How to fend off eBay scammers

Auction site eBay offers only limited protection to both buyers and sellers, says Ruth Jackson. But there are steps you can take to avoid being conned.


eBay: limited protection for buyers
(Image credit: Hocus Focus Studio)

If the auction site won't protect you, there are steps you can take to avoid being conned.

More than 42,000 people reported scams involving online auction site eBay to Action Fraud (the UK's national reporting centre) in 2017, with the average person losing £1,349. But despite the scale of the problem, eBay is fairlywell protected from having to take responsibility.

The company does offer some protection if things go wrong in the course of normal purchases, such as a money-back guarantee when you pay with payment processor PayPal. This applies when you don't receive an item, or when it's not as described in the listing.

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Yet when it comes to scams, there is less protection for victims. According to its terms and conditions, eBay is not responsible for ensuring the accuracy or truthfulness of users' identities or the validity of the listing. Indeed, under EU e-commerce law as long as the service provider "has no knowledge or control over the information that is transmitted", it's not liable for the accuracy of listings. This means it is down to users to try to protect themselves from being conned.

Sadly, thousands of us are getting caught out. The Daily Telegraph gives the example of someone who spent £1,500 on an organ. He contacted the seller via an email address within the listing, then paid via an invoice that he believed had come via eBay. The organ never arrived and the seller stopped responding to messages. That was when he discovered that the email address he contacted had already been reported to Action Fraud and eBay as a scam, but eBay hadn't acted on the information.

Conmen don't discriminate

And it's not just buyers being conned con men also target sellers. One common ploy is for someone to buy an item you've listed in the UK and then write to you to say they have paid more so you can send it to another country, says Julia Rampen in the Daily Mirror. Sellers are then contacted by someone professing to be from PayPal asking for more banking details. If you don't smell a rat at this point, you are contacted again by this fake PayPal, which says that your money won't be released until it has received proof of posting. Needless to say, you post the item in order to release the funds but never get paid.

Another common scam, which annoyingly I fell for, is for a buyer to report falsely that an item hasn't been received. They pay via PayPal, and then complain to it that the item never arrived. In my situation, PayPal immediately seized the money from my account. Because the person had collected the item in person I had no proof of postage. PayPal refunded the buyer, and I lost out.

Spotting the fakes

If you are buying on eBay, take steps to make sure the listing is real. If it's a fake listing it often means the pictures are fake, too. Right-click on the image and opt to "copy link address", then paste it into your Google's image search function you should be able to see if the same image is being used by other sellers or sites, which would suggest the one you're looking at isn't a genuine listing. Be realistic about the price if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Keep all communication within eBay's messaging system, and beware of email addresses professing to be from eBay or PayPal that look slightly off, or which contain strings of random letters. Finally, make sure you pay for things via PayPal, which is clearly keen to protect buyers' rights.

As a seller, keep all communication on the platform. Ensure you receive payment before you ship, always get proof of postage, and if you're selling something to be collected, only ask for cash when they come to collect.

Ruth Jackson-Kirby

Ruth Jackson-Kirby is a freelance personal finance journalist with 17 years’ experience, writing about everything from savings and credit cards to pensions, property and pet insurance. 

Ruth started her career at MoneyWeek after graduating with an MA from the University of St Andrews, and she continues to contribute regular articles to our personal finance section. After leaving MoneyWeek she went on to become deputy editor of Moneywise before becoming a freelance journalist.

Ruth writes regularly for national publications including The Sunday Times, The Times, The Mail on Sunday and Good Housekeeping among many other titles both online and offline.