How to Buy and Sell on eBay Scam-Free

Fake and Misrepresented Items

Fake and Misrepresented Items

Can you spot the fake? Click for full-size image.

Getting what you paid for can sometimes be a challenge on eBay, thanks to sellers of counterfeit, doctored, and evasively described items. Fake Apple iPods, counterfeit batteries, and phony SanDisk CompactFlashor SD cards are regularly up for sale on eBay. The bogus iPods will be obvious the minute you open and turn them on, but you may not recognize memory cards and batteries as knockoffs until they garble your photos or set your laptop on fire. (Image credit: eBay seller aussieram.)

Other significant problems include used hardware--which could have defects or missing pieces--that is as sold as new, and sales of software that may be counterfeit, already registered, or a different or older version than buyers expect.

If you see Windows Vista Ultimate or Adobe Creative Studio 3 going for $50, it's probably not the real thing. But not all fakes are sold at low prices, many are listed in the same price range as genuine products, with photos of authentic items taken from manufacturer sites, making it almost impossible to tell something is counterfeit until you receive it.

Gray-market goods like digital cameras and camcorders are genuine but don't come with U.S. warranties. Another frequent deception is low-cost academic or OEM versions of software being misrepresented as full retail editions. You may discover the difference only when it comes time to upgrade, and you find that the serial number for your application is not eligible for an upgrade.

Any area that is a target for street counterfeits is also a big business on eBay. Designer handbags and accessories, watches, jewelry, perfume, cosmetics, DVDs, and auto parts are just some of the areas to be wary of. Tiffany sued eBay in 2005 alleging that more than 70 percent of certain jewelry items sold as "Tiffany" were actually counterfeit.

Other items may just be stolen. One eBay seller unloaded $78,000 worth of hot Harley-Davidson parts before getting caught earlier this year. He had been employed in a Harley-Davidson parts warehouse.

In the antiques and collectibles category, beware of reproductions and repaired or doctored items. Pottery chips and cracks can be repaired in a way that makes them invisible to the untrained eye, furniture and metalware may be refinished, and old stamps washed or given new perforations. A reproduction or repaired item may look fine on the surface, but it won't be worth anywhere near as much as an undoctored original when you try to sell it, as any viewer of PBS's Antiques Roadshow will tell you.

Even normal sellers typically write incomplete descriptions. For example, if you're looking for a used laptop, the description might not state whether the manual and recovery discs are included or whether the LCD screen has any dead pixels. Be sure to ask such questions or your purchase may not live up to your expectations.

Protect Yourself From Fakes

Vet the seller carefully. Read feedback comments to look for complaints of fake or misrepresented items. Beware of 1- or 3-day auctions, sellers or items that are overseas, and sellers suddenly unloading a lot of goods of a sort they have not sold in the past. Do not rely on labels like Power Seller or Square Trade. While most such sellers are honest, some scammers also have these designations. The logos provide information you can use in your overall evaluation of the seller, but they are not guarantees.

Know the products you're seeking. If you are not an expert in Tiffany lamps or costume jewelry, spotting the reproductions can be impossible. The more you know about what you are bidding on, the more likely you are to wind up with a good deal. Google is your research friend.

Ask questions. Don't bid until you know the answers. Assume nothing. Implications are just that, not guarantees. Ask for detailed photos, condition reports, return policies and shipping costs. And read every word in the listing. You are in control until the auction has ended.

Always use a credit card to pay so you can ask for a chargeback on fake items (more on this in the next section).

Consider using an online shopping comparison engine instead of eBay. While scammers advertise on shopping engines as well, you can get some peace of mind by shopping with a large company you know and trust. And shipping prices, an often-inflated cost on eBay, may be lower through Web retailers.

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