Kathleen G. Kane - Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General - Protecting Pennsylvanians

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Going, Going, Gone--Shopping On-line Auctions

It is the holiday season again, and many of us are turning to the Internet for gift shopping. On-line auction sites have become popular among Internet shoppers because they allow consumers to bid on and purchase hard-to-find or sentimental items without leaving the comfort of their home. However, there are pitfalls to on-line auctions. Before you are disappointed by the "perfect gift" that never arrives or the designer item that's a cheap imitation, do your homework. The following tips will help you in knowing how to shop the auctions and what to watch for this holiday season.

  • Understand How the Auction Works. Many sites only list items that people want to sell. They are not obligated to verify sellers claims of quality or authenticity. Purchase items on these sites at your own risk.
  • Research the Seller. Be certain to get all the seller's contact information, such as name, address and telephone number. Feedback sections at a site can provide information about the seller's track record with other buyers, but beware, those great recommendations may have been planted by the seller himself. Additionally, let the auction site know if you have had a problem with a purchase. Auction houses will sometimes bar sellers with a poor record from using the site again.
  • Ask "What, When, Where and How." Is there a warranty or service available for the item? What about the return policy? When will the item be shipped and delivered? How will it be sent? Insist the item is insured for delivery.
  • Buyer Beware. From Pokemon cards to high priced collectibles, those buying at online auction sites cannot be sure the item is "the real thing" until they receive it. Your best protection is to get a detailed description of the item and its stated value in writing.
  • Let Common Sense be Your Guide. Don't let yourself get caught up in the excitement of the bidding process, only to find you have purchased something you really didn't want or need, or bought something you could have gotten elsewhere at a better price or with less risk.
  • Use Plastic. "Cash only" requests should raise a red flag in your mind, as it is one of the top fraud indicators. If you can, pay by credit card, since most companies will allow you to dispute the charges if there is a problem. Another option is to use an escrow agent who, for a small fee, will hold your payment until the seller provides the merchandise and you are satisfied with the purchase. Many more auction houses are making this option available. Also consider cash on delivery (COD).

If you have any doubts about a seller, or think you may have been taken advantage of, contact my Bureau of Consumer Protection Hotline at 1-800-441-2555 or visit the Attorney General's website at www.attorneygeneral.gov.