Shop Smart: eBay Buyer Beware

Last year, a hacker tried to use my eBay account to sell a nonexistent 15-inch PowerBook for a phenomenally low $850. In his product description, he told potential bidders with questions to e-mail him at the address in the description, not through the eBay system. Some people apparently knew better (or simply didn't follow directions), and I received many messages about the laptop. Some people asked to buy it directly, outside of the auction. Because of my complaints, the site halted the auction, but anyone who did bypass the official process may have been out almost $1,000.

There are several ways you can protect yourself from fraudulent transactions on the auction site.

As my example demonstrates, you shouldn't circumvent the system. This violates eBay's terms of service, and it puts you at risk. If a seller wants you to go outside the system, you're probably about to get scammed.

A seller's feedback rating can give you some indication of his or her reliability. People who have had dealings with a seller can send comments about their experience to the site, which then awards a seller one point for each positive comment and deducts one point for each negative comment. A seller gets feedback stars when he or she achieves a certain number of positive feedback comments. For example, a yellow star represents 10 to 49 positive comments; a blue star, 50 to 99; and so on. For sellers with less than 100 sales, investigate the kinds of items they've sold in the past so you're familiar with their track record.

If you feel unsure about a purchase, ask questions. For instance, are products identified as new still in their shrink-wrapped boxes? If so, you can be more certain that the product hasn't had a previous life. Does a used product still have a warranty? That would add to its value. Has a used product been registered? That could detract from its worth. You can also ask why a seller is putting a product on the market. Some people may tell you about product drawbacks that aren't mentioned in the ads. And as some scam artists purloin photos from other auctions or sites, ask for additional photos to help prove possession.

And before you make the final commitment, read the seller's fine print, looking for details on the cost of shipping, special payment instructions, and refund policies. Also double-check the country of origin. If the product is coming from overseas, you may have to wait a while for the item to clear customs. -- alan graham

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