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Arm yourself with information before bidding online

"An armed society is a polite society," science fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote.

eBay is a polite society. So are Amazon, Yahoo! 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.

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Tips 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 complaints.
  • 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.

Scams on the increase
Even so, regulators say they see more and more scams on auction sites.

"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.

The Online 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."

e-mail 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."

Read feedback carefully
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 fashion.

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 prominently.

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

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See Also
Web commerce mostly safe, but stay wary
The cost of ... online auctions
Electronic version of COD debuts for online auctions

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