Guide to eBay



Avoiding Rip-offs

Some people have the same opinion of eBay that Obi-Wan Kenobi had of Mos Eisley Spaceport;

"Never will you find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy "

To listen to them, you might be excused for thinking that eBay was full of evil people who are taking a few minutes out of their busy schedules (kidnapping children and selling them into slavery) in order to scam you out of your hard-earned money or goods. This is simply not true - most bidders and sellers are honest folk looking for a good deal.

However, eBay is big. Really big. You won't believe just how vastly, hugely mindbogglingly big it is... but I digress. One unfortunate consequence of eBay's popularity is that they have attracted the attention of a bunch of less-than-savory characters. It sometimes seems that every scammer and dumpster-diver has found their way to eBay.

Before going any further, I need to clarify what a rip-off is. A rip-off is where either:

  • You pays yer money and gets... nothing.
  • The item is clearly not as described, to the point where it is useless (not working, broken, ruined or spoiled).

There are likely to be some trades where the buyer is less than satisfied, but if the goods are essentially as described, no rip-off has offered - more often than not this is simply simply a communication breakdown.

There are, of course, gray areas. One huge gray area is where an item is described as "untested", but when received it is obviously junk. This is a strong indication of a "dumpster-diver", who acquires junk and then knowingly resells it on eBay. On a few occasions I have tested their intentions by offering to test the item at no cost to them. It will come as no surprise to you that nobody has ever taken me up on my offer...

From experience I have found that about one in ten deals goes "a little bit pear-shaped", but with a little intelligence and communication most of those work out right in the end. Only about one in ten of those "problem children" - or 1% of the total - goes truly wrong.

In the long run, the law of averages states that even the most cautious among us will get scammed... eventually. However, I consider that a part of the cost of doing business on eBay as long as the loss is minimal.

Whether you are a buyer or a seller, it pays to be on the lookout for rip-off artists. 

Buyer beware

Read the listing! Never assume anything. I cannot stress this enough.

As-Is + No-Warranty + untested = DEAD! If something is offered as-is with no warranty and has not been tested, assume that it is dead. I have learned this the hard way so you don't have to.

Congratulations! You are the winning bidder!

As the euphoria dies down and the flush of success gives way to a cold sweat, you start to wonder if you made the right decision. What do you do now?

  1. Send Payment! If the seller accepts Paypal, I generally send off my payment immediately. Sometimes I may wait for an invoice.
  2. Get Contact Details! Under certain circumstances, it may be a good idea to use the "Get Contact Details" tool to obtain the Seller's name, address, phone number and e-mail. I generally use this if…
  • The item is worth more than $50
  • The seller will not accept Paypal
  • I have not received answers to my questions.
  • I'm not getting a "good vibe".

Be sure that the address is the same as the one on file (which gives some defence against dealing with an account hijacker).
Phone the seller and hammer out any final details.
Be sure that your e-mails are going to the right address.

Be wary if the seller does not take Paypal, BidPay, Personal Checks or some other "trackable" method of transferring funds - particularly if they want payment by Cashiers' Check, Money Order, Cash or Western Union. These are the scammer's best friends, as once cashed, they are difficult - if not impossible -to trace.

If the seller accepts Credit-Card payments through Paypal, do so. Using a Credit Card allows you to enlist the help of the Credit Card company if you do not receive your goods - but remember that you do not have the same protection if you use a Debit card. However, bear in mind that some sellers do not accept Credit Cards through Paypal because it costs them more to do so.

If you have reason to be suspicious, or if it is big-ticket item, don't be afraid to pull their eBay contact details. This does not happen often, and it makes some people nervous, so be polite and let them know you are doing this as a purely precautionary measure. Remember that when you pull their contact details they will automatically get yours as well.

Make sure that the details match those that the seller provided. If they don't match, contact the seller is in violation of eBay policies.

Seller beware

Sellers have less to worry about when it comes to being ripped off. Since you normally wait until you have received payment before sending away the item, the main potential problems are:

  1. Making sure that payment clears properly before shipping the goods.
  2. Proving that the goods have been mailed and have reached their destination.

The first problem can be solved by a matter of policy; the second by confirmation of dispatch and delivery. However, even sellers are not immune to some of the more advanced forms of scammery, such as...

The Escrow Scam

This is one of the biggest headaches that sellers of big-ticket items have to deal with. It works like this.

  1. Buyer sets up fake escrow site and sends "payment" to it.
  2. Seller is notified that money is being held by escrow site and ships item.
  3. Buyer takes down fake escrow site and vanishes with both goods and money.

The most spectacular example of this type of scam happened a few years ago in a headline-grabbing case in which an American Dentist "purchased" a rather nice but suspiciously cheap BMW from overseas. The scammer set up a fake escrow site and vanished with $50,000 of our hero's money, which he never saw again. While this was not an eBay listing, the principle is the same, and it serves as a cautionary tale to all of us: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The simple solution to this is to avoid escrow sites wherever possible. This is easy for me to say, as I have never had cause to use one. However, for big-ticket items, a reputable escrow site will get the job done.

The switch scam

This is a relatively new scam, found mainly in the personal electronics and computer hardware. Here's how it works:

  1. The scammer has a broken item and bids on an identical one from a seller who provides a Dead-on-Arrival (DoA) warranty.
  2. When the item arrives, the scammer claims it does not work and then returns the broken one in its place.
  3. If the seller cannot tell the difference they are forced to refund the money and eat the cost. The scammer ends up with a working item for next to nothing. Even if the seller spots the "dead ringer" and cries foul, what usually happens is that a "he-said-she-said" cat-fight ensues. Either way, it's not a pleasant experience.

This was first bought to my attention by eBayer "bowman1891", who laments…

"one thing they would do is claim an item was damaged or non-functioning and send it back for me to find out on closer inspection that they had sent back a broken version of the same item I sent and kept the functioning one. So I get stuck with a broken item they get the one I sold them and their money back... most newer pc parts come with the serial number on a sticky label so what they have done to me is; they peel the serial decals off and switch them. It has happened with ram and video cards the most so sadly I have had to drop my 7 day DoA warranty. It seems a lot of these punks come on eBay strictly to switch their bust parts. Short of engraving the parts I don't know what to do."

This has led to many hardware sellers - myself included - no longer offering DoA warranties and selling on a "Working when last used but sold AS-IS".

This is by no means an exhaustive list of scams - scammers are, by definition, an inventive lot, and will forever be coming up with new and creative ways to part fools from their money. Having started with a quotation, is it meet to end with one - this time from Sergeant Phil Esterhaus in Hill Street Blues:

"Let's be careful out there"