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Scammers exploit online trust factor

Times Staff Writer

When Pierre Omidyar founded the EBay auction website in 1995, he built it around a simple core value: “People are basically good.”

Ah, the good old days.

Although most transactions come off without a hitch, anyone who regularly uses EBay knows that fraud is a danger on a site that depends to a great extent on trust, both for buyers and sellers.

When you make a winning bid and pay for an item, you have to depend on the seller -- who is probably someone you’ve never met -- to actually send it to you. You also have to trust that the item is genuine and in the condition described in the listing.

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On the seller side, you have to rely on the buyer to send the payment in a timely fashion for the total amount, and trust that a check, if that’s the method of payment, is genuine.

The highly popular classified advertising site Craigslist, which also relies on people-to-people transactions, attracts fraudsters too.

But there are cautions and measures you can take to minimize the possibility you’ll get scammed.

* Too good to be true: Bargains certainly can be found on these services, but if an item is offered at a price that is impossibly fantastic, be skeptical.

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Last week, The Times reported that fraudulent Hollywood memorabilia -- including a vase supposedly from the movie “Casablanca” and a birdhouse from “Lord of the Rings” -- showed up on EBay at starting bids as low as 99 cents.

Knowledgeable users of the site took matters into their own hands, warning people that these items probably were fakes. Eventually, EBay blocked some of the auctions.

But these measures came too late for a few buyers. One woman reportedly spent $15,000 for fakes that supposedly came from “I Love Lucy.”

* Counterfeits: Near perfect-looking copies of name-brand personal electronics items have shown up on these services, as well as on other online venues.

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Although the appearance might be fine, function is often subpar. Feedback from other buyers isn’t always reliable -- they might not realize they’ve been hoodwinked.

If there is a concern, buy from an authorized dealer. The price won’t be as good, but you’ll know you’re getting the real thing.

* Don’t wire money to strangers: The fake-check scam is alive and all too well on Craigslist. Usually, it involves a buyer sending a check to a seller in an amount larger than the price, with a request that the overage be wired back.

But the check turns out to be fake, and wired money is extremely difficult to trace or recover.

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* Be wary of bank checks: Funds on a certified or other bank check might become available a few days after deposit. But it could take much more time for the check to clear or bounce. If the check bounces, your bank could hold you responsible for the funds.

* On Craigslist, go local: When buying or selling items on this site, it’s best to deal with someone you can meet in person.

Meet in a neutral, public place, if possible, and it doesn’t hurt to take a friend or two along.

* Don’t give out personal financial information: If an individual requests your bank account, credit card or Social Security numbers, don’t disclose them, even at the risk of breaking the deal.

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* If you get scammed: Craigslist mostly stays out of person-to-person transactions, so don’t expect much help. On its site, the company suggests you call the police or a government agency, such as the Federal Trade Commission, in case of a scam.

EBay guarantees buyer refunds in some cases, but only if the payment was made through PayPal, a company it owns.

Currently, sellers who accept PayPal are rated as having a $200 or $2,000 maximum guarantee, depending on the feedback they’ve received from buyers. (Look for this maximum guarantee amount under “Meet the seller” on the auction item page.)

EBay has announced that later this year, those maximums will be erased so that the full price will be guaranteed, except in some categories such as automobiles.

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Furthermore, the auction site has banned some underhanded sellers -- faint solace for wronged buyers -- and has gone so far as to take legal action against the most egregious alleged fraudsters.

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david.colker@latimes.com


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