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  • Writer's pictureMMH CPA

Avoiding Scams in Online Sales and Auctions

Updated: Dec 24, 2020

At any given time, millions of items are being bought and sold via Internet auction sites or online consumer to consumer marketplaces. At last count, eBay had a market value of over $38 billion and Craigslist generates well over $100 million in annual revenues. Some other popular options include Facebook Marketplace, Offer Up, and Letgo.

Of course, most buyers who use online auction sites and virtual marketplaces just want a good deal, and most sellers aren't trying to rip off anyone. But it pays to be vigilant.

Protect yourself from online auction fraud by following these four guidelines:

Read the description carefully. Sometimes sellers misrepresent goods by overstating their value, authenticity, or condition. If the "solid oak nightstand" has "real polished oak veneer," you might want to look elsewhere. If an authentic Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone (in pristine condition and played by John Coltrane himself) is being offered for a few hundred dollars, something's amiss. Also, look at the seller ratings and read reviews left by other consumers on the seller's profile to learn about their transaction history.

Check the quotes. Fraudsters sometimes use a valid source, but misrepresent its applicability to the item being sold. They might say that the quoted price on a silver goblet is $1,000, but don't mention that their source is a guide published at the height of the silver market. To determine the market value of an item, review recent closing prices of similar items sold on the same auction site or in your local brick-and-mortar store.

Pay with a credit card. If a seller requests cash, be suspicious. Using a credit card to buy goods over the Internet provides protection from fraud. Such transactions are traceable and contestable. Other secure options include using an escrow agent for large dollar items or paying cash-on-delivery (COD).

Plan your meeting with a seller. If a local option is available, pick up the item with a friend and tell others where you are going. If it is a valuable item, ask for a receipt or bill of sale. Many police departments now off free outdoor meetup spaces (many times with cameras) for buyers and sellers to meet up more safely. If buying electronics, it's wise to test the merchandise before buying to ensure it actually functions as described in the listing.

Above all, know how the auction site works - its rules, policies, protections, and disclaimers - before placing your bid or making an offer.

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