One of the more recent crazes on the Internet is online auctions, where people can offer junk, antiques, or collector's items for sale to anyone who wants to bid on them. But be careful! Besides having to deal with fraudulent bids from people who have no money or intention of buying an item up for auction, consumers have to watch out for con artists selling their own fraudulent items.

The simplest con game is to offer an item for auction that doesn't even exist. For example, every Christmas there is always a must-have toy that normally costs $10 to purchase, but because of its scarcity in stores, it can cost up to several thousand dollars if purchased from a private seller. Many con artists will claim to offer such a product, and when you send them the money, the con artist simply disappears.

Other online auction frauds include misrepresentation. For example, selling counterfeit collector's items such as autographed baseballs or sports jerseys. To protect yourself against online auction fraud, follow these guidelines:

  • Identify the seller and check the seller's rating. Online auction sites, such as eBay, allow buyers and sellers to leave comments about one another. By browsing through these comments, you can see if anyone else has had a bad experience with a particular seller.

  • Check to see if your online auction site offers insurance. eBay will reimburse buyers up to $200, less a $25 deductible.

  • Make sure you clearly understand what you're bidding on, its relative value, and all terms and conditions of the sale, such as the seller's return policies and who pays for shipping.

  • Consider using an escrow service, which will hold your money until your merchandise safely arrives.

  • Never buy items advertised through spam. Con artists use spam because they know that the more email offers they send out, the more likely it is they'll run across a gullible victim who will send them money. If someone's selling a legitimate item, they're more likely to go through an online auction site instead.

The ScamBusters website ( offers additional sage advice:

  • Don't conduct business with an anonymous user. Get the person's real name, business name (if applicable), address, and phone number, and verify this information before buying. Never send money to a post office box.

  • Be more cautious if the seller uses a free email service, such as Hotmail, Yahoo!, etc. Of course, most people who use these services are honest, but most problems occur when a free service is used. After all, with a free email service, it is very easy for the seller to keep his or her real identity and information hidden.

  • Always use a credit card to purchase online so that if there's any dispute, you can have the credit card company remove the charges or help you fight for your product.

  • Save copies of any email and other documents involved in the transaction.