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5 tips for shopping online auctions and classifieds

Craigslist, Ebay and other classified advertising websites help you find all kinds of items and services at consumer-controlled, affordable prices. While many items are brand new or barely used, these resources also play into the idea that one person’s “junk” may be another’s treasure. On top of all that, the sites are easy to use.

Of course, for the millions of smooth transactions on these sites, a few do go bad. And, I had one of those bad ones. It was an encounter that reminded me of the importance of being a smart online shopper.

After having multiple positive experiences, ranging from buying furniture for dorm rooms to locating temporary living arrangements, I was duped when looking for an affordable washer/dryer set. Fresh out of college, I’ll admit that I wasn’t too picky when looking for these appliances. So long as my mountain of laundry would come out clean and dry, I was interested. I identified a few options, began communicating with the sellers via email, and eventually set out to meet the soon-to-be source of my many headaches.

The seller, who offered to bring the set to my place, arrived with his wife. It was a move that gave me a false sense of confidence and trust. Before I knew it, I forked over my cash and was ready to find the floor in my closet for the first time in months.

Upon loading my laundry into the washer, however, I discovered some surprise guests. As I turned the temperature knob to warm, a small cockroach crawled out of the dashboard panel.

And then another.

And another.

It quickly became apparent that my laundry pile would have to wait and an emergency trip to Home Depot for boric acid and roach bait was now priority. While I took care of that, I began thinking about what I could have done to avoid this unfortunate situation. As it turns out, a damp washer in a storage garage is quite the equation for a bug problem … and not having asked this question was my big mistake.

The following online shopping tips will help to assure a smooth and successful transaction:

1. Make sure the photo is authentic

If all you see are generic product photos or pictures found elsewhere on the Web, it might be better to look for another seller or request a real photo of the item you’re interested in. A legitimate seller should provide more than one photo of items being sold, as well as pictures of any damage or wear.

2. Ask detailed questions and try before you buy

Details are important to guarantee the item or posting is legitimate. Electronics should be tested; jewelry and similar items of value should be inspected for serial numbers; and large purchases like cars and motorcycles should come with paperwork stating the seller is the true owner. Ask as many questions as you can think of to gain insight about the previous care and use of the product.

3. Meet in a public location and bring a friend

Often, the most nerve-wracking part of purchasing through online sites is the idea of meeting a stranger in person. Stay safe by meeting in a public location during the day and bringing a friend along. Libraries, banks, hotel lobbies, or similar locations with witnesses and security cameras are good choices.

4. Consider online payment options

Look into making payments through PayPal or similar payment services. This way you don’t have to bother with bringing exact change and also gain the protection of a third party transaction record.

5. Remember the old saying: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is

Whether you’re looking for a place to rent, an item to buy, or a new job, trust your instincts. If your gut tells you it’s too good of a deal, then look elsewhere.

Lastly, whether you buy new or used, protect your investment. Contents coverage on a renter’s insurance policy would protect your appliances and any other personal belongings in case of fire or theft.

Millions of Americans use these sites every day without issues, but taking some simple precautions can help you make sure you have a fun and safe exchange and avoid being on the wrong end of a bad deal … or a cockroach invasion. So, be careful and shop on.