Online Auctions for Buyers

Online auctions offer you a chance to shop for everything from travel mugs to travel trailers. As you check out items, check out the auction site, too. Before you commit your money or personal information, get to know how the site and seller operate, what you’re really bidding on, and scams that may crop up. That way you’ll have better odds of having a good experience as you hunt for that good deal.

Learn how the site works

Usually, a site has rules for both buyers and sellers. Before you bid, get to know how the site works, and its rules and policies for buyers and sellers. Look for information about:

  • Payment. Can you pay with safer payment methods, like credit cards, that come with fraud protection? Can you use a secure online payment system that links to your credit or debit card and hides your account number when you pay?

  • Privacy and security. How will the site protect and use your personal information if you register as a buyer? Make sure the pages where you register, sign in and pay are secure. If the URL on a page begins with https, the page is secure.

  • Disputes. Will the site help you resolve a dispute with a seller? For example, will it refund your money if you get a defective item, or don’t get the item you bid on? Find out how, and when, you can get help.

To see what other people say about their experiences on the site, type the site name and the word “complaints” or “reviews” in your search engine.

Check out the item

Before you bid on something, get to know the usual price range for the item and its features. That will make it easier to spot a listing that promises more than it will deliver. To compare products online, you can type the item name and the word “buy” into your search engine and look at the results, or view several listings for the item on the auction site.

As you scroll through the site, look closely at photos, item descriptions and other aspects of the listing. For example:

  • Are there photos of the product that’s up for bid, or just generic photos of a similar item? If there aren’t current photos, you can’t be sure the seller has the item.

  • If the item is described as “refurbished,” “vintage,” “used” or “close-out,” it probably isn’t in top condition.

  • If a “brand name” item is shown with a surprisingly low price, it might be counterfeit.

Check out the seller

Look for a seller who accepts safer payment methods like credit cards, a secure online payment system or an escrow service recommended by the auction site. Don’t do business with anyone who takes only wire transfers, cash, money orders or reloadable cards that you “top up” by adding money. Paying with those methods is like sending cash; once it’s gone, you won’t be able to get it back.

It’s important to check the seller’s rating on the site and read previous buyers’ comments. See if buyers, especially recent buyers, were satisfied with the seller, her merchandise and her customer service. If you aren’t comfortable with the seller for any reason, trust your gut and don’t bid on her items.

Read over the seller’s contact information and make sure it includes an email. If you’re interested in an item, but the listing details aren’t clear, contact the seller before you bid. If the seller doesn’t respond, or you aren’t satisfied with her answer, you can move on. Save or print copies of your communication with the seller.

Every seller has her own way of doing business. If a service — like a product warranty or the right to return an item — is important to you, read the listing or ask the seller if she offers that service before you bid. You may want to know:

  • Does the item come with a warranty? If it does, how long does the warranty last?
  • What kind of shipping options does the seller offer, and who pays for shipping? If the listing only estimates the shipping cost, ask for the item’s weight and dimensions. Calculate shipping costs before you bid to avoid a costly surprise later.
  • Will the seller let you return or exchange an item? If she will, what reasons are accepted for returns? What are the deadlines for making a change?

When you bid and pay

Before you bid, decide how much you’re willing to spend and then stick to that amount. Sometimes “shill bidders” — working with the seller or on their own — bid on an item to intentionally drive up its price. When you calculate your top bid, consider the other costs you might have — like shipping, handling or taxes — to receive or return the item.

If you’re the highest bidder when the auction ends, print or save copies of the item description and final price. Pay for the item within the seller’s and site’s deadlines using your credit card, a secure online payment system or an escrow service that the auction site recommends.

When you pay by credit card, the Fair Credit Billing Act protects your transaction. It allows you to dispute charges under some circumstances and temporarily withhold payment while the creditor investigates.

How to work out problems

If you don’t get the item that was described, it arrives late or hasn’t come by the date promised, contact the seller. An FTC rule requires sellers to ship items as promised, or within 30 days after the order date if no specific date was promised. If the seller can’t resolve the problem, see if the auction site can help, and if there are deadlines for requesting help from the site. You don’t want to wait so long for the seller to respond that you miss the site’s deadline.

If you paid with your credit card, you can file a dispute with your credit card company and withhold payment while the company investigates. Check your credit card statements and contact the card issuer if you see any charges you don’t recognize.

Avoiding scams

There are scammers online, and they aren’t offering bargains; they’re after your money and financial information. Follow these tips to avoid common scams.

Don’t hit “reply” or click on links in an email message, even if it looks like a message from the auction site or online payment system. You might end up on a “spoof” site that imitates a legitimate site, but is a scam set up to steal your information. Or, you could be tricked into downloading malware onto your computer. An email could say something alarming like:

  • “Your account will be shut down if you don’t respond immediately to validate your information.”
  • “Reply to confirm your account number and payment, or you’ll lose the item you bid on.”
  • “We suspect an unauthorized transaction on your account; click here to verify your account details.”

To check your messages on the auction site or payment system, type the site’s web address (URL) in your browser and log in. If the auction or payment site really has sent you a message, you’ll see it in your account and you can respond to it there.

Communicate through the auction and payment site. Don’t deal with anyone who wants you to pay outside the payment system — whether with a wire transfer, money order or other cash equivalent — no matter what story they tell you. If you do, you’ll lose any protection the site provides. You also probably won’t get the item or see your money again. Here’s how a con might start:

  • A scammer asks you to email him outside the site. He offers you a “second chance” to buy an item you didn’t get at auction, claiming the “highest bidder backed out,” or says he’ll give you a great price on a similar item. The hitch: he wants to close the deal privately, off the auction site, and tells you to pay with a wire transfer, money order or other cash equivalent.
  • You place the highest bid, but after the auction ends the seller pleads with you to pay her outside the auction’s payment system. She claims the online system isn’t working for her or she needs money quickly for an emergency. That’s a danger sign. If you pay outside the secure online system, you’ll end up losing money and won’t get the item you wanted to buy.

Report fraud

If you have problems during an online auction transaction, try to work them out directly with the seller and auction site. If that doesn't work, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and your state Attorney General.