Online marketplaces that connect regular buyers and sellers can be a great place to find a great deal or offload items you no longer need. But they're also an easy target for scammers looking to exploit other users.
eBay has been a go-to for auction sales for nearly 30 years, yet fraudsters are still finding ways to steal money and goods.
"Like a good novel, a scam is all about the story," said Chuck Bell, programs director for advocacy at Consumer Reports. "It must be convincing and, above all, new. Consequently, con artists frequently change their techniques to respond to changing consumer awareness."
Fraudsters come up with all kinds of creative ways to trick you out of your money. Here's a rundown of some of the scams you may run into on eBay and what you can do to protect yourself.
Common eBay scams — what to look for
Many common eBay scams involve seller fraud, in which sellers misrepresent their identities or products to take advantage of buyers and never deliver items paid for.
For example, to provide legitimate buyers with a USPS tracking number, fraudsters will send empty or worthless packages to incorrect addresses. Because the scammer can show proof of delivery, the buyer may have trouble submitting a claim for reimbursement to eBay or to their credit card company once it becomes clear the purchased item will not arrive.
Another scam you may encounter is a fraudster peddling a fake second chance to buy an item that has already been sold. Criminals posing as legitimate sellers send a message to bidders, claiming that the original sale fell through and offering the opportunity to purchase the desired item by wiring money to an email address outside of eBay.
The crooks post classified ads for vehicles, often offering heavily discounted prices, and request payment in the form of prepaid gift cards while claiming that the transaction is covered by eBay's buyer protection policy. Of course, the vehicle doesn't exist, and the seller disappears.
There are a handful of other seller scams to watch out for:
- Sellers accept payment for a purchased item but never ship you what you bought.
- Sellers ship your purchased item to your address but under the wrong name in hopes you'll return it without opening it.
- Sellers list counterfeit items, or just the packaging a product came in, instead of the actual product for sale.
- Sellers ask you to pay in gift cards or to wire money outside of eBay's platform.
Sellers may also encounter fake buyers using eBay to their advantage. One type of buyer fraud is a bait-and-switch, in which a buyer opens a complaint about a legitimate product you've sold and sent, claiming that it's broken or not as described.
In some cases, you’ll have to refund them anyway. In others, they crooked buyer will return a completely different or defective product and keep the one you sent.
Buyers may also claim that they never received the product or cancel the transaction, leaving you out the money plus a chargeback fee. Buyers can also use the gift card or money-wiring angle, offering to pay you offsite and then failing to send money or disputing the sale with eBay. (Here's how to block buyers on eBay, and how to retract a bid.)
How to avoid eBay scams
Avoiding fraud on eBay requires both common sense and critical thinking. If a product is listed at a deep discount, or if a buyer or seller lacks positive feedback and/or asks you to engage in a "private" deal outside of the normal methods of communication, be wary.
"Consumers and sellers need to bear in mind that there are significant risks for fraud and deceptive behavior online,” Bell said. “Pay close attention to the details of every transaction."
This means you should do your research. Read reviews and feedback from other buyers and sellers, know how to spot a counterfeit product (pay attention to logo design and placement) and find out how much the product you're buying typically sells for.
Here are some other tips to avoid getting scammed on eBay:
- Log into your account at eBay.com and use only the internal messaging system and approved platform payment options.
- Do not transfer money directly to a bank account, pay with gift cards, or pay outside of eBay.
- Do not agree to additional payments or charges after the sale is final.
- Do not accept overpayment for an item you've sold.
- Do not share personal or financial information with other buyers and sellers.
Items are only covered by the latter if purchased using eligible payment methods (though there are some exclusions). You do have some recourse in the event of a scam, but it's best to avoid scams altogether if you can.
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Emily Long is a Utah-based freelance writer who covers consumer technology, privacy and personal finance for Tom's Guide. She has been reporting and writing for nearly 10 years, and her work has appeared in Wirecutter, Lifehacker, NBC BETTER and CN Traveler, among others. When she's not working, you can find her trail running, teaching and practicing yoga, or studying for grad school — all fueled by coffee, obviously.