Avoid Buyer Scams

Spot the red flags associated with buyers who try to rip you off.

Just as there are sellers out there trying to scam buyers [Hack #25] , there are unscrupulous bidders on eBay trying to take advantage of unsuspecting sellers. Here are some of their more common tactics:

Beware bidders offering to overpay.

Someone contacts you and offers to send a $4,000 money order for a $2,000 item. Then, you’re supposed to ship the package and send back the difference. Only after you’ve parted with your item and $2,000 in cash do you find out the original $4,000 money order is a fake.

Hello seller.

Most of your customers will be ordinary people with ordinary needs. But once in a while, you’ll see a particularly formal message, in which the author has assembled an utterly plausible, yet needlessly complicated scenario. Invariably, these messages begin like this:

Hello seller

Am elisabeth jones, i deal with exporting of goods to African countries

But to start with, we will like to ask some general questions concerning

the item and the transaction:

  1. Do you accept western union auction payments (bidpay)also called money order in which they will bring the money cas to ur doorstep and they are very trustworthy in case of handling money and cash.

  2. Will you be able to release the package for FEdEx express as soon as you get the payments confirmation letter from western union??

  3. How many of this items you have readily available instock??

  4. Whats is your best prices?

i am buying this because its urgently needed and i wount need u to reply by force and u can only reply if u are ready to do this transaction neatly and safely. am very longing to hear from you so...

Next, this mysterious customer—who happens to write worse than an 11-year-old with an attention deficit disorder—asks for your name, address, city, state, social security number, shoe size, and any other details presumably necessary for this urgent transaction. And just when you’re ready to dismiss this message as spam, you notice the following at the bottom:

This request is related to item # 5748850091.

As it happens, 5748850091 is the item number of one of your currently running listings, so you look closer. Although the message loosely resembles an official eBay “Ask seller a question” email, there’s no sign of the author’s eBay member ID, and the links in the email all point to ebay.sg or ebay.ph (as opposed to eBay.com [Hack #19] ). This is a con, plain and simple. Just throw it out, and don’t lose any sleep (or money) over it.

It arrived damaged, did it?

Shipping damage occurs from time to time; it’s part of the cost of doing business online. Thus, a customer might contact you immediately after receiving an item you’ve shipped, informing you that the item arrived damaged or is nonfunctional in some way. Now, depending on the circumstances, this may be perfectly plausible, but there’s a scam that’s been around as long as shippers have been drop-kicking fragile packages.

Here’s how it starts: someone owns something that is broken—say, a slide projector—and has been out of warranty for years. Either the owner can throw out the damaged item, have it repaired at a cost likely to exceed the value of the item, or try to get it replaced for free on eBay. This is where you come in.

You just happen to be selling exactly the same slide projector. An eager bidder wins the auction, pays right away, and happily thanks you for your quick shipping. Your fully insured, well-packed package [Hack #86] arrives fully-intact on the customer’s doorstep, at which point the customer removes your functional projector from the box, puts the broken one in its place, and then kicks the package a few times for good measure. As far as you—and the courier’s insurance investigators—know, it’s the same projector, and the damage took place during shipping.

Here’s how you should handle this situation:

  • Ask the customer to email you a photograph of the item, clearly showing the damage. Knowing how thoughtfully you packaged the item, you are understandably suspicious when it looks like it was crushed by Godzilla.

  • Ask the customer to ship the item back to you, at the customer’s expense. Explain that if you can determine that the damage was your fault (or the fault of the shipper), you’ll refund the purchase price and the customer’s shipping expenses. Most bidders will give up at this point, not wanting to risk losing more money on the item.

  • If you sell a lot of used merchandise, find a way to make a unique, yet inconspicuous mark on each item before you ship. If a customer then returns the item, look for the mark to confirm that it is actually the same item.

Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot else you can do in this situation; as always, your best defense is your common sense. Be diplomatic and patient, but don’t let your customers push you around. And to help ensure that you’re not penalized for your customer’s dishonesty, make a habit of withholding your feedback [Hack #6] until the matter is resolved.

Check Out Your Customers

When an unfamiliar eBay user contacts you or a past customer complains, you may want to take a moment to do a little research and find out who you’re dealing with before you reply.

For example, if your auction states that you won’t ship internationally, and someone from Iceland [3] is inquiring about your item, you’ll want to let her know that you can’t ship to her. But how do you know where these bidders are located? Well, you’ll have a pretty good clue if someone asks,"How much to ship to Iceland?” but otherwise you’ll have to do a little investigating.

Start by going to Advanced Search Find a Member, type the bidder’s user ID, select “Feedback profile,” and click Search. (For a shortcut, just open any member’s feedback page and replace the user ID in the URL [Hack #13] with that of the member you’re investigating.) The country in which the member is registered is shown right in the summary box at the top of the feedback profile page [Hack #1] .


While you’re at it, take a look at the member’s feedback rating. If the member has an excessive number of negative comments, now may be an excellent time to make sure that bidder can’t bid on your items [Hack #68] . Also, if you take a look at the feedback this person has left for other sellers, you’ll get an idea of exactly how much trouble this customer is likely to be.

The country specified on the Feedback page is not foolproof, however. If you’re suspicious, just look at the bidder’s email address, which will appear at the top of the email they’ve just sent you. Unless the bidder’s domain is .com, .net, .org, or .edu, the TLD (top-level domain) will contain a country code (such as .uk for the United Kingdom, .de for Germany, or .ca for Canada). If the country indicated by the TLD doesn’t match the country in which the member is registered, this may be a sign that something isn’t right.

The feedback profile itself is not foolproof either. For instance, while account takeovers [Hack #25] are usually perpetrated for selling fraud, it’s not unreasonable to expect some scammers to use these hijacked accounts for buying fraud, too.

The best way to find out what more about another member is to search for items he or she has bought (or tried to buy) in the last 30 days. Go to Advanced Search Items by Bidder, type the bidder’s user ID, turn on the “Include completed listings” option, and click Search. Then, do another search to see what the person has sold [Hack #18] in the last 30 days.

If you see any inconsistencies [Hack #25] or other causes for suspicion, don’t hesitate to ignore the member’s requests, cancel and block the member’s bids [Hack #68] , and get on with your day. After all, there are plenty more where this person came from.

[3] For my beloved readers in Iceland, please substitute Greenland here.

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