How to Avoid
Coin Fraud on eBay
IN A NUTSHELL: The biggest venue in the world for coin fraud today is eBay, where coin fraud is common. Because eBay provides minimal protection against numismatic and other fraud and because it's so easy to scam others on eBay, it's safest to buy only from sellers you know or who are recommended to you by reputable sources.
Online auctions can be a great way to buy coins, but they can also be very risky. You can shop conveniently from your home or office any time day or night. There's a huge selection, and though the selection is skewed toward the bargain priced and aimed at bargain hunters, many big-ticket coins are auctioned as well. But you can easily get scammed, particularly for any item that can be counterfeited, including but not limited to coins.
For years the big three online auction houses were eBay, Yahoo Auctions, and Amazon.com Auctions. eBay was, and is, far larger than the other online auction sites combined. In 2007 Yahoo discontinued its online auction business, and Amazon.com and other smaller venues have very little market presense, giving eBay a de facto monopoly.
Unlike most in-person auctions, online auctions typically stretch out over days and end at a specific time. The highest bidder, when the clock strikes, wins. There are tricks to placing winning bids, and other tricks in maximizing the bids placed on items you're selling. The strategizing, ticking clock, and winning and losing impart a game quality to online auctions. Online auctions, in short, are fun.
Online auctions, eBay in particular, can also be risky, with fraud common. Time after time counterfeit scammers have set up shop on eBay, cheating thousands of people over a period of years. eBay does very little to try to stop this, even to the point of not reading messages sent to it. eBay contends that the rate of auction fraud on its service is very low. It has reported that only one "confirmed" fraud occurs per 40,000 eBay listings. That is indeed a low rate -- 0.0025 percent.
The FBI, on the other hand, has contended that the figure is much higher. As a part of its "Operation Cyber Loss" project, it determined that the rate of online auction fraud is about one in a hundred, or 1 percent. This is a very high rate of fraud, a whopping 400 times higher than what eBay contends.
The FBI's figure is the one to believe. eBay, whose earnings continue to soar, is very reluctant to intervene in individual auctions, describing its service as merely a venue that brings buyers and sellers together. Its policy has been that it won't interfere, for instance, with the auction of a blatantly counterfeit coin that's auctioned as an authentic coin unless it's contacted first by law enforcement authorities. eBay is very much skewed toward promoting the interests of sellers -- they're the ones who pay fees and earn eBay its profits. It doesn't even read the messages sent to it by eBay members informing it of a scam in progress in the majority of cases, instead just automatically sending back a form message, with eBay itself admitting that it's not able to read most messages it receives in a message it sent out to big sellers.
Though the vast majority of coin dealers, online and off, are and have always been honest and reputable, questionable business practices and outright fraud have long been a part of numismatics, among mail-order dealers and flea-market sellers as well as dealers who sell on bourse floors, in-person auctions, and coin stores. The continued popularization of the Internet is just exposing more people to numismatic fraud.
Common problems with online coin auctions include overgrading, inaccurate or misleading descriptions, deceptive photography, counterfeits being sold as authentic coins (with or without the seller's knowledge), and outright nondelivery of coins purchased.
All the online auction services provide buyers and sellers with some protection against fraud. eBay provides fraud insurance, but it's limited. It offers up to $2,000 of insurance per item, but only if you use its PayPal online payment service, and it's good for only a short period of time after the auction's close. With counterfeits, people typically don't discover they've been had soon enough. This is what counterfeit scammers prey on, and what allows them to operate on eBay for long periods of time. Some even offer and honor long-term guarantees, knowing that a significant percentage of naive buyers will never discover they've bought a fake and will never exercise the guarantee.
eBay, in cooperation with the American Numismatic Association (ANA), formed the Coins Community Watch (CCW) program in 2004 "to protect buyers of numismatic material" and uncover "repeated behaviors of misrepresentation of items for sale." This appears to be just a marketing tactic, however, with one report indicating that eBay has been as unresponsive when contacted by the ANA about counterfeit scam auctions in progress, just as it's typically unresponsive when contacted by individual eBay members about ongoing scams. What's more, CCW just apes eBay's low fraud numbers.
eBay recently enacted changes that will cut down on some coin fraud and other changes that will increase it. Working with the new consumer-minded president of the American Numismatic Society, Barry Stuppler, in 2007 eBay prohibited the sale of certified coins in slabs other than those of PCGS, NGC, NCS, ICG, and ANACS. This move did generate some criticism, and the overall policy needs to be tweaked to allow, for instance, for the small but well-respected Canadian grading company ICCS. But it will prevent a lot of abuse stemming from sellers who have used bottom-dwelling grading companies to sell significantly overgraded coins at inflated prices.
eBay has enacted other changes recently that will only increase fraud, in a serious way. First, it prevented people from contacted bidders when the highest bid on an individual auction reached $200. In 2008 it prevented people from contacted bidders when the highest bid on an individual auction reached $1. It ostensibly did this to prevent other sellers from contacting bidders and offering them similar items, skirting eBay fees. eBay said it wants to protect such buyers, but what it really wants is to avoid losing the revenue from such transactions. What's more, according to the experiences of many on eBay, such side offers have never been a significant part of eBay and relatively little revenue is involved.
Mostly what the elimination of communication with bidders will do is eliminate a key way that the eBay community warned one another about counterfeit and other scams in the works. In general such communication is an integral to the online world, and one of the reasons that Yahoo Auctions failed is that from the start it prevented such communication. What this means for eBay buyers is that to avoid eBay scams it's now more important than ever to buy only from eBay sellers you know or sellers recommended by those you trust, that the risk to buying from others is considerably greater.
One protection against eBay fraud is "feedback" -- a way for participants in a transaction to rate one another and for others to see those ratings. A large percentage of negative feedbacks is a clear signal to stay away from a particular seller.
But feedback is far from foolproof, and in many ways eBay's system is flawed. A high number of positive feedbacks (PowerSeller status, for example) in itself doesn't always indicate that the seller doesn't sometimes engage in questionable business tactics or even numismatic fraud. An eBay PowerSeller can have up to 2 percent negative feedbacks, which is a high percentage of deals gone bad to such an extent that negative feedback was given. There's also plenty of anecdotal evidence that eBay is particularly lenient about responding to fraud perpetuated by PowerSellers, who through their heavy selling pay more in fees to eBay than other sellers.
Still, feedback can be of some help, if you look carefully. Read both positive and negative feedbacks. You can discount negatives when they appear to be retaliatory -- left in exchange for a negative feedback given to them -- or when the feedback is negative yet the comment is positive -- this indicates the person probably clicked the negative box when he meant to check the positive box. You can glean useful information from positives when the information in them is negative. The person in this case is sending a message that he was dissatisfied with the transaction but doesn't want to get set up for a retaliatory negative.
You can also gain clues by comparing the "Members who left a positive" number with the "All positive feedback received" number. If they are close, this indicates that seller isn't getting a lot of return customers and that there's probably a reason for this. A relatively low ratio indicates many repeat buyers.
Another good feedback technique is reading the feedback of those bidding on a coin. If they have a lot of feedbacks, and if the feedbacks are for buying similar coins, this can indicate they're knowledgeable about the coin or the dealer, which is reassuring.
But you need to be careful about "shill" bidders, typically friends or business partners of the seller who bid on an auction to artificially drive up its price. Shill bidders often have a low number of feedbacks and a high percentage of feedbacks for buying from one or two sellers. Click on Search, then By Bidder, choose Yes for "Include completed items" and "Even if not high bidder?", and type in the bidder's ID. This won't be conclusive, however. Newcomers to eBay may feel more comfortable sticking with one seller. But be careful not to get carried away and bid more than you intended in an auction in which a bidder is involved who had bid primarily on prior auctions of the seller.
You should think carefully about buying a big-ticket item from a seller with few feedbacks. It's too easy for a scammer to create new eBay IDs. But buying a more expensive item from a seller with many feedbacks can also be risky, depending. One trick that scammers use is to sell a number of low-cost coins or other items to build up positive feedback, then auction off a big-ticket coin and skip town, virtually or otherwise, without sending it.
It's always best when buying an expensive coin to make sure that the seller has sold similarly priced coins in the past by clicking on past auctions through the seller's feedback. Unfortunately, eBay saves auction pages only for a limited time, about three months. If a seller sells items only infrequently, eBay provides no way for you to see what those items are. (eBay's search feature is even more limited. It only permits you to search for past auctions that ended within the previous two weeks.)
The biggest red flag for scams on eBay used to be private auction, in which the seller prevents interested persons from contacting bidders. Scammers, knowing that some people will try to contact bidders, would set up a private auction to prevent this. But now that eBay prevents all such contacts, scammers have a virtual green light, with no worry that the eBay community will tip off would-be victims.
One eBay scam involves a bad guy hijacking the eBay account of a seller with a good feedback record by deceitfully obtaining his password. One possible tip-off during the auction is that the seller is auctioning a pricey item or items completely unlike those he's auctioned before. Another is that the seller previously only bought on eBay, never sold. A possible tip-off upon completion of the auction is that you're asked to send payment to a location completely different from the location listed in the auction. If you have questions about the auction, send a message to the seller through eBay. If his answer continues to arouse suspicion, don't send your money.
eBay has recently tightened up its security features to try to prevent this type of fraud. Now, if an automated password-cracking program fails to guess a password on the twentieth try, eBay flashes a code on screen that you have to type in manually. Despite this safety feature, it's still best to use a password that's difficult to crack -- a combination of letters and numbers and one that's not the same password you use elsewhere.
Sellers can still be tricked into revealing their passwords to scammers by clicking on a link in an official looking e-mail message that appears to come from eBay, a practice known as "phishing." They're directed to a "spoof" site that looks just like eBay but is solely designed to obtain people's passwords. To prevent yourself from falling victim like this and ruining your good feedback, always go to eBay and related sites such as PayPal through your own bookmark or favorite or by manually typing in the site's address.
If you have any suspicions for any reason about a coin being auctioned during the course of the auction, send a message to the seller asking for clarification. If the seller doesn't respond or if you have doubts after getting a response, refuse to bid. If you've bid on an item in an on-going auction or if you've won an auction just completed, eBay lets you request the seller's phone and address. With more expensive items, it can sometimes make sense to initiate telephone contact before the auction's completion. When you request a seller's contact information, eBay informs the seller of this and automatically sends the seller your contact information.
You can also ask in one of the online discussion groups if anyone has had dealings with a particular seller or sees anything suspicious about a particular auction. There are many such discussion groups on the Internet. The most popular group about coins in general is the Usenet group rec.collecting.coins.
The most popular online discussion areas about ancient coins are FORVM and Moneta-L.
With lower-priced items, one question to ask the seller is if the coin pictured in the auction is the coin you would receive, if it's not already indicated. Some sellers put up a generic picture of the coin type, which isn't necessarily deceptive, but this should be disclosed. Some scammers deliberately send a lower-quality coin of the same type and year from the one pictured, sometimes stealing photos from other eBay sellers.
You should save the online image of any coin you buy. Sellers frequently delete these images after the sale to free up disk space wherever they're storing these images, and there's nothing wrong with this, but having the picture later can be beneficial if there's a problem. It can also be a good idea to save the auction description as well as the auction terms, whether or not those terms are included in the auction description or provided through e-mail.
Photography can be used to illustrate what a coin looks like or to deceive. Online images of coins that are too dark or too small or too fuzzy may indicate the seller lacks imaging skills or is deliberately trying to hide something. Sharp, bright photos of coins in which the fields seem overly smooth may have been manipulated in an image editing program. One way you can sometimes spot this is by saving the image to your hard disk, loading it into an image editing program, and looking at individual pixels to see if they've been blurred together. But don't confuse blurring with JPEG artifacting, which is a result of image compression. With the latter, you see squares and rectangles (artifacts) of different sizes when you zoom in. Some sellers punch up the color of their coins by using software to boost contrast and saturation. Some of the major auction houses, in fact, have been sharply criticized for this.
Even good coin images, created without manipulation, are no match for seeing a coin in person. A photo or scan of a coin can sometimes make a coin look nicer than it is, sometimes less nice. It can hide scratches, flatness, and wear. It can impart artificial color, luster, and relief. On the other hand, it can accentuate scratches and minor defects if they catch the light at a certain angle, making them look major. For all these reasons, it's best not to buy a coin, even one illustrated with a picture, if the seller doesn't offer return privileges.
It's usually good policy to refuse to buy any higher end coins through online auctions in which the seller doesn't offer the option of returning it if you're not happy with it. If the seller doesn't specify a return policy, email him and ask. Sellers who claim they're liquidating estates and that therefore all sales are final may be hiding something unpleasant behind their no-returns policy.
With ancient coins, it's best to buy from a seller who offers a lifetime guarantee of authenticity, particularly with pricier specimens. There are many fakes of ancient coins out there, and even experts occasionally get fooled. If you buy an ancient coin, and it's later condemned by an authentication service or by several dealers you show it to informally, you should be able to return it and get your money back.
One protection with more expensive coins is to ask, before the auction closes, if the seller will agree to use an escrow service, such as Escrow.com. The way it works is that upon the completion of the auction, the buyer sends payment to the escrow service. When this payment clears, the escrow service notifies the seller to ship the coin. When the buyer receives the coin and notifies the escrow service that it is as it was described, the escrow service forwards the buyer's payment to the seller.
Typically, the buyer pays the escrow service to use it. At Escrow.com, the amount of payment depends on the price of the item and whether a credit card or other payment method is used, with a minimum fee of $15. Very few coin auctions involve escrow, however, and because a seller doesn't agree to use it doesn't necessarily mean that the deal is a bad one.
If you do use an escrow service, you need to be careful about scams involving fake escrow sites, such as Golden-Escrow.com (meant to be confused with the legitimate escrow service GoldenEscrow.com) and Escrow-is.com. You think you're sending your money to an independent third party, but you're actually sending it right to the crook. The above two sites have been shut down, though new fake escrow sites open up. For a list of fake escrow sites and other auction fraud information, check out SOS for Auctions. If you do use an escrow site, as a buyer, it's best to suggest the escrow service yourself and to make sure it's a legitimate one.
Still another common tactic among scammers is selling a counterfeit, altered, or doctored coin, indicating that they inherited it from their grandfather or other relative, contending that they know nothing about coins, and saying that what you see is what you get. Sometimes, though, people not knowledgeable about coins do inherit authentic coins and try to sell them on eBay.
eBay recently began prohibiting the sale of coins and other items when the seller disclaims knowledge of or responsibility for their authenticity. But eBay's rules, including this one, are enforced only when people complain about their being broken, and even here only sporadically, with eBay not hiring enough people to read the e-mail it receives informing it that a seller is breaking its rules.
An auction with unusually low bidding for an authentic or undamaged coin of its type, date, mint mark, and grade may indicate that bidders are staying away from it for good reason. The old saw, "If it's too good to be true, it probably is," very much applies to online auctions. Deals can be had, but you need to be careful.
eBay is fertile ground for counterfeit operations because of its hands-off policies. Large counterfeit operations involving ancient coins run on eBay on a continuous basis, often out of foreign countries, including Canada, Lebanon, and Germany. Scams involving the fraudulent sale of counterfeit U.S. coins as authentic coins are frequent as well. When in doubt, ask around, with the online discussion groups mentioned above being good choices.
Be careful about sending payment to sellers from abroad, particularly sellers who ask you to wire money through Western Union. One common scam, popular among scammers in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia, is for the seller to tell a skeptical buyer to make out the funds in the name of the buyer's wife or sister, a name not known to the seller. The seller says that this way he'll be able to check with Western Union to find out that the funds were sent to him, so he'll ship the coin, but he won't be able to collect the funds without Western Union getting an OK from the buyer after he receives the coin. A related scam is for the seller to ask the buyer to email him when he has sent the funds through Western Union but without revealing Western Union's money transfer control number until he receives the coin.
What happens in the above cases is the scammer claims the funds but doesn't ship. Western Union doesn't require any information for a recipient to claim funds except the amount of money expected and the origination city, state, and country.
Another scam involving shipping is the creation of fake shipping sites, such as KLM Express and Prompt Express. Scammers have used these sites to "prove" that they sent the item and that you can send them payment for it. After they receive your payment, the sites disappear along with your money.
Another trick sometimes used with lower-priced items is for the seller to charge artificially high shipping and handling fees. Be sure you know what the charges will be before bidding -- if the charges aren't specified, ask. Sellers aren't allowed to change the terms of the transaction after the auction closes. If they ask for more money for shipping or otherwise makes changes, email them and politely indicate that this is a violation of eBay policy.
Sellers in the U.S. cannot charge you extra for using a credit card, alone or through an online payment service such as PayPal. This is a violation of eBay's, Paypal's and the credit card companies' rules. If a seller tries this, email him and politely point out that he can lose his accounts with these services for such actions.
Another common tactic among cheaters is running three-day auctions, long enough to snag someone but, in the minds of sellers, not too long so as to attract undue attention.
The above are all possible warning signs. But not all private or low-feedback or bad-photo or no-returns or no-escrow or inherited-coin or low-bid or transatlantic or three-day auctions are scams. Try to keep things in perspective. Thousands of coins are bought and sold every day on eBay without a problem. Some people overreact in fear and refuse to participate at all in online auctions, depriving themselves of an enjoyable way to build their collections.
Ultimately, with online auctions, knowledge is power. Arm yourself with information like this, and you'll greatly lessen your chances of getting duped.
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