Don't get stung! How to spot fraudulent sellers.

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If you're in the market for a large screen TV, high end laptop, digital camera, projector, esoteric hi-fi or whatever, and you've got a wad of cash burning a hole in your Paypal account, it's all too easy to be wowed by incredible deals on ebay, and worried that you might let a bargain pass you by. It's easily done - there are an incredible number of dishonest people out there, whose lives have been made a whole lot easier by Ebay and Paypal, and the anonymity that the whole setup allows.

So STOP! Think before you hit that "Place a Bid" button or click "Buy it now". If it seems incredibly cheap, it's probably because everyone else smelled the fraud a mile off. Here's how to check (in no particular order of importance):

Warning sign No1:
That little "sun" next to the title - it's a new auction and it's got less than a day to go. Scammers don't want  their listings reported. Invariably they've got a whole bunch of auctions on the go, often on a hijacked account. They need to grab the money and run before their activities cause Ebay to become suspicious and pull the plug, so usually they go with 1 day auctions. Some legitimate sellers use 1 day auctions, but mostly people want a lot of buyers to see their items, so they use the standard 7 or 10 day listings.

Warning sign No2:
Low or negative feedback - it's not unheard of for a new user to list a 65" Plasma, or a £10k Krell Amplifier, but it's not that common. Are you seriously going to send a couple of grand to a complete stranger on faith that they will come through with the goods. Especially when the most you'll get back from Ebay / Paypal is a measly £150 through buyer "protection". The saying goes that a fool and his money are soon parted... don't be the fool. If the rest of the signs point to it being legit, then be very cautious about giving money over before getting the goods. Ask to pay cash on collection. Even if it's not possible for you to collect and you need the item delivered, ask anyway. If they make excuses as to why you can't collect, walk away. Even with decent feedback scores - make sure it's recent and they've not drummed up a few positive through buying penny e-books. Even if they have some feedback for items along the same lines, it's not hard to create a few phony accounts to generate positive feedback; con people out of their money and scarper before anyone's the wiser. If all the feedback is very recent then it may be a case of "feedback fraud".

Warning sign No3:
They're listing other expensive items - not a problem if the seller is clearly a commercial enterprise with hundreds of positive feedback. But when you see a user who has no history of selling big ticket items suddenly listing a dozen large screen tellys, be very suspicious. Again - ask if you can pay cash on collection - if you get no reply or they give excuses, report them to Ebay and hopefully save a less informed ebayer an expensive lesson.

Warning sign No4:
They want you to contact a specific email address before bidding - very suspicious in my opinion. Usually it entails the scammer trying to get you to complete outside of Ebay, which is not only against "the rules" but fairly risky (for you). Maybe they have good reason, but a mobile phone number instils more confidence than a gmail account. If you're unsure, do a search for the address in titles and descriptions. If you see a whole load of high value items being sold (often under different Seller IDs) it's a definite fraud. Report it!

Warning sign No5:
Item photos from the manufacturers web site - forgivable in the case of a business seller, but if you're selling your personal property, the least you can do is take a photo to prove you have the thing you're selling. (Not that it actually proves anything - fraudsters often copy legitimate auctions. Do a "completed listings" search to see if the photos were recently used on a similar auction). This warning sign is insignificant if it's the only one, but if the listing is ticking all the boxes then avoid. You could always ask for a photo with the seller's ID on a piece of paper in the foreground if you want to make sure - a legitimate seller will happily oblige in most cases.

Warning sign No6:
Bad spelling and grammar - OK, some people have legitimate problems with literacy so don't flame me. But if you're selling a few grands worth of equipment, the least you could do is run spell check and get a mate to look over your grammar. Having once been defrauded by a spotty 19 year old with hopeless language skills, I am deeply suspicious of anyone who can't write properly (Thankfully he was stupid too, so I was able to track him down and recover my money through the courts). Anyway, this is Ebay, not MSN Messenger, and while I'm in rant mode, USE NORMAL FONT SIZES!!! (I hate having to use both scroll bars, sometimes even on my 24" widescreen monitor)

Warning sign No 7: (Bit out of date now that Ebay requires Paypal)
They don't accept Paypal. Paypal can be a bit c**p if you're a seller, with its high fees, and the risk of chargeback fraud (see other guides about that). But if you're a buyer who doesn't want to get ripped off, it does offer a reasonable amount of protection for eligible Ebay auctions. If you pay by Paypal for an item that is covered by buyer protection, you are entitled to get some, if not all your money back. Paypal will recover what it can from the seller's account, but if that has already been cleared, then the protection should pay out part of the items value. It's not a perfect system by any means, but at least it's another thing standing in the way of the scammer making a quick getaway with your cash. And I shouldn't even need to mention Western Union, but if the seller suggests payment by this method, or an escrow service they've used in the past, or anything that seems in the least bit suspicious, don't even think of proceding.

Now for some positive indicators.
Items for collection only. Always a winner if you're local or have transport - you get to see it up close and personal before handing over any cash. (Make sure you meet somewhere public and safe, and preferably not just by yourself.)
Photos of the actual item, ideally with the seller ID in the foreground.
A seller who responds promptly to messages through the "Ask seller a question" system.
A phone number - landline is best. If you've just won the item, ask for a number to contact them on.
It's not too good to be true. True bargains are rare - by all means snap them up when they come along but be aware that you're treading in risky territory.
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