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eBay. Watch your wallet!

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A couple of weeks ago, I finally sold one of my Canon lenses, a high quality 85mm/1.2L lens that still looks and operates as well as the day I purchased it. This was my first eBay transaction and it was a learning experience. It took four auctions before I was able to sell the lens at a price I could be comfortable with. eBay made a lot of money out of me but at least I now have some funding to buy a lens that will be more relevant to the wildlife photos I'm taking these days.

I was lucky. The person who won the auction for my lens (a fellow Australian nonetheless) transferred the money to my PayPal account less than an hour after the conclusion of the auction. There was no doubt about getting the money. In return for their promptness, I packaged and shipped the lens the same day. The buyer was very happy.

But not everyone is lucky and there are many many shysters on eBay.

Trap #1

eBay has a rating system for buyers and sellers. Look at any seller and you'll probably see a bracketed number next to their name indicating the number of feedback messages they have. Click on the number and you can see the list. Some sellers have seemingly very high numbers of feedback messages, numbering 100 or more. The strange thing is that some of the sellers have only been registered with eBay since February of this year. 100 feedback messages in less than four months? Please! Delve deeper into the maze that is eBay and you might find that most if not all of the feedback messages were left by eBay members who themselves have only been members since; yep, you guessed it; February of this year! I'm really going to trust this fellow with my money. (Note: sarcasm implied)

So the seller ratings and feedback messages (which are too short to be meaningful in any way) are of little help.

Trap #2

Many of the sellers have messages in their product descriptions: "Email me here to bid for this item" or "Email me before bidding on this item". What they're really saying is "We're criminals and we want your money. Email me and I'll show you how to give your money away without eBay ever finding out about it".

Trap #3

I'm interested in getting a new Canon telephoto lens, at least 300mm, preferably with Image Stabilisation technology. These are not cheap. I now have a custom search registered with eBay to keep me abreast of all new auctions for items like these. Occasionally, I'll see auctions that look reasonable and believable. Remember though that we're talking about a lot of money and I don't know the people I'm dealing with. Additionally, eBay and PayPal don't protect every purchase, only those with the "Free PayPal Buyer Protection" statement in the seller's listing, and only up to USD1000. So how can I be guaranteed of getting the lens after paying my hard earned money?

Most of these eBay items are in the U.S.A. and there's a company based in the U.S.A. which serves to protect both buyer and seller called Escrow.com. Basically, the buyer pays Escrow.com, after which the seller ships the item. As soon as the buyer receives and confirms the condition of the item, Escrow.com pays the seller. Everyone is protected. There are fees attached but when you're talking about larger amounts of money, a little insurance is worth paying for.

So I see these seductive lenses on eBay and would like to bid. To safeguard myself, I ask the seller if they are willing to ship via Escrow.com with all fees paid for by myself. It is disappointing to see how many sellers refuse the offer. I can only assume that many of the people refusing to use the Escrow.com service are themselves criminals. Some probably hope to get their money asap but most are probably criminals.

Trap #4

Today, I was shown trap number 4. Last week, I bid on a Canon 500mm 4.0 lenses, knowing all too well that if it was a genuine auction, I wouldn't be able to win the item with my current financial constraints. Sure enough, the final selling price of USD3,750 far outbid my sorry attempt of just USD750. Imagine my (guarded) surprise though when I received a message (supposedly) from eBay indicating a second-chance offer for that same lens at the price I had originally bid.

I'm gullible but not that gullible. First problem with the message was the URL it included: "www.ebay.ph". "ph"? eBay's URL is "www.ebay.com". It is possible though that they use different domains for different functions so it was worth a look see. I clicked into the URL (you should never do this at home, especially if your email program displays messages in html format by default). It didn't look very authentic. In fact, the page displayed an error message. No matter. I just copied the item's ID number out of the page, navigated to the real www.ebay.com and searched for the item number. Guess what. The auction was over and I had been outbid; as if this was news to me.

OK. So I load the "My eBay" page to take a look. Sure enough, there's the 500mm lens that I had bid for, and the auction was over. And unsurprisingly, there were no second chance offers for the item. The second chance offer I had received in the 'mail' was a fraud.

Looking back at the original message, it occurred to me that other than the suspicious "www.ebay.ph" domain, one other thing stood out. Well actually, two things. First; and this is something I saw the first moment I read the message; the message directed me to contact the seller directly. eBay doesn't do that. They always advise you to reply to messages via their system so that there are full records of the transaction (and so that they can be sure that you didn't do the transaction behind their backs, thereby avoiding paying them more money). So directing me to contact the seller directly was definitely a no-no. Second thing that stood out; and this one's important; is that the seller's address was wrong. "bigbrowngrumpybear@yahoo.com" (this is the actual email address) is not the address of the seller of the 500mm lens.

Upon reflection, I realise now that there are criminals out there watching other bids. When a costly item's auction finishes, they email fake ebay messages to those people who did not win the auction, offering a second chance to buy the item. It's a fraud, an expensive one.

What scares me though is that I don't consider myself stupid, and yet even I could fall for one or two of these tricks if I was too hungry for any particular item. Actually, I did fall for one trick.

Trap #5

A few weeks ago, I received a message from a supposed eBay seller who claimed to have an item similar to one I had just bid on. If I was interested, I was to click on an included URL and contact them. I clicked the URL (bad bad bad!). The page that loaded appeared to be eBay and I had to log in to continue. Without pause (and without sanity), I logged in only to find that the next page didn't look very eBay-ish at all. Fortunately, I immediately realised that I had been duped, and that someone now had my eBay ID and password. Without a second thought, I quickly logged into the real eBay and changed my password before the scammers had any time to try my password and compromise my account.

Selling and buying on eBay has certainly been an experience. If you're buying anything expensive, eBay's definitely not the place for the uninitiated buyer. Getting defrauded of your hard earned money would be very simple indeed.

So if you plan to buy or sell on eBay, think twice; no, think thrice; about every communication and every action you take. And remember the golden rule: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is; i.e., it's probably a fraud.