internet sites to get you started in the world of online auctions:

eBay (www.eBay.com) is one of the largest auction sites, boasting nearly two million items for sale in over fifteen hundred categories, making it a great place to check out as your first online auction site. But before you begin bidding, first read their tutorial and frequently asked questions to learn the rules of how eBay conducts its business and charges fees for participation.

Amazon.com (www.amazon.com), the Internet book-selling giant, entered the auction business in April 1999 with many of the features and much of the look-and-feel of eBay.

The Internet Auction List (www.internetauctionlist.com) is actually a list of over 1400 different auction sites, and lets you search for specific types of auctions in a variety of ways, including by geography. Depending on what you want to buy or sell, you may prefer an auction site in your state, or at least in the same country, to reduce shipping and customs costs, delays and hassles.

BidFind (www.bidfind.com) is a searchable index of items for sale in on-going auctions at numerous sites (including eBay).

OnSale (www.onsale.com) holds auctions for manufacturers and resellers trying to reduce excess inventory. So while you'll see lots of used and collectible merchandise at eBay, here you can look for bargain prices on new goods in the categories of computer products, sports and fitness, home and office, and travel.

If you decide to venture into the world of online auctions, make sure you have a fast and reliable connection to the Internet. Auctions are time-constrained.

The delays you might put up with when you are doing ordinary shopping might prove extremely annoying or even disastrous if you are trying to buy something you "absolutely need" and the bidding goes down to the last second. You don't want to be waiting for a page to load, while your competitor places the winning bid, just one cent more than yours, in the last second of the event.

from various Internet sources

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