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$326 average sting

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Online auctions were the top Net fraud complaint last year, accounting for 78 per cent of gripes, a survey claims.

Almost a third of all adult US netizens, or around 35.6 million surfers, used auction sites last year. And the average loss to those stung by fraudsters was $326, according to a report by consumer body The National Consumers League.

Four out of ten auction bidders said they had experienced general problems with services. Twenty per cent received items late, eleven per cent got sent goods that were different to what they thought they had bought, ten per cent received damaged products, and another ten per cent never received the item at all.

Most successful bidders paid by sending cheques or money orders directly to the seller - so by the time they realised they had been duped the cheque had already been cashed, according to the survey.

Around two thirds of buyers who experienced problems were able to sort them out with the seller directly. Others resorted to complaining directly to the auction site, questioning credit card changes, making insurance claims, or complaining to consumer groups. A fifth admitted they just put it down to experience and did nothing.

The survey offered the following tips on how to not to "get carried away in the excitement of online auctions":

  • Make sure you understand how the auction works

  • Check out the seller before you bid

  • Look for information about insurance for buyers

  • Consider using an escrow service

Last month US authorities arrested one man and indicted another suspected of fleecing eBay members.

The men, in unrelated cases, were accused of selling kit but not delivering the goods. Between them they allegedly pocketed more than $100,000.

The National Consumers League report can be found here. ®

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