Arm yourself with
information before bidding online
armed society is a polite society," science fiction author
Robert Heinlein wrote.
is a polite society. So are Amazon,
Auctions and other auction Web sites.
Buyers and sellers on auction sites don't pack
heat, but they possess the ability to assassinate one another's
character -- and that keeps just about everyone honest and well-behaved.
Sellers and buyers have publicly accessible
profiles consisting of comments from people they have done business
with. Rack up too much negative feedback and you'll find that people
are gun-shy of dealing with you. On the other hand, if you're trigger-happy
with unwarranted disparagement, people will target you as a malcontent
to be ostracized.
Critics contend that online auctions stretch
the catchphrase "Let the buyer beware" to the breaking
point. But sellers must beware, too, because a bad reputation is
a killer. Enthusiasts tout the honesty of the overwhelming majority
of participants; watchdogs point to the abuses. The auction sites
scramble to add safeguards.
to protect yourself
Participants list a few rules of thumb for buying merchandise through
online auctions without being taken:
- Pay attention to the reputation of the seller.
- Avoid sellers who have lots of negative comments
on their profiles.
- Know exactly what you're bidding on.
- If you have questions about an item, ask
before you bid.
- Contact the seller directly if you have
- Wait patiently for the goods to arrive.
Many large-volume sellers mail items once a week.
- When paying, use an escrow service if that
makes you feel more comfortable.
- Write politely, calmly and rationally when
you e-mail the seller or post feedback on the seller's profile.
"As long as you watch what you're doing,
it's great," says Doug Young, a Louisianan who quit his job
to sell full-time on eBay. He mails 50 to 60 packages in a typical
week, anything from wildlife feeders to old magazine ads.
His advice for buying on Web auctions: "The
main thing they need to do is know exactly what they're bidding
on and if they're not sure, to e-mail the sellers," he says.
"If they have questions, they'll help you out."
To build and maintain a high dependability rating,
sellers will help buyers after the sale is made.
"Just about any problem can be remedied,"
Young says. "If a buyer has a problem with an item, all they
have to do is tell me and even if I don't think it's my fault, I'll
go ahead and issue a refund."
In the year-and-a-half since he began buying,
then selling, on eBay, Young has racked up more than 500 positive
comments and two negative ones. That's an impressive record for
any retailer -- think of your last 502 trips to fast-food franchises
-- and such a record is not unusual on the prominent auction sites.
on the increase
Even so, regulators say they see more and more scams on auction
"You'll bid on something and it's nonexistent
or grossly misrepresented," says Paul Griffo, a spokesman for
the Postal Inspection Service, whose agents are called in when scammers
use the mail.
According to BBBOnLine,
the Internet arm of the Better Business Bureau, complaints about
online auction sites continue to roll in. The most common complaint
is that buyers don't get what they expect.
Ombuds Office, a project of the legal studies department of
the University of Massachusetts in Amherst works with companies
and individuals involved in disputes online and off-line. In 1999,
they completed a pilot online mediation study for Ebay and successfully
mediated almost 150 disputes.
The most common disputes arose from a buyer
not getting merchandise, a seller not being paid, merchandise arriving
damaged, items not being what the buyer thought they would be and
problems regarding negative feedback.
"I thought it went pretty well," says
online mediator Mark Eckstein. "I think our success rate was
a little better than 50 percent and in traditional mediation the
success rate has been 80, 85 percent. This is a new animal here."
hurts mediation process
A dispute resolution was judged a success if the parties reached
an agreement and settled the dispute. Eckstein says the relatively
low success rate probably stems from the fact that mediation was
handled by e-mail. e-mail's limitations create problems in trying
to settle disputes.
"For one, you don't have people face to
face," Eckstein says. "They can't hear each other, see
body language, hear inflections in tone of voice."
In traditional mediation, the parties to the
dispute are in the same room and a mediator intervenes. In online
mediation, people might square off from opposite ends of the country
and communicate with each other through the mediator.
"A lot of the success of mediation depends
upon the ability of the parties to understand the other party's
position," Eckstein says, adding that online, "There's
a little more burden on the mediator to relay that information."
Eckstein echoes Young's advice: Make sure you
know what you're buying, ask questions if something is unclear and
"try to know who your seller is."
Cast a skeptical eye on feedback about sellers. If a large number
of responses come from just two or three buyers, be careful. Dishonest
sellers have been known to inflate each other's rankings in one-hand-washes-the-other
If a problem arises, "the way you communicate
with people if there's a disagreement is very important," Eckstein
says. "If someone doesn't like the way you address them, that
can start a problem."
The easygoing Young says he has had some buyers
"who were horribly rude," sending nasty e-mails that are
"all capitalized, with exclamation marks. You have to keep
your cool. Sometimes it's hard."
The latest of the two criticisms in Young's
profile came from someone who damaged an item when he opened the
package, then complained that it had been wrapped too securely,
Young says. The buyer also complained that the item was smaller
than he thought it would be, although Young had specified the dimensions
What bugged Young was that the first he heard
of the buyer's complaints was when the buyer posted negative feedback
on Young's profile. The buyer had not contacted Young directly first.
In the world of online auctions, that is considered terribly uncool.
Young attached a brief explanatory note to the negative posting
and let it go.
For the most part, Young's experience with online
auctions has been positive. Not long ago, he sold a woman an item
-- he can't remember what it was -- and discovered that she lived
50 miles away. Then they found out that they collected the same
stuff and even had houses painted the same color.
Eventually they married.
"It was unexpected," Young says, chuckling.
-- Updated: Jan. 18, 2002