So what’s a consumer to do?
- Make sure you’re on the real auction site, and not an imposter’s, before signing in. Open a fresh browser and type in the auction site’s url; never sign in through e-mail or a Web page link.
- Protect your privacy — especially when you’re the winning bidder. The FTC warns consumers never to provide Social Security, driver’s license or credit card numbers, or any bank account information, directly to a seller, no matter how trustworthy they seem.
- Consider using an online payment service owned by the auction house, such as eBay’s PayPal, but only after reading and being comfortable with the terms of coverage in case the seller doesn’t live up to his or her end of the bargain.
- If the seller is a legitimate merchant or small store whose physical location can be confirmed by phone, use credit cards to purchase online auction items, says Foley of the Identity Theft Resource Center. Although few individual sellers accept them, many legitimate businesses do, and cardholders can always challenge a credit transaction if things go wrong.
- If a seller insists on using an online escrow service, don’t use it unless it’s listed with the Better Business Bureau (http://bbbonline.org). Even then, the FTC warns, a lack of complaints doesn’t mean a service has no problems. Try the customer service line and check its Web site for a verifiable physical location.
- Try an old-fashioned tactic: see the goods for yourself. “If a person is going to spend several thousand dollars and buy a collectible or big-ticket item, then spend a couple hundred dollars and fly out there and see what you’re buying,” Foley says.
For more online auction safety tips, consult the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/online/auctions.htm.
If you think you’ve been defrauded, file a complaint at the FBI’s Internet Fraud Complaint Center, at http://www.ifccfbi.gov.