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Vol. 1, No. 9
October 12, 2002

How to Avoid Crooks When Bidding Online
From the Staff at Automotive Mileposts

Image: MILEPOSTS Garage


Buying and selling items through an online auction has become a business for many enterprising people. Things that once had almost no value to them are today worth big bucks. Through the miracle of modern technology, people can now present their items for sale to millions of people at a very small cost.

One of the more common items you see offered for sale on an auction is old car ads. The seller goes to a used book store and buys old copies of National Geographic or Holiday or Life, and cuts the automotive advertising out of them. Suddenly, that $1.00 copy of National Geographic has generated 6 or 7 very rare vintage ads. And they're always very rare - the fact that used book stores have tons of old magazines for sale with the same ads in them means nothing.

Ads for limited edition models or highly coveted cars can and do bring more, but most ads have a starting bid of just a couple of dollars. Not much, really. But when you multiply that by the 6 or 7 ads in the one magazine, and you consider the small cost of the acquisition and the listing fee for the item, you can quickly realize a decent profit doing this.

It might sound like easy money for very little work, but you do have to be organized to stay on top of things. And wherever money is available to be made, you can also be certain it will attract a few unscrupulous characters as well. And those characters all have one thing in mind: getting some of your money!

There are several ways these crooks accomplish this. We're going to tell you what they are, and what to look for so you can avoid them. We'll also offer you a couple of ways to avoid being ripped off.


This seller wants to take your money and run. They may not even have the item they're supposedly selling! The thing you want to be most cautious about is the new seller. This is the seller with very little or no feedback. Now, everyone has to start somewhere obviously, and we realize this. But is it logical to think that a person would immediately just start selling things without using the auction site a couple of times to buy something? Maybe they don't need anything, and they're just selling off old stuff that's been laying around gathering dust. Fair enough. If you really want the item, instead of bidding on it, E-mail them. Ask a question about the item, even if it seems like a stupid one. When and if they respond, look to see if their E-mail address is from one of the free services. If it is a or address, that's a caution flag waving at you. Use caution in this instance - very few frauds will use their ISP E-mail address. It provides too much information, and it leaves a trail. Chances are, they're only using this E-mail address for a couple of auctions, then they'll grab another one.

If you don't get a response from the seller, try E-mailing them again. Maybe their mailbox is full of spam, or they've just been busy. Perhaps, but this is another caution flag. No response means they may not be checking that E-mail address regularly. And why not? They have items up for sale online with that address, how do they expect to answer questions if they don't check? This shows they might not use this address often. Think about it, if you were selling something, wouldn't you try to check E-mail at least every day or two, just in case someone had a question?

That's two caution flags. The third and final concern at this point is the method of payment. If they only accept cashier's checks or money orders, FORGET IT! With no feedback, no response to your messages, and what are basically cash payment terms, forget about buying from this seller. At the very least, you'll get bad service from them, since they don't respond to messages, and at the worst you'll never see your money again - or the auction item.

The fraud depends on greed as a motivational factor. Almost always, the item up for auction will be something unique, rare, or highly desirable. A one of a kind that you might not have the opportunity to purchase ever again. It will likely also have a substantial starting bid set on it as well. If the item is inexpensive, and you don't mind losing the money to learn a lesson, go for it. If it shows up, that seller is on their way to a good feedback history that will help future bidders make up their mind about bidding.

If the starting bid is high, and you really want the item, ask the seller if they would agree to using an escrow service. Be honest and explain to them you have concerns about their lack of feedback. Most reputable sellers will understand your concern and do what it takes to prove their legitimacy. If the use of an escrow service is agreed upon, make sure it is a legitimate one. Don't just go to the escrow service's Web site and look it over; research the company. Investigate its history. A nice looking, professional Web site has conned many a wary buyer into believing the company was legitimate, when it was actually a front for cons. This is your money; don't let go of it until you are convinced it is safe. If there's something inside telling you that something isn't not right with this deal, listen to it! Most likely, you will be correct to follow your instincts.

eBay offers a list of reputable escrow services that are bonded and licensed. Information about each, as well as links to their sites, are available here.

If the seller does have a high feedback number, take a good look at it. If there are any negatives, read them. Also look to see if the seller left a response to the negative feedback. If there was an honest misunderstanding, so be it. But if the seller flames the buyer for something, use caution.

We know about an auction that listed all of the black interior trim panels for a 1968 Thunderbird 2-door. It included both front door panels, both rear quarter trim panels, both door arm rests, and both rear quarter armrests. The power window switches, ash trays, and all related trim were also part of the auction. The seller described the items as being " close to mint as you can get for a 33 year old part..." Shortly after the auction ended, the seller E-mailed and said he'd just noticed the driver's door panel had apparently been repainted at one time. It was dark blue underneath the black. The buyer expressed concern over this revelation, as bidding on the auction closed at top dollar.

When the items arrived, it was discovered that several pieces had been very obviously repainted. Including the driver's door arm rest assembly and the vinyl arm rest pad - both of which were originally white. One of the rear arm rests was dark green, and the other rear arm rest had been white with a poorly done, peeling paint job. On top of that, one of the plastic mounting brackets on the passenger door arm rest had been snapped completely off, making that part unusable! These were represented as being close to mint! When confronted with these facts, the seller said the buyer should have asked questions before they bid on the item, and a request for an adjustment to the price went ignored. From the description, the items were clearly described. Why would there have been a reason to question anything? When the seller noticed negative feedback had been left concerning the auction, he snapped back with something to the effect that the buyer was trying to blame the seller for his "bidding mistake." Well, duh. If the seller hadn't misrepresented the items, there would have been no "bidding mistake." Amazingly, people continue to buy from this seller.

Also be wary of newly registered users who have had a lot of feedback left in a short period of time, say a couple of days for instance. Some crooks count on people not really looking carefully at the feedback, the bidder just sees 20-25 positives left for feedback, and goes ahead and bids.

Don't forget the saying "it's too good to be true." Very often, when you find yourself thinking this, you should listen to your thoughts and not jump into something. Very often, your subconscious mind detects a fraud, while your conscious mind brushes it off because the item is too tempting, or the deal is just too good to resist. Pair that up with an E-mail address from, or a non-responsive seller, and more often than not you have an auction that needs to be considered and investigated very carefully before placing a bid.


Ever get the feeling that something is just not right about an online auction? That might be the first sign of a shill bidder in the midst. A shill bidder is often the seller using another identity. The seller bids on his or her own auction in an attempt to drive up the price. A shill bidder can also be a friend, relative, or neighbor of the seller who works in conjunction with the seller to drive up the bidding before auctions close. There are 7 warning signs to watch for:
1. The Fan Club

This seller has truly dedicated bidders. Amazingly, there are a couple of buyers that repeatedly buy from this seller. And their interests are all over the map. From hand made doilies to computer games to stamps to wheel covers to skis to Waterford crystal to an unopened Laura Branigan CD! These bidders are all over the place. And luckily, the same seller just happened to have all of these items listed in a short period of time! What ARE the chances of that happening? Slim to none.

How do you investigate? Perform a search on the bidder's name(s) using the eBay search box near the top of most eBay pages. The names of sellers are listed on the bidder's page, so it's easy to spot when there's a Fan Club in action.

2. The 99 Cent Bidders

If the opening bid on an item is $10.00, and bidding is at $20.00 with bidding increments set at .50¢, what the heck is that putz bidder doing bidding $29.99 for the item? Why not just bid $30.00? Because they want to lose.They are intentionally bidding just a cent or so lower than what most people would bid in an attempt to drive other bidders up to the next level. It's called a "loser bid" because they have no desire to win.

Be very careful if you suspect this may be happening. You will end up paying a lot more for an item than it's worth. People hate to lose, and it becomes a competition - especially during the last few minutes of an auction. Keep an eye on who's bidding, when they've bid, and check the bidder's feedback. If something looks suspect, you're probably involved with a shill bidder. Back off, chances are another similar item will turn up for sale sooner or later.

3. The Identical Twins

Check the bidder's and seller's IDs. Are there any similarities? Do they mix numbers and letters in a similar fashion? Do they indicate a similar interest? For instance, jsmith@yahoo .com and johns@hotmail .com might be the same person. So could 123abc@yahoo .com and 999zzz@yahoo .com.

People get set in their ways, and it's difficult for them to change things about them that are familiar habits. Look for comparisons. If the seller and the bidder both have "t-bird" or "bird" or something of that nature in their ID, and the item up for auction is a Thunderbird item, chances are they both are legitimate. Check the feedback for both. Is there a history of buying or selling Thunderbird stuff? If so, you're probably OK. If not, be careful!

4. The Rapid Relister

Sometimes accidents happen, and a shill bidder accidentally winds up buying the item they were bidding on. No prob, just relist the item. But chances are a seller won't have two of the same thing, especially if it's a rare or unique item. You won't find too many people selling NOS 1963 Ford Thunderbird Tachometers. And to find a seller with more than one for sale, back-to-back is a bit far fetched.

The shill bidders want to move their merchandise, and they won't hesitate to relist something they bought by accident. Check the feedback, and you'll find that item was paid for, shipped, and returned with lightening fast speed. It could happen, but a 3 day turnaround from auction close to relisting is not reasonable in most cases.

You know the cars listed at eBay Motors that look so familiar? There's a reason for that. They've been up for auction time after time after time. There's a certain yellow 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham that's been listed many, many times. It seems there's always been a problem after the fact. The winning bidder backed out. The financing fell through. Uh-huh... Some poor dolts do seem to have a lot of bad luck, but run - don't walk - away from a deal like this. It's a bad deal.

5. The About-Face

A bidder that seems to make a lot of mistakes in bidding, who later retracts those bids with a lame "I meant to enter $25.00, but instead it was $250.00..." or "I changed my mind, I don't want it anymore." OK, mistakes happen to all of us. But if you see more than one retraction in a bidder's history, your shill bidder radar should be screaming at you!

6. The Unregistered User

If you see a lot of "unregistered user" feedback for a seller or bidder, that's not a good sign. You should be very suspicious of this. There are legitimate reasons to have an occasional "unregistered user" show up in feedback, but several? No way. Don't bid.

7. The Early Closer

Beware the seller who reserves the right to end an auction early, if the item sells through other means. This is normally seen on eBay Motors listings. You know, "this car is also listed for sale locally, and I reserve the right to end this auction if the car sells." That's fine, but why would the car show up again a few days later? Some of these characters will even wait a few months to relist, hoping everyone that might remember the car from the first time will have found their dream machine and moved on. In addition to the yellow Caddy mentioned earlier, there's a Thunderbird that seems to pop up for auction quite frequently as well.


This is a particularly sneaky process. Designed to win auctions for the least amount of money, they basically cheat the seller and everyone else who may have bid on an item. Here's how it works: An honest seller places an item up for auction. To get the maximum amount of activity, it's listed with no reserve, and with a modest starting price. A fraudulent bidder sees the item, and places a bid close to the starting price. A second fraudulent bidder (or the same bidder with a different user ID), then comes along and places a very high bid on the item, which effectively scares away all other bidders. A few seconds before the auction ends, the high bidder withdraws the high bid, leaving the low bidder as the winner. This only works on auctions where a Reserve isn't stipulated by the seller, and the tell-tale clue is the high bid is often higher than what you could get the same item for at a local store, or through a vendor.


Now that you're totally paranoid about bidding online, we're going to tell you about a couple of ways to avoid being taken for a ride, so to speak. First, make sure you check the feedback of all bidders in the auction. Do you notice any patterns? If you find that a bidder seems to bid on a lot of the same seller's auctions, you might have a shill bidder. Take the time to do research about the seller and the bidders before you bid.

Second, become a "snipe bidder." A snipe bidder is someone who lurks and watches an auction without bidding on the item. They know everything there is to know about everyone bidding. They've checked the feedback and the bidding history of all the other bidders. They know what to expect from the other bidders. Then, usually within the last few seconds of the auction, they place their bid. And it had better be a good one! Because at this late date, a snipe bidder isn't going to get another chance. If they don't hit the reserve, or if someone has placed a proxy bid for a higher amount, the other bidder wins. Even if the snipe bidder's bid and the proxy bid are for the same amount, the proxy still wins because they bid first.

The theory here is that a shill bidder won't have the chance to up the bid so late in the auction. A shill bidder could have done their dirty deed earlier on, so the price might already be inflated, but snipe bidders can be sure that a shill bidder won't be upping the price on them after they place their bid.

To learn more about online auctions, visit our Classic Car Parts Auctions - Keyword Search page, eBay Registration page, or read the help pages at eBay.

Copyright © 2002 Automotive Mileposts, Inc.
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