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Online Auction Safety: Mr. Modem's Top Ten Tips

Every day, millions of people participate in a virtual open-air market, buying and selling everything from family heirlooms, to Beanie Babies, to Mr. Modem's favorite collectible, pink lawn flamingos. Concerns about dealing with strangers or purchasing something and it not being delivered are legitimate, but if you follow my suggestions, any online auction can be a safe place to buy, sell, and exchange goods with others—and have a heck of a lot of fun in the process.

1. As part of this computer troubleshooting tips series, as it relates to online auctions, is the need to understand how a specific auction works and what you’re bidding on. Some sites list items for sale without verifying that the merchandise exists or is described accurately. If there is anything in an item description that gives you the heebie-jeebies (sorry for the medical jargon), ask questions until you’re satisfied with the answers you receive. If you're not comfortable, don't bid on it.

2. Check out the seller. Look for a “feedback” section on the site featuring comments about the seller from other purchasers. Keep in mind, however, that comments might be planted by the seller. Trust your feelings. If you’re the least bit suspicious, don’t participate. The Better Business Bureau Online has additional troubleshooting tips for online auctions.

3. Get the name and contact information of the other party to your transaction. The name, street address (not P.O. box) and/or telephone number can be helpful in checking somebody out or following up, if you experience a problem. If a seller refuses to provide that information, walk away from the transaction. Better yet, run.

4. Don’t assume all claims about merchandise or value are true or that photographs are accurate. Print and save descriptions and any photos to document claims made.

5. Computer troubleshooting tips as they relate to online auctions also include the need to understand policies as they related to delivery, returns, warranties and service, before you pay for anything. Obtain a commitment for a definite delivery date and insist that the shipment be insured. Print a copy of the return policy and any warranties that may apply.

6. Look for insurance information. Some auction sites provide insurance for buyers up to $250. Other sites provide links to third-party insurance programs. Read the terms of any insurance policy carefully. Specific limitations and restrictions usually apply.

7. Pay by credit card, if at all possible, or cashier's check or money order. Never send cash. Ever. Paying by credit card allows you to dispute a charge if the merchandise fails to meet representations.

8. Use an escrow service. For a small fee, an escrow service, available through most auction sites, will hold the buyer’s payment and only sends it to the seller upon the buyer’s receipt and approval of the item purchased.

9. Report any problems immediately. If difficulties occur, notify the auction site. Sites want to know about deadbeat, cheese-ball sellers who don’t deliver or misrepresent merchandise.

10. Use common sense and stay focused. Getting caught up in an auction buying frenzy is easy to do. So be sure you really, really want that lava lamp or Louis XIV Pez dispenser before bidding. Know something about what you're bidding on or seek assistance from someone who does.

To paraphrase an old adage applicable to today’s online auctions, "You make your bid, you lie in it." So have fun, but stay safe.

If a Problem Arises

If my computer troubleshooting tips as they relate to safe auctioning slip your mind (gasp!) and you wind up getting burned or even virtually scorched by a seller who vaporizes after receiving your money, all is not lost. Follow these steps and you may be able to salvage the situation:

1. If you paid by credit card, notify your card issuer or contact your bank to determine if your cashier’s check or money order has been cashed. Ask your financial institution what options are available to you if your check or money order has not been negotiated.

2. Send a demand letter. Place the seller on notice, by email and certified mail (with return receipt), that you are going to file a complaint with the auction site, dispute the charge, and aggressively pursue the matter legally if your money is not returned by a stated date and time.

3. Report the incident to the auction site. Provide names, dates, your auction number, and any additional information you have within your possession.

4. If your transaction took place via U.S. mail, go to your local post office and fill out a mail fraud form and request an investigation.

5. Report the incident to the National Fraud Information Center at and the Federal Trade Commission at

6. File a complaint with your state attorney general’s office. Contact information is available through the National Association of Attorneys General.

7. If your local newspaper or media has a “Consumer Advocate” who investigates cases of consumer fraud, contact that person, and share your sordid saga.

Nationally syndicated columnist and author Mr. Modem shares his computer troubleshooting tips and computer expertise each week with subscribers worldwide in “Mr. Modem’s Weekly Newsletter.” For additional information or to subscribe, visit

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