Despite the ever-increasing technological sophistication
of the Internet, it’s still largely the Wild West
out there in legal terms, with online fraud and identity
theft acting as the latter-day equivalent of cattle rustling
and shootouts at high noon.
A new study by Symantec Corp. revealed that the problems
are now widely known, with most people changing the
way they use the Internet as a result, although there’s
still a lot of uncertainty. Nearly 44 percent of respondents
said they receive unsolicited e-mails requesting personal
information several times a day. Slightly more than
44 percent thought they had visited a fraudulent Web
site but were not sure, and nearly 20 percent said they
had definitely visited a fraudulent Web site.
One of the major areas of online fraud is auctions,
with people falling victim to misleading descriptions,
deceptive photography, pirated products, and nondelivery
of items purchased every day. Online auction fraud continues
to be the most frequently reported offense at the Internet
Fraud Complaint Center (http://www.ifccfbi.gov),
a site run in part by the FBI.
John Comeau of La Mesa, Calif., was one of more than
a dozen people scammed by a Philadelphia seller last
year in phony eBay auctions for laptop computers and
gold coins. But he was both smart and lucky. Because
of publicity that he helped generate about the scam
on the Web and with the help of a local TV station,
he got his $405 back.
The best Web sites for exposing scammers, said Comeau
in a phone interview, are Slashdot (http://slashdot.org)
and Stop Online Fraud Forum (http://www.stoponlinefraud.com/forum).
“Roaches run from the light,” he said.
Still, it’s best to avoid roach infestation problems
in the first place. buySAFE (http://www.buysafe.com),
a new service based in Alexandria, Va., and founded
by Steve Woda, is designed to reduce the risk of online
auction shopping by bonding sellers who choose to participate
in the program.
Sellers earn the right to display the buySAFE seal
on their auctions once buySAFE performs a background
and credit check on them, ensuring that sellers are
who they say they are and that they’re trustworthy.
This costs sellers one percent of the winning bids of
successful auctions in which they display the buySAFE
seal (buyers pay nothing).
Often, sellers sign up for the program when would-be
bidders say they’ll bid on their auctions only
if they sign up with buySAFE, said Woda. Because it’s
an automated online process, it takes 10 to 20 minutes
to fill out the application and 5 to 10 minutes to be
The service currently works only with eBay, which is
far larger than all the other online auction services
combined and where the lion’s share of online
auction fraud occurs. Buyers can search for auctions
guaranteed by buySAFE. Click on Advanced Search, check
the box before “Search title and description,”
and include “buySAFE” as one of your search
terms. As of this writing, there are 40,000 current
eBay listings protected by buySAFE.
Woda got the idea for the service after he himself
was scammed on eBay, paying for a Palm Pilot personal
digital assistant that he never received despite taking
precautions by making sure the seller had a good eBay
feedback rating. “I realized that if it could
happen to me, it could happen to others,” he said.
buySAFE will guarantee any given auction up to $10,000,
which is far higher than the standard limits that eBay
or its online payment subsidiary PayPal offers with
their buyer protection plans. The business plan appears
to be highly successful. Woda says that thus far, because
of the rigorous checks they do, they’ve never
had to reimburse any buyers for money lost on scam auctions.
Fred A. Murphy of Lancaster, Ohio, is the archetypal
eBay seller. Murphy owns a collectibles business, Bigg
that’s now entirely online. (It was previously
run out of a retail store from 1975 to 2003.) Using
the eBay I.D. sales_at_biggfredd_dot_com, Murphy auctions
off collectibles, tools you can use to find them, and
metal detectors, with several thousand completed transactions
since he started with eBay in 1998. Murphy uses buySAFE.
“It’s the first true buyer protection plan,”
Online auction buyers can take other steps to protect
themselves. The most important step is this: Never buy
from a seller who sells through private auctions in
which people are prevented from contacting bidders unless
you know the seller and know that there’s good
reason for making the auction private. The act of knowledgeable
people contacting bidders in scam auctions is a major
way these scams are stopped.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author
of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org