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Protecting yourself from online fraud
by Bill Mills
The Internet is a powerful communication medium that has let paintball players from all over the world connect to each other and opened a whole new market in used paintball equipment. Online auctions and classified ads have provided ways for players to get rid of their old gear and get some good deals on pre owned equipment. Unfortunately, not everyone out there is an honest person. There are people who use the internet to take advantage of others. Obviously, when a crime like fraud is committed, it is not the victim's fault, but there are many things you can do that will make it more difficult for you to become a victim.
The first step in setting up a used gear transaction is of course getting the buyer and seller together. Often, in discussion forums, and newsgroups, players will comment about gear they are looking to sell or buy, but to find what you are looking for without wading through messages about whether or not barrels should be ported or whether the Autococker, Automag, or Angel is best, you'll want to look through classified ads and auctions.
UNDERSTAND THE MEDIUM
There are a wide number of web sites which have classifieds and auctions devoted specifically to paintball. Those at the more widely used web sites of course have more from which to pick and choose. WARPIG.com was the first web site to offer automated paintball classified ads, and it added auctions a few years later.
Making sure your deal goes smoothly starts with understanding the way you are setting it up.
Classified ads are generally divided into two types, items to buy, and items for sale. From a buyer's perspective classifieds are great - you can find what you're looking for, and know the price immediately. "To buy" ads, also are helpful if you can't find what you are looking for, especially if it's something exotic like a 6 pack quick changer.
Auctions on the other hand are usually only of a "forsale" nature, but are also typically an english auction or a dutch auction. Auctions can be of more benefit to the seller than a classified ad because bidders will compete to deliver the highest price to the seller. In an english auction, the most common type, an item is listed by the seller with a starting price, and sometimes a reserve price. The potential buyers then place bids on the item. When the auction is finished, usually at a specific date and time, the seller is obligated to sell the item to the highest bidder, providing their bid was above the reserve price if one was set. Dutch auctions are a little bit different. Usually they are for dealers selling multiple identical items, often of overstocked or discontinued merchandise. In a dutch item, the number of items forsale is listed, and that many of the top bidders are obligated to buy either at their bid prices or at the lowest of their prices. For example in a dutch auction of 5 barrels using the lowest high bid method, if the top five bids range from $45 to $68, those five bidders each buy one of the barrels for $45.
While classified ads are pretty straightforward, auctions can be a bit tricky, and rules vary from site to site. Taking the time to thoroughly read the rules of the auction site you are going to use will solve a lot of confusion down the road.
UNDERSTAND THE PRODUCT
Another source of confusion and problems arise from a buyer spending their money to receive a package which they later discover is not what they expected. This is a common problem with a simple solution. Thoroughly read the description of the item. If it's something you're not familiar with research it online. If something's not clear, don't be afraid to e-mail the seller with questions.
Product confusion is common, and something that fraudulent sellers try to take advantage of. For example, on EBay.com the leading general auction site, which also has a category for paintball, there have been "used 12 gram CO2 cartridges," an item normally thrown away because they are not reusable, auctioned off for more than $10 each!
Unscrupulous sellers will also try to sell a URL for the best price to buy a product. If an auction looks like it is for a $1500 paintgun, but the bidding starts at $500, that doesn't sound right. Look at the details of the item description - if it says it's for a URL, that's $500 for the web address of a web site that sells the paintgun - something you can find for free on almost any paintball information web site, magazine or search engine! Amazingly, this scam seems to be more focused on Paintball than anything else. Doing a search for "URL" on EBay shows pages of auctions, a large percentage of which are auctions for URLs of where to buy various paintball products.
Of course there are also the assumptions. Does the seller expect the buyer to cover the cost of shipping too? Is a tank included? Are all the extras that normally come with the paintgun new included with it? Print out and save the product description, and any e-mails you exchange with the seller - keeping records of what they have promised is a necessary step to making sure they live up to it.
Another problem is counterfeit merchandise. This seems to be a problem mostly with video tapes or other items that can be easily replicated. According to Patrick Spohrer, one of the producers of the paintball documentary PUSH, there is a seller who has been selling illegal copies of PUSH and Traumahead Sports videos on EBay at reduced costs, telling her customers that they are not in the original packages because they are "promotional copies." Not only does this hurt the video producers, but it hurts the buyers as well, as the duplicates are of a poor quality with bad audio.
The more specific you are in your description of the product, the less likely you are to have this sort of problem.
UNDERSTAND HOW PAYMENT WILL BE MADE
Again, something you need to clarify before you make your bid, or strike your deal - how payment will be made. With any luck, the buyer and seller are close enough together to meet in a public place, like a local paintball field, where the buyer can make sure they are satisfied with the product, and the seller can receive payment instantly.
COD for a cashier's check is a common option many people take. The payment is sent at the time of delivery, and the package is not delivered until the payment is made. UPS, and other courier services offer COD as a shipping option for a small fee. COD for a personal or business check has the benefits for the buyer of payment being sent when the package is received. The buyer can then stop payment on the check if the item is not as described by the seller. While this does expose the seller to a risk of a bad check - writing a bad check carries serious penalties, in some states 3 times the value of the check or more.
There are also online services, such as tradenable.com and paypal.com which allow payment to be made by credit card, and sometimes to be held in an escrow account until the buyer indicates that they have received the item in good order.
When you ship will be important too. US federal law specifies that unless you make other arrangements, the item must be received by the buyer within 30 days of the deal. The US government takes auction and online fraud seriously, requiring people to go through with deals they have made online.
Many paintball stores with airsmiths will also act as a trusted third party. For a fee, they will receive the paintgun from the seller, look it over to make sure everything is in working order, and then pass it on to the buyer. A few phone calls to paintball stores can find which will provide the service and for what price. This is one of the safest ways to do a transaction, especially if it's trading one item for another. Of course the store you select must be trustworthy.
UNDERSTAND WHO YOU ARE DEALING WITH
This sounds like common sense, but based on e-mail I've received from people who were ripped off in online deals it's not so common. Think about it. If you met someone standing in an alley and he said, "Give me $500 right now, and tomorrow I'll send you a $800 paintball gun," would you trust him enough to just hand over the money? No? Then why do it online?
People with email addresses from free email providers like Hotmail.com and Yahoo.com are next to impossible to track by address if something goes wrong, because their e-mail provider only has the information they gave. Even though traditional internet service providers like AOL and Earthlink will have a billing address for their customers, most will not give it out, unless presented with a court order. While that is possible to do, you could spend quite a bit of money, more than the product is worth, in legal fees.
Ask the person you are dealing with for a home phone number, work phone number, and an address - and verify them. Online phone books, and calling information as well as the work number take only a few minutes but at least tell you where to find this person if something goes awry.
If something does go wrong, you'll need to spend some time studying your recourses. Many online auction and classified ad services will prevent that person from placing ads or auctions in the future - that will help others, but not you. Since the online services usually do not have any verified contact information on the person other than an e-mail address (if that) the need for you to gather that information beforehand is only underscored. The Federal Trade Commission has a hotline to accept online fraud reports at 1-877-FTC-HELP. While they aren't able to arbitrate individual cases, they do record case files so they can go after repeat offenders.
PREVENTION IS THE BEST CURE
Righting a deal gone wrong with the
help of an attorney can be a costly matter. There are some great
deals to be had out there in used products, but there are sharks in the
water. The best way to take care of a bad sale or trade is to make
sure it never happens in the first place. Protect yourself, know
what you are buying, and who you are buying it from.
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