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 Surviving Web Auctions: How to Avoid Being Swallowed by the Sharks

 By Alice King (

 If you have been buying on the Web, the odds are that you have been (or will be) ``bitten" by a shark.  But, there are ways to minimize the risks. After almost a year of buying and selling online, I have developed a set of rules that serve me very well, if I stick to them.

Cardinal Rule No. 1: Never assume anything. Ask questions.  Don't bid if you don't feel totally comfortable with the seller. Don't let how pretty the photo is sway you, and don't be disarmed by the chatty seller who doesn't answer all your questions, or who avoids being specific.  Follow the rules and you dramatically increase the odds that you will be happy with the transaction.


Beware of words like ``excellent, mint, great condition" and especially ``great condition for its age."  After a purchase, you and the seller will seldom agree on the definition of these words and phrases.  So, ask specific questions. Examples for glass/pottery/porcelain: ``Are there any chips, cracks, flea bites, flakes, hairlines, spiders, scratches, repairs or stains?   Are there any factory defects? Is the decor or the trim worn?" If the piece has gold decoration, ask the seller to describe the wear as a percentage because you might not agree with ``slightly worn" or ``not bad" as a description.

Most sellers are not experts and think that if an item has no chips or cracks, it can be described as ``mint."  They simply don't understand that scratches and gold loss, as well as firing spots and mold errors have a detrimental effect on the value.

You know what you consider important about the items you collect, so ask questions. If the item should have a label or specific markings, be sure they are present before you bid. If the size of the item is not stated, ask.  Don't assume that the doll is 12 inches tall or the vase 14 or a doily 6 just because it looks that way in the photo.

Shipping Costs

If they are not specific in the listing, ask. ``Handling charges" can exceed $10, in addition to postage and insurance.  Even those who say ``actual charges" can be expensive if they have a company do ``professional packing," or if they use a carrier such as UPS or Roadway and don't have an account with that company. Be sure to email the seller your zip code (before you bid) so they can calculate the correct charges.

 Method of Payment

 If the listing says ``postal money orders only" or ``money orders only" don't assume they will take your check, a credit card or even a cashiers check. If you ask before the end of an auction, most will take a cashiers check.  Many will take a personal check, if your feedback makes them feel comfortable about you.  But do expect a delay in shipping the item if you pay with a personal check, because most sellers will wait until your personal check has cleared.


 Believe it when they say ``no returns" in the listing. However, most ads don't state the return policy so ask.  Be specific…and demand a specific answer.  Few sellers will take a return just because you decided you don't like the item, after all they are in the selling business and can't make money by shipping just so you can take a look in person.  Quite a few sellers expect you to pay postage and insurance both ways and their auction fees, and occasionally a ``restocking" fee...even when they made an error.  This is what I ask, ``If there is undisclosed damage, will you take the item back, and if so, do you pay the return postal charges and refund all of the bid and postal expenses both ways?"

After the Auction

      Email the seller with your shipping address and a request for the exact charges.  Ask them to let you know when your payment arrives (people have received negative feedback because their check was lost in the mail).  If you don't hear from them in a week, send an email and ask if your payment has reached them.

 Urgent note: A new scam is operating against auction buyers. You could get an email after the auction that is not from the seller, but from a thief. They indicate that they are the seller and will give you a total and an address for payment (usually a P.O. box). Needless to say, you will never see the item.  This happens most often on items that did not reach the reserve. They will offer to sell at your high bid or very close to it.  To protect yourself, check the email address for the seller on the auction page against the ``offer" email you have received. If they are different, email the seller using the address on the auction page asking for confirmation.  Don't send any payment until you are sure you are really dealing with the seller.

Inspection is finally here, that delightful item you just had to have. Inspect, inspect, inspect! Email immediately if you discover undisclosed damage.  Even the most understanding seller will have trouble believing you if you wait a month to complain.  If you have the capability to attach photos to your email, send pictures of the damage. Don't send an angry complaint; until proven otherwise assume the seller just missed the damage.  After all, everyone is not dishonest and everyone makes mistakes.

     Cardinal Rule No. 2:  If they don't answer all your questions to your satisfaction, don't bid!  They may have been in too big a hurry to read all your email and may not be dishonest, but if they can't be bothered to answer your questions when they are trying to sell you something, what kind of service do you think you will get if there is a problem later?

       Cardinal Rule No. 3:  Keep all related emails until you receive the item and are satisfied. They may be your only leverage against a dishonest seller.  No matter how careful you are, the odds are that you will eventually tangle with a ``shark."  But, if you have asked all the right questions, and kept every email, you may (at the very least) be able to file postal fraud charges or Internet fraud charges.  The URL for Internet fraud is and the phone number is (800) 876-7060. If you think you have a case of Internet fraud, check the Web page for information before calling.  In addition, if you initiate fraud charges and then notify the auction, many will also investigate the seller.

      General Tips: Beware of statements such as ``ask before you bid," which is often a synonym for ``no returns." Beware of  ``must be returned in the same condition." Sometimes this statement means you can't even clean or polish an item to check it for damage.  You won't believe how many things are so dirty that the seller could not possibly even know if there was damage.  I am especially leery of the seller who says they are afraid to wash a piece of glass or porcelain and will ``leave that to the buyer." Beware of the seller who will be ``unavailable" during the auction term. Even if they are honest, you have no opportunity to ask questions, which could mean you will end up with an expensive mistake. Beware of words such as ``Victorian image," ``very Victorian looking," ``Victorian style," or ``looks old." If you are not sure, and think an item might be a reproduction, ask. If they can't or won't commit to age, don't bid.

 Check the seller's feedback before you bid. Ignore the feedback that pertains to their dealings as a buyer.   There is no guarantee that a great buying record indicates honest dealings as a seller. If you see negatives or even neutrals that bother you, email that buyer and inquire about their transaction with the seller.  Neutrals may be people who have been cheated but are afraid the seller will retaliate with a negative if they leave a negative.  Be a little wary of  ``lukewarm" positives.  While they don't generally indicate dishonesty, they often do indicate a person who is slow to answer emails, slow to ship and may be doing the minimum to get by.  Enthusiastic positives usually indicate a seller you will enjoy dealing with and purchase of an item you will be happy with.

Finally, don't be afraid to leave justified negative feedback.  If we don't, others will become victims of the same seller over and over.  Most auctions have a system in place to deal with (and remove) persons with excessive negative feedback. As an example, eBay will terminate a user when he or she has a cumulative negative-4 feedback. But, if everyone leaves the justified negatives the seller will find they have no buyers long before the auction terminates them.  The same philosophy holds true for positives. Let other buyers know if the seller did a good job. The larger the feedback file on a seller, the better your odds are of making a correct decision about dealing with that person.

 Alice King lives in northwest Florida and has been selling antiques with Web auctions for three years.  She and her daughter also maintain a cybershop at In addition to auction trading, she restores and repairs photographs



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