Office of Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, Jr.

September 24, 2001 Media Inquiries: Sean Caine 410-576-6357


In this month's issue of his Consumer's Edge newsletter, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran, Jr. advises consumers not to use blind trust when buying items through online auctions.

"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 Curran.

What consumers need to keep in mind, Curran says, is that many online auctions simply provide a place where individuals list items they want to sell. The auction website doesn't verify that the merchandise actually exists or is described accurately, and the buyer's transaction is with the individual seller, not the auction

"Agreeing to buy something from someone about whom you know nothing other than an e-mail address is risky," Curran said. "In addition, many consumer protection laws don't cover private sales between individuals."

Auction bidders should:

• Check out the seller. Check his or her feedback rating, if the auction offers one. Before paying money, get the seller's telephone number and physical street address if possible, and test the number to confirm that you'll have some way other than by e-mail to reach the seller if you have a problem.

• Read the item description carefully–is the item an "original" or an "original reproduction?" Be careful when considering an expensive collectible, since you can't physically inspect the item or have it appraised before buying.

• Ask the seller about returns, warranty or service. If you buy items such as electronic equipment at a retail store, you usually can go back to the store if the item doesn't work properly. It is less likely that an online auction seller will offer returns, warranty or service, but ask.

• Pay by credit card if you can, because you have the right to seek a credit from your card issuer for merchandise that is not delivered or was misrepresented. Paying by check or money order may make it impossible to recover your money if the seller doesn't deliver the item as promised. For expensive items, use an escrow service, which hold your payment until you confirm that you have received the item, then releases your payment to the seller.

• Don't count on an auction's "fraud insurance" until you have read the terms for limitations, requirements for making a claim and deductibles.

• Print out and save the auction listing for the item, your winning bid confirmation, the feedback report on the seller, and all e-mails you and the seller exchange. If there is a dispute this information can be useful, and may be required to file a fraud protection insurance claim with the auction site.

What should a consumer do in case of a dispute with the seller? Report it to the auction; some auctions provide their own mediation service or provide links to third-party mediation services, and will ban sellers who they believe have cheated buyers. If you paid by credit card, follow your card issuer's procedures to dispute the charge. You can also file a complaint with the Maryland Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at (410) 528-8662.

Curran's office distributes The Consumer's Edge free to more than 900 businesses, agencies, schools and community associations. Groups interested in receiving a monthly issue should call 410-576-6956.