By now you'd think Americans were a pretty savvy crop of people, having been hand-raised in a land of opportunity.
We have the opportunity to swap and sell in the finest capitalist tradition. We also have the opportunity to be taken by unscrupulous businesses. Let's not ever forget it's a "buyer's beware" market out there.
But evidently plenty of Americans haven't figured that out yet and, in spite of admonitions from the well-meaning government agencies that watch over commercial transactions, they manage to get ripped off.
With the advent of Internet auctions, unwary Americans are being scammed in greater numbers than ever. Because of its anonymous nature and vast audience, the Internet is fertile ground for con artists.
Last year, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 10,000 complaints relating to Internet auctions, a figure that is probably conservative because there will always be a certain percentage of people who don't report fraud, figuring if they were duped it's their own fault.
In 1999 alone, consumers were defrauded more than $3.2 million on the Internet, according to the National Consumer League. And because of the burgeoning use of the World Wide Web, no amount of government intervention can guarantee safe online buy-and-sell transactions.
Although various branches of the government try to chase down and prosecute crooks, and while millions of taxpayer dollars are being funneled into Internet crime intervention, there are just too many scammers for the government to keep track of.
This is an area where consumers simply must learn how to protect themselves. Here are some commonsense precautions from the National Consumer League:
Study how the auction works before you bid.
Check out the seller. If there is a feedback portion of the site, be aware that a seller's good score or review could be because he wrote it.
Realize that private transactions are more difficult for law enforcement agencies to pursue.
Your risk increases when you deal with someone from another country.
Be sure to get a street address and phone number of the person you're dealing with.
Expensive collectibles' true value are impossible to verify if you cannot examine them or have them appraised independently prior to purchase.
Get the specifics on delivery, returns and warranties before you pay.
Never pay by cash or money order. Only use a credit card through an encrypted payment service, such as Pay Pal. Use a card that has a fraud protection program or guarantee.
For large-ticket items, use a licensed and bonded escrow service. The service holds the payment until both parties are satisfied with the transaction.
Remember that auction sites can't guarantee that dummy bidders aren't driving up the prices artificially.