Online Auction Fraud Alert

A few tips and ideas for avoiding falling victim to fraud

It was eventually bound to happen...  %#$*@&!!!

When you sign up for an online auction service and experience all of the marvelous stuff they offer, it's real easy to get tunnel vision. It has all the excitement of a third world street bazaar where negotiation will get you the best possible deal for that one item you've been searching for. Steamers are not immune to the exuberance and high suspense of bidding in competition especially for that one of a kind special steam engine needed to fill a gap in their collection.

In the past, this hobby was obscure enough to avoid huckster attention and small enough to be self policing. No one was going to get away with much chicanery, at least not for very long. As this hobby has grown  in popularity, it's become much harder to know and communicate directly with the whole community, making such self policing a lot more difficult. Unfortunately, those nostalgic days seem to be at an end for our once "safe and sound" little collector's world. It seems the Dark Side has finally found us and is making a steady and consistent effort to steal from the unwary among us. This is the reason I'm writing, this, another laundry list of things to watch for.

The typical modus operandi for these high tech lowlifes is pretty much along two lines. There may be a few variants, but the basic scams are as follows.

A legitimate seller posts an auction offering a super nice item, in our case a rare or very top end steam engine. He's taken the time to give an accurate and fair description along with very clear and revealing photos. Everything is quite up front and honest in this auction so someone bids and wins a beautiful new piece for their collection. This is how things are supposed to work and for most transactions it works nearly to perfection. But this is also where the criminal element jumps into the picture. Their scams take one of two basic avenues to part you with your money.

The Second Chance Offer.
You've bid on that engine for 7-14 days, with all the heart pumping thrills and spills of being the lead bidder. Suddenly the auction ends and you've been beaten out in the last 10 seconds. That perfect engine is now owned by some schlub with less than half your feedback score . Many, if not all of us, get somewhat emotionally attached to "my new engine". Now it's gone to a home that we're certain is less worthy. Yeah... been there and done that too...(grin).

Low and behold, the next morning, sometimes sooner, a message from the seller appears in your email box. The first place bidder "has refused to honor his bid", or was rejected by the seller for "feedback problems". He's offering you "your steam engine" at the maximum price you bid. This is not normally a bad thing and it happens quite legitimately every day. The number two guy on the bid list is the one normally contacted, but hey... so what if you were # 3, 4 or maybe 5. You've got another shot at that dream engine and all you have to do is respond to the seller's offer by pushing that "accept offer" button.

Hold it right there Sparky... and engage those little gray cells between your hairy ears. You can bet grandma's best Sunday china that you are only moments from the possible beginning of your very own on line horror story.

Scammers have found ways to scan and collect user names from ending auctions and have set up automated software to send out these second chances to all the bidders in an auction. You send the scammer the money, by credit card or by an online payment service and wait for your beloved engine to arrive. By the time you've figured out it is not coming, the scammer has vanished and neither the auction company nor the credit card processor is going to invest much effort to help you find him. You've been had, my friend. We'll talk about avoiding this tactic in a moment, right after we see the second basic scam.

The False Auction Scam:
This one is more difficult for newcomers to spot, but I'll share a few tips after the tale. It begins with a visit to the auction search engine, where you type in "Steam Engine" and arrive at the long list of available goodies. There among the chaff is a solid gold nugget of a steam engine. It's typically a high end, super nice piece with the same kind well written description we all like to read. The photos are generous and everything looks just as it should. Hey!!!... there is a "buy now" button with a price almost too incredibly low to resist.

As you roll your mouse into range to blast the " buy now" button, you should notice a few things that just do not feel right. The seller has no feedback, he's only recently joined as a seller and he's in the Baltics, Indonesia, Russia, or most commonly these days, China. Put the brakes on your mouse and park it. It's time for a bit of research.

Here is what you've just encountered. Someone in China, et al, has also been doing research. He knows that avid steamers will spend money quickly in order to avoid being overtaken by another bidder. Thus the reason for the "buy now". He's banking on your first impulse being much stronger than your common sense. He's researched to find an auction that has recently ended, although some have even chosen active auctions for their targeting. Next, the thief copies the authentic seller's listing including format, photos, layout and description completely intact and lists it under his own seller's name. He now has what appears to be a legitimate auction offering an honest description, all the generous photos and all the other touches that a real listing will have. He has everything you want, except an actual steam engine to sell you. Once you've paid him he simply disappears and comes back later under another name to "sell" the same steam engine, or perhaps another real beauty.

Staying Out of Trouble... or "What's a Mother To Do?

On line auctions are awesome for finding what you want, but your first and last consideration should be objectivity and reasonable caution. You are trusting that the other guy is honest and will deliver the goods you win. There are some common sense steps to assuring that the transaction is legitimate. Here are a few, but I'm sure others will share their own precautions as time goes by. I'll add some of those as they are shared with me.

Maintain Objectivity
Do not let an emotional attachment to an item or an overly competitive nature blind you to common sense. You are not going to win every auction. Chances are that you'll see another of the same item come up for auction sooner or later, so patience is a virtue on line too. Over exuberance of any kind has no place in your bidding and is a sure way to eventually get you taken by a scammer.

A Little Caution Is Not a Sign of Weakness
The first important precaution is to NEVER.... EVER.... use the links, buttons, or even the graphics in an email to respond to anything supposedly sent by the online auction company or a seller. This one simple precaution will prevent you from becoming the victim of a fake log on page which is meant to steal your password and account . Don't ever forget that you gave your credit card and banking information when you joined up, along with a lot of other very useful identifying stuff. It's all too easy to steal an identity if a thief can gain access. Always log onto your auction account using your bookmark or by typing in the address and then go directly to the "My Account" or similar section. Any true auction related correspondence will be listed there. This includes any legitimate notices sent using their real internal messaging system. Auction companies are not in the habit of using regular email to speak with you and they will never ask you for passwords or other account financial information.

Use Some Common Sense
A second chance offer is quite often legitimate, assuming you are the number 2 bidder. I've successfully bought nice items using such offers. If you are number 3 bidder or lower on the list, then chances are much greater that you are being offered a scam. Once again... log onto your account in your normal manner and check your "My Account" area. If the same second chance offer is listed there, then contact the seller from the original auction screen, just to verify that he indeed sent it. I still advise using caution if you were not the number 2 bidder. Too many second chance offers being sent out could mean there is a problem with either the seller or perhaps his steam engine. When in doubt, err far to the side of caution.

Spotting a Fraudulent Auction
If a "Buy Now" offer looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is. "Buy Now" is one of the most useful tools the auctions have added to their systems. It can often be the means of grabbing an impressive steam engine, at a good price, long before your buddies even know it was being offered. It's as much fun as a good last minute sniper bid and the gratification is much more immediate. However, take a minute to look at a couple of things before you get overheated..

A seller with a very low feedback ratings for non steam related sales or purchases may be an indication of a falsified rating. A newly minted zero rated or even a low score seller is not always a scammer, but it sure does raise a red caution flag. Seller locations in China or Asia in general, the Baltic States, Indonesia and other exotic places, combined with the same low or zero feedback rating are huge flashing neon warning signs. This is especially true when the item being offered is a real tempting morsel.

When in doubt ask for the seller to provide you with a photo with some specific item placed in a certain manner to be included in the shot. If the seller is straight up he'll be quite pleased to do as you've asked. A scammer is going to ignore you or stall you with excuses, hoping you'll either go away or fall for his bait. Run... do not walk.. away from anyone who balks at providing you with comfortable proof that he is in possession of the item being offered. This applies to any seller you feel uncomfortable with, domestic or foreign.

As time goes by you'll begin to notice certain known steam engine sellers using a recognizable style of writing, maybe a font that is a little different from everyone else or an auction template that is instantly identifiable. These soon become comforting beacons for many of us and we expect them to offer good pieces. These are guys who have worked hard to maintain high feedback scores and take pride in providing quality engines. They are also quite often the targets of the thieves who lift auctions and run them as fakes. Hey...  I guess if you're stealing anyway... why not steal the very best?

Watch out for these familiar looking auctions with unfamiliar seller names attached to strange locations. These are scams of the purest form. Report them to the auction security section and they will sometimes, but not always, cancel the sale. I also highly recommend notifying the original seller from the real auction if at all possible.  Watching one of these faked auctions come to successful completion is like watching a slow motion train wreck. You know a fellow steamer just lost his hard earned toy funds to a criminal, one nobody is going to help him chase down.

On line auctions have become a lot more dangerous over the past couple of years. Due care and a large dose of awareness is usually enough to keep you out of the clutches of unscrupulous vermin. Bottom line is... check feedback for steam related items having been sold or bought as well as for negative entries. When in doubt, take a few simple, but reasonably effective, steps to verify the seller is in actual possession of the item. Never get so attached to an item that you can't walk away from a seller who can't or won't give you additional information as requested. If you don't have warm fuzzy feelings, listen to that inner voice that is nagging you that things just aren't right.

You can and will find many opportunities to transact perfectly honest and productive business using any of a number of on line auctions, stores and businesses. I still enjoy buying and selling at auction but I do temper the enthusiasm with a little more careful scrutiny these days.

Want to see the problem at its absolute worst? Try a search for "steam engines" (or any other item) on any auction system offering access to China. It seems that only one in about every one hundred or so auctions appear to be even remotely legitimate. It is a truly scary insight and something we can only hope never happens to auction systems elsewhere.

Steve
Note:
None of the information listed above should be considered to be legal advice. I am not an attorney, even though I do sometimes stay at the Holiday Inn Express. These ramblings are solely based on my own personal experiences and those of other steamers I've communicated with. They are meant to be used only as a generalized resource and offer no sort of guarantee of avoiding becoming a victim of these or any other auction based fraudulent transactions. These are simply common sense personal precautions  that I and others have learned and use in order to avoid falling prey to a fast growing problem. 

The terms "My Account" and "Buy Now" are used herein only as generic descriptives used in the public domain to describe generalized online Auction services  and in no way implies  that the problems  described above are limited to any specific online auction service.  I use online auction  services  and strongly support their efforts  to fight a fast  growing criminal element who seeks to devalue and destroy a highly useful and important worldwide online asset.


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