Safe Buying Spotting the rogues

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Buying on eBay, how to spot illegal or unsafe sellers

You may have heard that Ebay attracts some who abuse the venue to sell fake goods. You may also have heard that many sellers on eBay are the worst kind of rogue sellers around.

Unfortunately this is not entirely wrong, although the majority of eBay sellers are perfectly respectable and honest, there are a number who spoil things for everyone with dishonest selling practices.

In many cases it is not possible to actually prove a seller is behaving badly until it is too late, but there are plenty of warning signs, some subtle, others not so subtle. Often it's a combination of things which in themselves may be irrelevant, but when taken together appear quite suspicious.

In all of this one thing to bear in mind is that a good seller will try to do their best to produce a clearly written listing, and will be willing to answer any questions. However, because of the time involved creating listings, many listings may be quite brief, so in itself brevity is not a sign of a bad seller! 

Before going any further I should say I am not a lawyer, and what I say here should not be treated as authorative.

First I want to say that you should make sure that you understand how eBay works. This will help you spot people who are breaking rules, or even the law!

Two types of seller

EBay hosts both private and business selling. There are legal differences between the two k'inds of seller. Business sellers must for instance allow free returns' for fixed price sales. Private sales do not.

In many instances business sellers will have higher start and selling prices, but on the other hand will be a 'safer' buy partly because of the legal restrictions which should (!) guarantee a minimum standard of service, but also because many business sellers will have specialist knowledge, and also realize that bad customer service is bad business.

One of the most common scams on eBay is for a business seller to masquerade as a private seller in order to avoid these responsibilities. So being able to spot these types of seller is a good thing.

Even if a seller admits their business seller status, many have been forced to do so by new rule changes on eBay, and might try to avoid their legal responsibilities in other ways.

There are even those who do not beleive that what they are doing is conducting a business, legally or not!

If necessary you can report such activities to various consumer rights and protection agencies.

Also, many seem to belive that by selling at auction they avoid all legal obligations to a customer. This is not the case. One particular set of regulations the Distance Selling Regulations, do not apply as such to auctions, but only with regard to the method of selling and not to the the business a whole. If the auction cannot be attended in person however, then the Sale of Goods Act still applies. This obviously includes eBay auctions, and eBay's own rules cover this.  

Ebay's Advice

The first thing I recommend is checking out eBay's pages on avoiding counterfeits and fakes, and also the pages on spotting fake emails. If you don't know where to find these you will can use the help-system search facility.

Make sure you understand the feedback system, and the proper procedure for filing a 'dispute'. The first is very important, as eBay cannot know how any individual seller is behaving, and neither can other buyers unless you know how, and when to leave what kind of feedback.

What I can say here is that feedback should reflect the way the seller behaved, especially when something goes wrong. Everybody makes genuine errors now and again. The important question is, what did they do to try and put it right?

In my opinion, if they really did try their best, and (importantly) did not try to break any trading laws, then even if you had to return the goods for a refund, they should probably still get positive feedback. That is what you would expect of a decent honest seller. If on the other hand they tried to fob you off with excuses, then a negative is probably in order even if they do eventually put things right!

If they deliberately sold you a fake, then a negative is definitely in order, and a report to eBay is also indicated.  


All this is good and well but how do you spot likely 'cowboy' sellers before you buy?

1. Make sure the listing follows eBay's listing rules.

If it does not, you should report it. You can do this with a link right at the bottom of the listings page. Do this if you even suspect a listing breaks rules. You get a chance to check on this during the reporting procedure, but if you are still unsure report it in any case. EBay would rather check a listing which is not in breach than miss ones which are.

BTW. Even if the particular listing does not disappear, this does not mean the eBay has taken no action. For example, if it looks like a genuine error or is a minor infringement they may simply tell the seller to revise the listing. Or it might be that the same error shows on several listings from that seller, in which case eBay may cancel one and tell the seller to fix the rest. Whatever happens, eBay makes a note of this and habitual offenders will have their accounts suspended. 

2. Make sure the listing is legal.


In the past eBay has essentially left it up to the individual seller to make sure that they obey the selling laws of the country in which they list. Now (it appears because of new legislation) eBay is going to try and force sellers to comply with the laws, by actively seeking them out and suspending those who do not change their account status when contacted.

For the most part these only apply to business sellers, but the law (not the seller) is who decides whether a person is conducting a business. Ebay has a page for business sellers which outlines the law as is stands. Check out this page. Any person who you think is not complying with these regulations and who appears to be conducting a business should be reported to ebay.

Most importantly, you should not buy from a seller who is in practice behaving as a business seller, but who has not declared this in their listing, or registered with eBay as business seller.  

A business seller must provide a geographical address and a name for their business, and should have real (not mobile) phone number. Also for any items sold at a fixed price they must allow a minimum seven-day (ebay insists that this should be 14) period from the receipt of your item in which you may return it for a refund.  The refund must include the postage you paid at the time of the sale. (You can be asked to pay for return postage and insurance, and you must return the items unused except as necessary to try-out the item.)

Auctioned items may be excluded from this, and some kinds of item may be excluded, or limited in effect. (Things which are single use or cannot be tested without using it up, such as a newspaper, or a roll of film may have limitations.)

It is also now illegal to pretend that such a policy is a special feature or offer. (So they can't say something like "Beacuse we think our widgets are so good we offer a no-obligation trial period of seven days". That is now illegal.


Even if a seller is not an eBay 'power-seller' then if they are clearly conducting trade, they should also register as a business!

You might ask why you should avoid sellers who do this. After all you aren't breaking any law by buying from them! (Actually in some cases this isn't strictly true, but...)

The reason is quite simple. Business sellers do get benefits from behaving legally, and also from registering as such on eBay. (Lot's of marketing goodies for one thing!) So there is no reason why they should not register.

Some people say they don't want their 'private' name and address posted on the internet. Well that might be true, but if you are trading, you are offering yourself and services to the public. By doing so you are no longer a private individual. Once you choose to trade you also choose to waive part of your right to privacy. If you don't want to do that, then you do not want to trade!

I can see no legitimate reason for keeping such things quiet in any case. If you are a good trader you want to advertise that fact.  

The real reason for people doing this, is because they want to hide the fact that they are a poor trader, who probably doesn't want to bother with giving refunds etc. for shoddy goods, and probably sell quite a of of them. In other words, they want to con people out of their money. Maybe not all the time, just when it suit's them!

Do not beleive that some ebay sellers cannot get away with this for a long time. Some have managed to keep this up for a long time. Iv'e been conned by members with large good feedback, and Iv'e also had sellers who couldn't care what happened after they got my money. (Which to my mind is the same thing!)

Ebay's new rules will help a lot, but only if they are enforced!

3. Weasel words.

Some sellers (both private and business sellers) use a catalogue of weasel-words and phrases in an attempt to disguise what they are really saying. Ebay has a list of such phrases in thier 'spotting counterfeits' section. (Knock of Nigel) But here are a few common ones I come accross in my main product area (Photography), and I'm sure many appear in other types too. 

"Item is bought as is, no returns."

Well if it is sold at a fixed price by someone conducting a business they cannot say this at all. Ebay rules also say that the item must be 'significantly as described'. This phrase means....

"The item is broken, or completely worn out, and I thought that rather than throw it out, or pay a lot of money (More than it is worth) to get it fixed, I thought I might as well make it someone else's problem and make a bit of cash while I am at it."

This is usually too long to type out. Which is why they use the shorter phrase. They then argue that they told you it was broken in the listing.


"I don't know anything about these so..."

Well, this may be true, but why on earth do you have it in the first place? Or even more suspiciously why if that is the case do you have so many to sell?

A number of excuses are used to cover those questions, and I will deal with those shortly, but these days it is pretty easy to find out about things from the internet. I sometimes get things along with what I pick up at auctions, and usually I can find out what it is, rarely do I find something that I can't figure out!

Even if it is true, it should never be accepted as an excuse for not accepting a return if the item is faulty if it was not said so outright. "I don't know if it works properly so please assume it is faulty." may be acceptable, but only if they are willing to answer some questions as to what faults their may be.

Again, do not accept this from any seller who is or appears to be running a business. They are selling it, it is their responsibility to ensure it is fit to sell.


"I'm selling it for a friend."

 No r'e not. You are selling it for yourself.

If they have an arrangement with someone else to sell for them then that's their lookout, not yours. It is just another excuse.

Later (When you get it and it is broken), the seller will tell you that he is not responsible as it was not his property in the first place. This is rubbish. He sold it. It is his responsibility.

"It was my dad's"

"I found it in the attic"

Are variants on the same theme. Again on no case can these be used as an excuse for not knowing what it is or what condition it is in, and it is certainly no excuse for refusing to accept a return.

"You can trust me because I am a member of...."

Should often read... "I am a bit of a con-man. I have an insurance policy which gives me protection if something goes wrong, and I'm trying to tell you that this in some way means that you are definitely going to be compensated for my incompetence."

It might guarantee him some protection, but that's no guarantee you will be compensated by him.

In fact that's another case of someone pretending that something they are required to do in law is something special. It might mean he can pay, but does not mean he will.

Does that sound like someone you want to trust?

There are organizations that do offer customers reassurance, but most of these do not offer extra insurance. Rather the assurance is based on the idea that to be a member you must comply with and maintain a minimum level of service. Some however you just pay!

So if you see such an assurance mark, or claim check up on the organisation or scheme mentioned, and remember the claim to belong to that organisation might not actually be true in any case!


Particularly in cameras....

"I have run a film through it"

This means the winder works, anything else working?

"Beautiful Camera"

It looks nice. Iv'e tested it and it does not work.


It's a Kodak. Produced in their millions.


We'll see at the end of the auction. (Also...If it's that valuable how come it got a 99p start.)

"cleaning marks" (Of lenses)

It's scratched.


It's probably a FED or Zorki Russian copy (£5-£50) of a Leica, (£150-£700 or more!) with 'Leica' written on the top. (Experts will spot this right away. There are perfectly legal 'fakes' made from the Russian copies as curios. Often quite collectable themselves but not Leicas.

"Low start"

Not actually a con, but it means "Look, it isn't really in terribly good nick, and I need the room so if you don't mind a tatty/flaky one then you can have it cheap". It becomes a con when it becomes a 'Look you got it for next to nowt, you should have known it was broken". So make sure that the listing says it works but is a poor example all the same!

"For spares or repair"

Often there is no guarantee that it can be repaired, or that it has any useful spares. 

An honest seller will tell you what is needed to repair it, and should know roughly how much it would cost. If it is sold for spares only, the seller should indicate which parts might be salvaged, or invite you to enquire about a particular part.

If you can't get these assurances. Don't buy! (I know, I buy a lot of broken stuff for repairs. Often they are barely worth the postage charged!)

There are lot's more. Be sceptical, ask questions. If at all unsure walk away! 


4. Odd payment methods, or other oddness.

Sometimes you see things like 'I don't accept PayPal, or they accept payment in a currency other than the one that the item (or the seller) is located. These should set alarm bells ringing.

With PayPal there is a risk of a credit-card chargeback to the seller by a con-man buyer. But this is actually quite rare, and a risk all businesses have to take. So business sellers (Whether registered or not) should not really make this stipulation. For very valuable items an escrow service might be specified. This is a safe payment method for both buyer and seller.

So insisting on payment by cheque etc., may be a sign that they expect that you might want to put a payment on hold in some way.  

Payment in an unusual currency may be a sign that the seller want to be sure that you don't pay by cheque, or other method. These are often inconvenient to sellers, but...

Accepting payment in 'foreign' currencies will cost two currency exchange fees. One when accepting payment, the other when drawing the profit. Hardly a sensible approach to business banking. Why would anyone want to do that?

The only reason I can see is that in fact the seller is located somewhere other than the address (or even country) given. It is quite possible for a seller to reside in one country and employ others to ship for them from a completely different one.

In the form of drop-shipping, this can be quite legitimate, but check that you can see this is what is happening. There is no reason to hide this except perhaps that making drop-shipping work well on eBay is notoriously difficult as the seller is reliant on a third-party to ensure the goods are stocked and available etc. This makes some drop-shippers reluctant to disclose the nature of their buisness.

Again any peculiarity might indicate a seller with less than the ideal attitude!

5. Spelling and grammar.

I include spelling and grammatical errors in my list of warning signs. It might sound like nit-picking but there are a number of reasons why I think it important.

One reason is that it is disrespectful to the buyer. Bad spelling can make a listing difficult to read and unclear. This might be accidental, but the listing design pages on eBay do include a spell checker. (It does not always work very well, but it is there!)

It is a sign that the simply seller can't be bothered to check that the listing is clear, and that can also mean they can't really be bothered about their buyers either.

Another reason is that poor spelling and grammar may later be used as an excuse when the item does not match-up to what you expected. They will say that a particular word was clearly a mistake, and it's your fault for not asking them about it beforehand. (So always ask!)

It could also be a sign that the item's location has been falsified, and the seller is not writing in their own language.

This is against eBay rules, and can be used to disguise the fact that import taxes may have to be paid before the item is delivered, or could mean that the seller is impossible to prosecute should they in fact commit a fraud.

The same applies to bad grammar.

To include spelling and grammar as warnings might seem unfair on some who while being perfectly honest, are poor writers, or just plain dyslexic.

But that is not insurmountable. I know I'm dyslexic, and let's face it we are not talking about literature, just a brief description.

The bottom line is, that if a seller is serious about selling, then they will take that extra bit of care. If they don't, they won't.  


Ok ignoring for the moment that in internet terms USING CAPITAL LETTERS is rude, you should take a moment to consider why someone is using capital letters at all.

The obvious answer that comes to mind is that they really want you to notice this bit of the text. Ok, that migh be true, but have you ever really tried reading a passage written in capital letters? Let me demonstrate...


It's actually more difficult to read!

In fact this is well known among those who study how well things like forms etc, are understood. One striking conclusion is that text presented in upper case exclusively is tiring to read, and is very poor at getting the message accross, and should only be used for emphasis in short passages and that as a last resort!

It's not hard to understand why, first you lose the normal cues to the start of sentences, but also capital letters are usually very similar in overall outline appearance.

There are better ways of emphasising important passages, such as bold type, or using italics. You could also use a different colour.

So if you really want someone to understand something writing it all in upper case is the last thing you want to do!

It might be the case that the writer is in fact a complete idiot, but in my view it's as likely to be a deliberate attempt to get you to ignore or mis-interpret a passage of text. In many cases when you read such text it contains things which attempt to limit your rights, or describe some major defect.  

In the first case it makes little difference if you know your rights (But do you really want to deal with this person?), in the second case it will be used to refuse a refund when the defect is discovered. The seller will point out that the defect was mentioned in the listing.

It is almost as effective as small print in the contract, and you should always read it in detail.

Personally I would be suspicious of any I see. All listings should be clear and concise, beware those that aren't.


7. Low prices.

Ok, this sounds a bit daft. Surely that's why you are here, to pick up a bargain!

But the fact is that low prices often mean poor quality and no after sales. There is a minimum amount of effort that needs to be expended to create and maintain an eBay listing, and of course an ebay fee to pay.

The minimum eBay fee for a listing with 'gallery' picture is around 50p (It varies for some categories.) and selling fees make up another 20p or so minimum. So can anyone really afford to sell bulk at 99p make a profit and still handle any returns? Yes, if the items they are selling cost them nothing. Listings like this are often 'loss-leaders' they are their to 'rope you in' to buying more expensive items, and when used that way it is a fairly normal practice. But...

Don't expect the same quality of item, or of service to be applied. Often these items are surplus or junk. They certainly have not been carefully checked. So if you buy one and it's broken, (Often missing too!) expect trouble. Much of waht the seller makes here is out of handling charges on the packaging. (Look out there too!) 

Another important thing here is that some sellers use this as a way of keeping feedback high. Despite the poor quality most ebay buyers are reluctant not to leave any feedback, and in the past actually discouraged from leaving negative feedback for the fear of retaliation.

This allows a seller to build a huge feedback total, which can be used to disguise the negative feedback they get when they try and refuse a refund on a more expensive item.

This sort of seller is also likely to apply feedback extortion.

As of May, retaliatory feedback cannot be left by sellers, so don't be afraid to leave a negative if it's deserved. But there are still a lot of sellers riding on a high past feedback score.


8. Postal Terms/Charges & insurance.

A lot of people think that eBay sellers in general charge a lot for postage. In fact this is not often really the case. A lot of sellers don't understand how to calculate postal charges and there is the temptation (Because ebay charges no fee on postage) for sellers to put as much on the postage as they can manage.

For business sellers there are legal restrictions on what they may and may not do or say with regard to postage. This can make their postage a little more expensive.

Postage may also include the packaging costs (and this can be quite expensive) and a handling charge. ie the cost in time,  for the actual packaging, and petrol getting the parcels to the Post Office etc. This can add another 50p-£2 to the total.

However, postage need not be the buyers concern at all, as legally speaking (at least for business sellers) the price of an item bought 'mail order' includes the postage charged, even if it is shown separately.

This means a full refund means you get the postage back too.

Beware of listings which say they do not refund postage and packaging.

Some listings fail to specify shipping charges 'up front'. For a business there is little reason to do this. For smaller items a blanket rate is easy to apply. The prices charged by post offices etc, a flat rate for most small items too. Not showing the rate might be (probably is) a sign that the seller is going to slap an unrealistic shipping charge onto the order.

It could be also that they are just plain lazy! 

Also, items which get lost or damaged in the post are the sellers responsibility. A business seller should not say or imply otherwise. (Deliveries overseas to a non-EU country may limit the extent, or require extra insurance for particular destinations, but but in all cases losses in transit are borne by the sender.) 

Because of this a business sellers rates may already include insurance in the postal fee.

Any business seller who says they cannot refund items lost in the post, or limits the refund to what can be recovered from the delivery service, is breaking the law just by saying this. Avoid these sellers.

A business seller is under no obligation to insure an item at all, nor is it really of any concern to the customer. Any insurance is between the seller and the delivery service, and has no bearing on their responsibilty to deliver the item, or refund the full cost.

It follows that any 'extra' insurance does not offer you any greater protection, and are a often a trick to get you to pay extra.

(So why does eBay allow this? Stated simply, for business sellers it shouldn't. Even private sellers should not ask for this. It is often argued that items sold at auction might exceed the expected price and extra insurance would be required, but then the insurance could well be paid out of the extra money gained from the auction, and still only protects the seller not the buyer.)  

In the case of damaged goods the seller might insist that the damaged goods are returned or submitted for inspection before refunding. This is usually because it may be necessary in order for the seller to claim compensation. The refund cannot be made dependent on getting the goods back, but failure to return damaged goods if asked may mean you are charged a recovery fee for collection of the damaged goods.


To sum up.

Ebay can be a safe and enjoyable place to shop, but there are con-men around.

These are not difficult to spot if you know what to look for.

The most common ploy is to pretend to be a private person while actually conducting a business. (This is in itself illegal.)

You can spot these easily by what they do and how much. If they are a power seller they are almost definitely conducting a business!

Dishonest sellers often use weasel-words, or try and limit your right.

If you understand your rights these are easy to spot.

Always report listings you think break the rules.

Always think carefully about feedback you leave.

If you decide that negative feedback is appropriate do not be afraid to leave it.

If you suspect any listing is at all 'unsafe' do not bid, or buy however much of a bargain it seems. Real bargains are rarely very cheap.


Ebay has done a lot recently to improve things for buyers, (and a number of traders on ebay are a bit upset about that. Read into that what you may!) but however much it improves there will sadly, be some who will still choose to behave badly.

I hope that by taking the time to read all of this lot, (longer than I intended really!) you now feel more confident that you can spot dodgy deals, and 'rouge traders' on eBay (or anywhere else for that matter.)

Happy Bidding


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