A few summers ago, Christie Cambio of Rochester, N.Y., looked for ways to keep costs down on a trip she and her husband were planning to Walt Disney World. When she logged onto eBay and saw that someone was selling discounted Park Hopper passes -- tickets that allow unlimited access to all of Disney's parks -- for about $300 less than full price, she immediately placed a bid. "I never for a minute thought that it was a bad idea," she recalls.
She won the passes, and when the tickets arrived in their official-looking package, complete with the Disney logo, she assumed she had successfully saved money. But the story changed when they got to Florida and tried to use them: "I put my card into the turnstile, and a big red X appeared," says Cambio. "That's when we were like, 'Uh-oh.'"
"Uh-oh" is right: The Cambios were the victims of an online con artist who had knowingly sold them stolen merchandise. Luckily the Cambios weren't held responsible by the theme park, but they learned a lesson: Whether you're buying or selling via websites such as eBay or Craigslist, scams like this can happen if you're not careful. Here are the top online safety tips you need to be aware of to avoid getting duped.
Online Safety Tip No. 1: Guard your personal information.
Even if you're selling an item, you can be scammed too. "If you get an email asking for your full name, address, phone number or anything financial, it's a scam," says Aliza Sherman-Risdahl, who’s written several popular social media books, including Streetwise eCommerce. Sherman-Risdahl speaks from personal experience too: When she posted a hot tub for sale on Craigslist, a potential buyer emailed her requesting personal details. She declined and the sale was off. "No trustworthy merchant or buyer will ask for confidential information through email," she says.
Online Safety Tip No. 2: Know your buyer, and sell locally.
If you're selling an item on a classifieds site and have an interested buyer, check that their name, address and phone number are valid. (A basic search on White Pages or Switchboard is a good way to do this.) If possible, try to deal with local buyers so you can perform the exchange in person -- and leave with the cash in your hands, not theirs.
Online Safety Tip No. 3: Don’t agree to unusual payment deals.
Here's one popular con that is often used in situations where people sell their own goods: A buyer writes you a fake cashier's check for an amount well over your asking price. Next, the buyer claims he made a mistake and asks you to refund him the difference through an online payment service, such as PayPal. Being the nice person you are, you agree … only to later find out that the so-called cashier's check bounced, leaving you out a significant chunk of money for the "refund" plus the item you already "sold" to the con artist.
The bottom line: If a buyer doesn’t give you payment for the correct amount, don't release the merchandise.
Online Safety Tip No. 4: Scrutinize the online payment service.
Before using an online payment service, such as PayPal or Escrow, read their terms of agreement carefully. You want to find out if the company offers any recourse for buyers and sellers who end up involved in transactions that go sour. Also, examine websites with a critical eye: Be wary of poorly designed sites that have spelling errors or claim to be affiliated with the government.
Online Safety Tip No. 5: Always pay by credit card.
For extra security, only pay with a credit card that comes with a "chargeback" feature. This virtually guarantees that your money will be refunded. That was how Cambio finally got her money back. On the other hand, never use your bank debit card to pay for an item you purchase online because doing this means you are essentially paying with cash. "Debit cards tap into your actual bank account," says Sherman-Risdahl. "You'll have little protection if the money is stolen."
Online Safety Tip No. 6: Do fight back if you’ve been scammed.
If you think you may have been the victim of an online auction or classifieds scam, or suspect that an item posted on an online auction site may be fraudulent, report it. On eBay, file a complaint at the Security Center. On Craigslist, go to Help to report abuse or scams. You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission or the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
The faster you act, the better your chances of recovering your loss. While the Cambios have vowed to swear off online auction sites for good, the temptation remains. "My husband was on eBay the other day and saw tickets to a football game he really wants to go to," she says. But if you play it smart, you don't have to avoid online classifieds and auction sites altogether -- just be cautious and keep your guard up.