Money College: Avoid e-scammers on your next Internet marketplace adventure

avoid e-scammersAh, the Internet: We'd be hard-pressed to name another invention that made our day-to-day lives easier, especially when it comes to exchanging goods, services and money without having to uncomfortably interact with anyone on the other end of the deal. And when you're a starving student, online haggling begins to feel like a fine art form as you explore a virtually endless sea of empty apartments, lightly used textbooks and part-time jobs just beyond our fingertips.

Unfortunately, the art of dealing with strangers online is never really one you can master, and that's probably a good thing. Case-in-point: Just last week, I was trying to sell an old iPod on eBay. The 'pod sold, and I was told by eBay to send it to an address in the United Arab Emirates. No problem, I thought, until I received a message shortly after from the site's control center advising me the buyer's account had been compromised.

Poof! There disappeared the listing, and it took nearly a week to sort out the details before the item could be relisted. That delicate art form I mentioned before? This time, I felt more like I'd been through a round of slimy speed dating. But it turns out I was lucky.

So, what happens when that "HARDLY EVER BEEN USED, PERFECT CONDITION!!!!!" iPod never arrives in the mail, or that apartment security deposit leaves your account with no further word from a seemingly trustworthy broker? Maybe the other eBay user asked you to strike a deal through off site e-mail. Maybe the offer seemed perfectly legit, with company logos attached and everything. Unfortunately, Internet thieves are getting more sophisticated, and their tactics to rid you of your already uncomfortably pinched pennies are paying off. For 2008, The Internet Crime Complaint Center logged a 33.1 percent increase in the number of reported fraudulent activity complaints from the year before, with an ordered item's non-delivery listed as the most common issue. According to Consumer Fraud Reporting, the average loss for a non-delivery complaint clocked in at $800.

In the time it takes to find a new hot restaurant online, you can read up on ways to keep yourself and your money out of harm's way -- and when you think about the fact that an average $800 scam amounts to roughly four iPods, you'll be glad you did. Here are a few quick steps to help you keep your money where it's most needed -- your pocket -- and away from the clutches of e-scammers.

  • Stay apartment savvy. When it comes to finding a dwelling, your people skills actually need to come into play, perhaps more here than in any other Internet marketplace activity. Craigslist suggests meeting a possible landlord or leasing agent in person whenever possible, but if it's not, be wary of sending any rental deposits or rent via money wiring services such as Western Union. Contact the building's leasing office by Googling the address or overseeing company, and try to tap friends within your social network to visit apartments in other cities that might be of interest. Bottom line: Always be wary of people who ask you to wire money or send cashier's checks -- according to CL, these ploys are always scams.

  • Beware the chatty e-mailer. Becca Ewing, a 22-year-old student at Indiana University, was trying to sell a camera on Amazon.com when she was contacted by someone who said he was from Nigeria. "I gave him lots of details," Ewing said, "and he wrote back saying he wanted to buy it but wanted to do the transaction outside of Amazon's typical method because he lived in Nigeria. I contacted Amazon and they said it was a common scam." When tooling around in online marketplaces or auctions, start researching bidders, buyers and auction watchers -- if the user's trying to buy your items have low or nonexistent rating from fellow users, the sites have tools in place that will make it harder for those people to interact with you online. In any case, never respond to those users who message you asking to do business off site, even if the message contains Amazon or eBay logos; IC3 reports that e-mail is the most common way people are duped online.

  • Try to keep abreast of which scams are "in" at the moment. When looking for anything from apartments to a new job, keep in mind that there are plenty of resources available online. The FBI even keeps a running list of the latest and greatest scams. (For instance, did you know fraudulent mystery shopper job postings on Craigslist are circulating? Neither did we.)

  • Speak up. Unless you've already signed your life over (and I hope you haven't), there's no reason to be afraid of a scammer. File a complaint with eBay. Alert other Craigslist users by calling out the fraudulent poster through a post of your own. For all its amazing attributes, the Internet can still be an unsafe place, so don't be naive. Practice safety in numbers.

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