As millions of Americans ready themselves for post-holiday buying sprees, many will turn to the Internet, including online auctions, to find the gifts Santa forgot to bring them.
Unfortunately, cyberthugs lurk with temping offers and schemes to relieve you of your hard-earned cash.
To avoid being taken, check out these tips from the National Fraud Information Center (a project of the National Consumers League) and the Internet Crime Complaint Center.
1. Understand as much as possible about how the auction works, what are your obligations are as a buyer and what the seller’s obligations are — before you bid.
2. Find out what actions the auction Web site will take if a problem occurs.
Quick Security Tip: You may want to consider insuring the transaction and its shipment, and be sure to ask about delivery time, return policy, warranty and service.
3. Learn as much as you can about the seller, especially if the only information you have is an e-mail address. Get the name and contact information of the company or individual to include the physical street address and telephone number. You may not want to do business with anyone who refuses to provide that information.
Some sources of seller information may include state or local consumer protection agencies and the Better Business Bureau (where your seller is located). Also check to see if there is a feedback section on the auction site with comments about the seller based on previous transactions.
Quick Security Tip: The seller might "plant" wonderful reviews, while a competitor might have logged negative comments.
4. Determine what method of payment the seller wants and where to send it. In general, avoid cash payments.
Payment by credit card sometimes can protect both the buyer and the seller because the buyer can dispute the charges if the goods are misrepresented or never delivered, and the seller can receive payment quicker than waiting for a check or money order— plus it avoids the issue of a bad check.
Quick Security Tip: Don't give your Social Security number or driver’s license number to the seller.
5. Be very cautious when dealing with a buyer or seller in another country because if you do have a problem, the physical distance, the difference in legal systems, and other factors may make resolving it even more difficult.
6. Buyers should be wary of claims made about expensive collectibles. A good idea is to print out and save the description and any photos of the item to document the claims that were made.
7. You may want to consider using an escrow service. For a small fee, an escrow service hold’s the buyer’s payment and forwards it to the seller upon the buyer’s receipt and approval of the item within an agreed-upon inspection period. Ask the escrow service whether it is licensed and bonded, and how you can confirm that with the appropriate agency.
8. Let the auction Web site know if you have a problem. Complaints may result in users' being barred from the site. Also ask the auction company about insurance that will cover buyers up to a certain amount if something goes wrong.
Quick Security Tip: Be sure to read the terms of the insurance carefully, as there often are specific limitations or requirements to meet, and there is usually a deductible.
9. Remember that not all problems result from fraud. Sometimes buyers and sellers simply fail to hold up parts of the deal in a timely fashion, or there may be a legitimate disagreement about something. You may want to consider using third-party mediation to help resolve these types of disputes.
These are just a few ideas to help make your online auction experience more secure. Be sure to check with the “security and safety department” of the Internet auction service you are thinking of using for even more safety tips.
For information, go to the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.
My Final Thoughts: It is essential to note that the great majority of all online auction transactions are legitimate, and both sides of the bargain are very satisfied. For millions and millions of folks, Internet auctions are a fun, and sometimes profitable way, to buy and sell.
If you suspect online auction fraud, however, you may want to file complain with the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Many times, investigations are determined by patterns of complaints against the same individual seller or company, so it may be a good idea to report your fraud suspicions to law enforcement.
Copyright 2009 by Bruce Mandelblit
Bruce Mandelblit (www.CrimeZilla.com) is a nationally known security and safety journalist, as well as a recently retired, highly decorated reserve law enforcement officer. His e-mail address is CrimePrevention123@yahoo.com.
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