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Spotting a Scam: How to Tell if Items Listed on Internet Auction Site May be Fakes

by Liz Holderman (07/08/13).

A past WorthPoint article (“Online Buyers Be Prepared”) discussed ways to identify reproductions and counterfeits when buying from Internet auction sites. But it is also helpful to recognize online swindlers by their methods of operation.

Surprisingly, the biggest problem for buyers is not the seller who takes money and never delivers (because eBay, for example, has buyer protection to cover that). The biggest issue is the borderline chiseler who sells fakes but covers his tracks and seems to be on the level.

Most crooks have been kicked off of Internet auction sites multiple times, but they just come back with new identities. They need to establish feedback ratings for those new identities, so they auction a multitude of low-cost Buy-It-Now items extremely fast. These are always things that can be e-mailed, like recipes, digital photos or passwords to access consumer databases. Sometimes they offer over-the-air services, like unlocking cell phones. There is no shipping involved, so they can quickly buy these items themselves (with other alternate IDs) and leave positive feedback. Luckily, you can look at items a seller has sold in the past—it is easy to do because each feedback comment is linked to a specific item.

If you don’t believe this is a set-up (maybe people really want to pay for recipes that are available all over the web), look at the feedback for those listings. The same buyer appears over and over, purchasing multiple copies of that same great recipe, leaving glowing feedback for every duplicate copy.

Now that a scammer has quickly established a good (but phony) feedback rating, he can start to sell reproductions. The seller wants to stay on the site, so he’s going to appear to be as legitimate as possible. If you are wary of a listing, here are some clues:

More than 50 copies of this same onion pie recipe from a seller in Estonia sold for exactly 1¢ each on eBay on March 17, 2013. Two buyers bought them all and left positive feedback with similar wording. The seller’s rating grew 50 points overnight.

1. Authentication features (like hallmarks, date codes or signatures) are not noted because the seller hasn’t done any research and doesn’t know what they are. If features are identified, it is usually because the wording was lifted from another listing so the description may not match the photo. Incorrect terminology might also be used. There will be very little of substance in the description but lots of extraneous information.

2. There is wiggle room in the description in case the item is later recognized as fake. When selling a knock-off Louis Vuitton bag for example, the seller might say: “My brother-in-law gave me this bag. He works at the Louis Vuitton store at the King of Prussia Mall.” It removes the seller from any responsibility for authenticity since the bag came from someone else. And it doesn’t claim that the bag was actually bought at the store.

3. Because the item is offered far cheaper than its legitimate counterpart, there has to be an explanation. “I already had one exactly like it. Since this one is a gift, I’m selling it cheap.” Look at the seller’s other listings. If you see the exact same statement about selling a duplicate gift, you’ll see a repeating pattern.

There are other ways to investigate a suspicious listing. Compare the merchandise in the seller’s other offerings. Bona fide sellers usually have an obvious area of expertise and source for their stock. The listings will mostly fall into a pattern, such as designer clothing gathered from estate sales, car parts from wholesalers or collectibles from antique dealers. Con artists, on the other hand, will often have a wide variety of big-ticket items that are all over the map, like Rolex watches, oil paintings, designer jewelry, electronics, famous autographs and other luxury goods.

The hustler is betting the buyer won’t recognize a fake, but if it is recognized, returns are always accommodated (the buyer pays for return shipping of course). The seller doesn’t want a case opened with the Internet auction site, so he accepts (and even expects) the occasional strikeout—but never admits any guilt: “I think it is authentic but I’ll be happy to refund your money if you don’t.” When you prepare to return the item—surprise—the return address is different from the one on record at the site, with a flimsy excuse like, “I can’t accept packages at my workplace so send it to my cousin.” Once returned, the same item will immediately get relisted with the exact same description. Maybe the next buyer won’t be so astute.

HELPFUL HINT: To protect yourself, be sure to transact and communicate with the seller only through the auction site itself, and never through individual e-mails.

Unfortunately, if you do recognize a crook, it is usually not easy to get results by reporting to the website, although there are occational victories (“A Win for the Good Guys—Tracking Down an Internet Scam Artist”). The suspicious actions listed above aren’t against any rules. Internet auction companies don’t have a staff of product experts, so your claim that the item is a fake just goes against the seller’s equally fervent claim that it is real. The auction site doesn’t have the time, resources or inclination to authenticate the item or decide whose opinion is correct. Besides, they’ll say, sellers do make mistakes and this one returned your money and took the item back, so why are you complaining?

What you can do is contact the company that makes the real merchandise. They definitely don’t like people selling replicas of their products because it drives demand down and ruins their prestige. The real manufacturer will investigate if you provide the listing number. They will contact the website and the seller will get removed. But he’ll be back again tomorrow, with a new name and address, starting over again.


Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.

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