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Anyone with an interest in technology, or who is a regular Internet user, will have become aware of eBay, the online auction site, which has been one of the Internetís unexpected and unlikely success stories.  I've used it for nearly two years, buying over 200 items such as books, CDs, puzzles and computer equipment at at bargain prices.

It works like this.  A seller, we'll call him Andrew, has an item that he doesn't want, let's say a Simon & Garfunkel Greatest Hits CD.  He can, for a few pence, advertise it on an easy-to-use web site for up to ten days, during which bidders from around the world can make (secret) online bids for the CD.  At the end of the auction period, the top bidder gets it for a few pence more than the maximum bid placed by the runner-up. Andrew and the winning bidder contact each other, the bidder sends payment via cheque, cash, stamps, credit card or online payment.

When he receives the payment, plus postage and packing costs, Andrew posts the CD to the winner.  They then both log the transaction online, stating their satisfaction with the transaction.  Every positive feedback entry gets each participant a point, and the total number of points gives future users an insight to the reliability of any eBay trader.

Sellers describe their item accurately and honestly, to ensure getting good feedback.  Potential buyers can search or browse through selected categories of interest. If items are overpriced initially, they don't sell.  If an unexpected treasure is listed, it could receive many bids and create a windfall for the lucky seller.

The whole concept can be very entertaining.  Misprints in descriptions are often hilarious.  Sometimes someone is selling an item without knowing exactly what it is, potentially a source of a bargain.  Occasionally some joker will sell grass clippings from their garden.  Occasionally someone will bid!  I've seen people advertising  round (sic) Rubik cubes!  Too many sellers describe everything as "Rare", or put "L@@K" in their descriptions.  Some of the photographs are like those 1950s party games, where you had to identify an object pictured from an unusual angle. Sometimes you see an item being bid on by two people who are both coincidentally desperate for the same item and prices go sky high!

With my interest being mechanical puzzles, most of my purchases have fallen into this category.  In the last two years I've 'won' many items which I never expected to come across, or had never even known about previously. I've also suffered temporary heartache when another bidder outbid me for a much-wanted item...

There are few downsides. I've heard stories of people making £1,000+ bids for luxury watches, only to receive a picture of the item. However I have a friend who bought a $16,000 aluminium extruder with no problems. One popular loophole is to charge 'over the odds' for postage and expensive packaging, and then pack and despatch the item from the office or workplace. (Or else there is a sudden increase in the number of people with home franking machines.)  The honourable eBay-er will happily use recycled packaging, and accurately cost the postage. It is surprising how many items I get in the post wrapped in cat food boxes. And wallpaper lining paper is a lot cheaper than padded bags.

Another scam is charging buyers for using online payment services. eBay has recently bought PayPal, an online transaction enabler. The honourable majority of sellers bear the PayPal cost themselves, and PayPal are encouraging this, by allowing sellers to 'badge' their sale item with a 'no transaction cost' icon.  The advantages of PayPal are reduced paperwork, no trips to the bank, and a swift (no banking pun intended) payment medium.

It works like this.  You register your email address(es) with PayPal, along with your credit card details (encrypted securely).  When you make a payment to the seller, PayPal charges your card.  If you are selling, and you receive a payment, PayPal credits your account. For a nominal 50p, you can periodically transfer your account to your bank. However, some unscrupulous sellers will charge bidders for using this service...

All in all, I love it. It's like going to a boot sale, without having to trudge through a wet field at 7a.m. on Sunday mornings.  You can set up automated searches and get email notification for when new item descriptions contain certain words.  You can browse through due-to-end items for that last-minute bargain.  On an environmental point, people are able to sell things that would otherwise have become landfill.

People do make mistakes occasionally, and I've asked sellers to check the postage many times, and usually this is done quite readily.  Sellers will usually combine multiple wins in one reduced cost package.  The feedback system isn't flawless. However if someone accidentally thinks they have been badly done to, they get a chance to reply and explain any misunderstanding for all to see.  The buyer can also ask the seller to register the parcel, or insure it etc etc. I even once queried the cost of postage and the seller delivered the item to my door for free as it was on her way to work!  The honest majority of people make it work.

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