A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

BBB Trends: Pause — read the fine print for online auction sites and read it fully before buying

By Sandra Guile
Better Business Bureau
Going to a live auction to find a unique piece of furniture, jewelry or art can be an exciting but exhausting experience; a frenzy of people who get up close and personal with the items on sale. If you want the auction experience without the crowds or the crashing sound of the gavel, it’s easier than ever to access online options where the only sound you’ll hear is the click of your mouse.
Most online auctioneers have a disclosure statement prominently displayed on their page that explains their practices. Visitors to the site are meant to read the terms before a financial transaction can be completed, but many buyers agree to the disclosure without looking it over fully in order to get to the items on sale.

This causes problems, as most people expect an online auction will function like a regular retailer—they do not. Internet auction sites are typically only hosts for numerous online vendors, meaning the company isn’t the one selling the product. Items purchased are not guaranteed to be brand new, and prices are not set; their cost or value is determined by the highest bid, which may or may not include the shipping fees.
After the user confirms their comprehension of the terms (whether they read them completely or not), the consumer is allowed access to the virtual bidding floor. They bid on items with a price they’d like to pay, but they’re in competition with other interested parties. The length of time they have is different from site to site, but they tend to operate similarly across the board. For example, the auction site may have an item up for bid starting on Friday at 11 p.m. and ending on Sunday at 11:59 p.m. Visitors can bid at any time within the time frame until the deadline is up. The winner is then notified by the vendor of the item if they are in fact the recipient.

What users need to understand and remember is a bid is a binding contract, and they cannot back out of or cancel the bid once it is placed.
Many of the complaints BBB receives are the result of customers either skimming or skipping the initial contract, and not fully understanding all of the terms involved. The posted legal language not only protects the site from any issues between buyer and vendor, but it also defends the company against other liabilities, like problems with shipping, breakage of sold items and concerns with final payment. By clicking a button, selecting a box or somehow indicating they accept the conditions of the agreement, the buyer is stating they understand all of this and will abide by the terms once the transaction is complete.
When visiting an online auction, make sure to read and comprehend all of the presented information before moving forward with a purchase—that way you’ll know what you can do if there is a problem with your order. Having a clear understanding of the terms and conditions can help alleviate the surprise and frustration of finding out after the fact.
Finding a rare piece at a great price can be enjoyable, but don’t let your unfamiliarity with the terms ruin your online auction experience.

Sandra Guile is the Public Relations Specialist for BBB. She promotes BBB’s message of marketplace ethics through public speaking engagements, presentations, media relations, press releases, web content, and other written materials. Your BBB is located at 1 East 4th Street Suite 600 Cincinnati, Ohio 45202 – to reach the office, call (513) 421-3015.

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