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Consumer's Edge: Avoid online auction scams

In the world of online buying, auctioning and trading, consumers increasingly find themselves vulnerable to rip-offs.

Many blame the victim for what they see as a gullible decision that in the end led to identity theft, loss of money or both.

Victim, yes. Gullible, not always. But consumers need more than ever to be cautious. I've seen all sorts of people — teachers, doctors, lawyers, elected officials — all find themselves victims of scams (or at least a questionable offer).

Sometimes the inducement comes at the right — or wrong — time. Sometimes an offering just wears victims down, makes them curious and lures them into an unwanted deal.

A couple of online auction offers grabbed the attention of Regina Pearson of St. Petersburg, and Walter Estrada of Clearwater.

An online auction site, Bidhustle.com, cost Pearson $150. She had received numerous e-mail solicitations from Bidhustle but always deleted them. After days of receiving the e-mails, she became curious what Bidhustle.com was.

She read everything and decided to register to see what it was like, never seeing anything suggesting she would be charged.

"There wasn't even an indication that they were going to charge me," Pearson said. "Every time I think about it, it kind of makes me mad."

But once you open the door, closing it isn't so easy.

Pearson had to cancel her bank card and is fighting to get her money back.

Estrada thought he would try a sample of the weight-loss and energy enhancing product Liquiboost. And why not? It was just $2.95 for shipping — or so he thought.

But Liquiboost.com charged his credit card $169.95 for the product. He has been working to get his money back.

Fred Mayor, a floor supervisor at Liquiboost Total Body Management, which lists an address in Clearwater, says there are no free samples on its website. Although Liquiboost is offering refunds, Mayor says consumers need to pay more attention to requirements for products online.

"They don't go to the terms and conditions and read them out," Mayor said.

Perhaps so, but one of the reasons people fall prey to some of these offers, is because the "terms and conditions" often are not clear. They perhaps are there, but hidden, or it's an outright scam.

"It's hard to tell who's legitimate and who's not," said Deborah Berry, of the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services. "What you see is not always what's true."

Cyberspace remains a whole new shopping frontier.

"It's totally different from walking up to a business on the street," Berry said. "You have to be skeptical."

Distressed over the incident, Estrada asked me: "What should we do to help ourselves?"

First, both Bidhustle and Liquiboost have numerous complaints online about their services, which should always serve as the first warning flag to consumers about any business.

Beyond that, here's the Edge:

• Be diligent. When searching the backgrounds of companies unfamiliar to you, carefully evaluate the source of complaints and praise. Sometimes companies stack critique sites with positive comments and evaluations. Make sure the critique comes from a reliable source.

• Use a credit card. Credit cards allow you a better opportunity to dispute charges. Once you use a debit card, the money is gone and very difficult to retrieve.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.

Consumer's Edge: Avoid online auction scams 07/09/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 12, 2010 4:17pm]

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