ANNAPOLIS – A Bethesda man thought he’d found a bargain when he bought a $300 Intel Celeron-powered computer on eBay in March, but he’s still waiting for it to show up.
“At a lower price you’re taking a little more risk,” said Gary Becker, an economist who has bought nearly 40 items on eBay — most with much more success.
Like Becker, many other Marylanders are complaining about not getting what they paid for online.
The number of consumer complaints in Maryland about online auctions has already exceeded last year’s total.
“My office has received many complaints from consumers who made the winning bid, paid the seller, then never received the item, or the item was counterfeit or not as it was represented,” said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
In September, there were nine complaints of online auction fraud, the second highest number in one month this year. There were 15 in July.
Overall, there have been 58 complaints this year – there were 37 last year – and the attorney general’s office expects that number to reach at least 70 before the year is out, twice the number in 2000.
The number of complaints is actually higher since the attorney general’s office doesn’t record phone complaints, said Jamie St. Onge, consumer education unit director.
Online auction fraud is also a national problem. It ranked fourth in 2000 of problems reported to the Federal Trade Commission. The top three complaint categories were identity theft, lotteries and Internet services.
The recourse for dissatisfied consumers is limited. They should lodge a complaint with the online auction site and also with the attorney general’s office, said Rebecca Bowman, Maryland assistant attorney general.
When a consumer files a complaint with the attorney general’s office, an attorney will write a letter to the seller, but that’s all they can do, said St. Onge. That tactic is sometimes successful because it intimidates some sellers, she said.
The consumer can also take the seller to court, but this usually involves traveling out of state, said Bowman.
Becker considered traveling to Indiana, the seller’s home state, and taking his case to court, but decided the travel and court costs would exceed the amount of money he’d already lost.
Even if Becker had gone to court, it might not have helped since many laws don’t cover private sales between individuals.
It’s easier for attorneys to track down businesses, and they are often receptive to working out an agreement with the consumer, said Bowman.
Auction bidders can help protect themselves by printing out all e-mail correspondence with the seller and the winning bid confirmation, and clarifying the terms of return, warranty and service.
Bidders should also pay by credit card, when possible. An individual can seek a credit from the credit card company if the item is misrepresented or not delivered.
Many online auction sites post feedback about previous bidders’ dealings with sellers. Check their ratings and get their address and phone number, the attorney general’s office recommends.
“Agreeing to buy something from someone about whom you know nothing other than an e-mail address is risky,” said Curran.
Most online auctions have fraud insurance and will refund some of what the bidders paid. But, deductibles and other limits cut the amount bidders can receive.
Becker got $175 from eBay, but he’ll probably never see the rest of his money or his computer. Despite this, Becker plans to continue buying on eBay.
– 30 – CNS 10-03-01