Hack 20 Sniffing Out Dishonest Sellers


A little research can save you a big headache.

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not really after you. And just because you take steps to protect yourself doesn't mean that there aren't sellers ready to sell you a lot of hot air. Fortunately, eBay provides a lot of tools to help you discern the good sellers from the bad.

Naturally, feedback (see Chapter 1) should be your first recourse, not only when you suspect a seller of being dishonest, but any time you bid on an item sold by an unknown eBay member. But there are limitations to the feedback system. For one, it relies on the intelligence of past buyers, something you can never count on. It also takes a few weeks for feedback (negative or otherwise) to make its way back to a seller, so a new user ? or an old user new to selling ? may be able to sell under the guise of a trustworthy seller for up to a month before his reputation catches up to him.

3.2.1 If It Sounds Too Good to Be True . . .

You've heard it before, and it undoubtedly runs through your head when you're looking at certain auctions: if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Now, there are certainly more exceptions to this rule on eBay than at most other places, mostly due to sellers who don't know what they're selling or don't do a good job of constructing the auction. (In fact, I've gotten some great deals ? even to the point of effectively getting stuff for free ? simply by being more knowledgeable than the seller.) Nonetheless, don't let your desire for a deal cloud your better judgment.

The photo can be a dead giveaway, both to a dishonest seller and to an inexperienced seller who simply doesn't know any better. If the photo appears to be intentionally blurry, doctored, or simply doesn't match the item described in the auction (or other photos of the same item), it should be your first clue that something's fishy. Check out some of the seller's other auctions (both past and present) and look for patterns (or lack thereof); for example, do all the photos have the same background? If they don't, the seller may have snatched them from other auctions or web sites (see [Hack #58]). This can either mean that they're selling something they don't have, or merely that they're lazy.

So how do you tell the difference between someone who is trying to rip you off and someone who simply hasn't taken the time to construct a proper auction? Assuming there's still some time left before the auction closes, ask the seller a question. Specific questions, such as those that inquire about an item's dimensions or whether or not it comes with a particular accessory, are good ways to determine whether or not the item described is actually the item you'll receive.

3.2.2 The Shipping-Cost Scam

One of the most common scams is to sell something for pennies, and then make up the difference in grossly inflated shipping fees. Sellers do this for three reasons. First, cheaper items show up higher in search results sorted by price and attract less experienced buyers. Second, eBay's final-value fees are based on the final price only (not including shipping charges), so sellers avoid eBay fees by overcharging for shipping. Third, sellers typically do not refund shipping charges, so if you paid $1.00 for an item and $12.00 to ship it, you'll be unlikely to return it just to get your buck back.

How do you tell whether high shipping charges are legitimate? The giveaway is the "Additional shipping per item" amount, specified in the Payment Details at the bottom of the auction page. If the price seems artificially low with respect to the shipping charges, and it costs nearly as much to ship a second item as the first (e.g., $19.00 for the first item and $17.50 for each additional unit), then you've found a shipping-cost scam.

Naturally, it's up to you to determine if shipping charges are indeed excessive, given your knowledge of the weight and size of the item: $30.00 is a perfectly reasonable shipping charge for a bicycle, but not for a deck of Bicycle playing cards. See [Hack #31] for more information.

3.2.3 There's Less Than Meets the Eye

Here's another example of the "if it's too good to be true" scam: someone appears to be selling name-brand consumer electronics for far below their market value, when, in fact, they're selling only information on how to acquire the item advertised. If you see a $2,000 camera with a Buy-It-Now price of $8, then it's unlikely you'll be receiving any photographic equipment. Despite the claims made by the seller, all you'll get is an email or CD-ROM with information that is already freely available on the Web. See Chapter 2, especially [Hack #9], for ways to eliminate these types of auctions from search results.

Some sellers start their auctions with a negligibly small opening bid, such as a single cent, merely to encourage healthy bidding (see [Hack #33]). This is not the same as the scam discussed here, and does not necessarily indicate any wrongdoing.

3.2.4 Quick to Unload?

In no time, you'll begin to appreciate the public nature of every eBay member's bidding and selling histories.[1] For example, you can paste a seller's User ID into the "Search by Bidder" box (see Chapter 2) to see if they're reselling something they've purchased recently on eBay.

[1] Due to German privacy laws, the bidding and selling histories of eBay members registered in Germany (www.ebay.de) are kept confidential.

Bidder and seller histories can be invaluable, especially if you suspect a seller isn't telling you everything. You may find that the seller indeed bought the item a few weeks ago for only a few dollars, but when reselling, neglected to mention the gaping hole in the side. To find out more, contact the original seller to get the whole story. Similarly, if a seller has relisted an item after the original high bidder backed out, try contacting the bidder to see why he or she did not complete the transaction.

3.2.5 Hostile Takeover

eBay's feedback system is useful, but not infallible. Occasionally, an unscrupulous seller will "take over" someone else's account, using that person's good reputation to fool honest bidders. Here's how it works:

  1. The seller obtains a list of eBay members' email addresses, typically from a company that sells such lists to spammers (not exactly the pillars of society).

  2. The seller sends an email to all the members on the list, carefully designed to look like it came from eBay. See Investigating Suspicious Emails for ways to determine the validity of any such email you receive.

    Investigating Suspicious Emails

    eBay never sends emails to their members asking for user IDs or passwords.

    You can tell whether a suspicious email actually came from eBay using your email program's View Source feature. Such emails (and corresponding web sites) use JavaScript to spoof the actual URLs of the links. If the URLs in the email or address bar of your browser do not start with something like pages.ebay.com or cgi6.ebay.com followed by a slash, then you have a fake on your hands. (Beware of sneaky spoofed URLs like http://pages.ebay.com.fakserver.com or ftp://pages.ebay.com@fakserver.com.)

    I've even had an unscrupulous seller go so far as to send an email, under the guise of eBay's SafeHarbor department, informing me of the "legitimacy of his account and transactions." The email went on to say "We advise you to close this specific transaction, the new Western Union and eBay security system allows you to close transactions safely." It would be laughable if it weren't so dangerous.

    You can report such emails by going to pages.ebay.com/help/basics/select-RS.html, and then selecting Member Problems Spam I don't think an email I received is actually from eBay Continue Contact Support.

    To be on the safe side, never log into eBay using a link in an email; instead, just go to www.ebay.com and log in on your own.

  3. An unwitting recipient clicks a link in the email and is brought to a page that looks like an eBay page, into which he types a user ID and password. The server then records the information.

  4. The crook then uses the user ID and password to log into a valid eBay account. He immediately changes the password and registered email address, and then begins to sell high-priced items under the guise of the unsuspecting user, hoping to use the seller's good reputation to mask his own motivations.

Fortunately, it's usually pretty easy to tell these scams apart from legitimate auctions. First, it's always a deal that seems too good to be true. Second, the seller mysteriously accepts payment only by money order or other postal mail-based payment service with no means of protection (see [Hack #29]). Finally, if you search the seller's past auctions, as described in [Hack #14], you'll most likely see a pattern that doesn't match the items currently being sold. For example, if someone who has been selling doll clothes for years is suddenly selling top-of-the-line digital cameras, you've probably found yourself a scam. Report suspicious listings at pages.ebay.com/help/basics/select-RS.html.

In short, be a critical thinker, and don't ignore that little voice in your head.