How to avoid eBay scams

eBay scams

eBay is one of the few online companies to be so synonymous with what it does that, like Google, its name has passed into everyday language and is even now used as a verb.

Since it was launched in 2005, it has grown to more than 150 million active accounts and today generates a revenue of more than 10 billion dollars.

But this phenomenal level of success brings problems too.

Like all popular online sites, this one is also a massive target for online scammers and fraudsters. They can pose a significant threat to users large and small and it is vital that all users are aware of the risks and know what steps they can take to minimize them.

In this guide, we will tell you all you need to know about the most popular scams aimed at buyers and sellers, explain methods of avoiding scams and keeping yourself and your account safe when using eBay, and also recommend a few tools that can help you.

First, let’s take a look at the most common scams you could potentially fall victim to.

8 Common Scams on eBay buyers

Everyone enjoys browsing the store for a bargain. Where you are looking for second-hand clothes, a rare album by Def Leopard, or the missing DVD from your Red Dwarf collection, this is the perfect place to look.

But sadly, there are plenty of scams up on eBay too that are specifically targeted at eBay and Paypal users and aim to part you from your hard-earned funds or personal data.

So, what are the main scams you should be on the lookout for?

1) The Non-Delivery Scam

This is a simple scam. A seller posts an item on the site, attracts bids, and receives payment but then fails to send through the item in question.

In the early days of eBay, this was a big problem, but these days they offer a money-back guarantee to help protect buyers.

The only problem with this guarantee is that, while it is extensive, it is not completely comprehensive. There are a few items that are not covered by it, including:

  • Businesses for sale
  • Some categories of business equipment
  • Websites for sale
  • Real estate
  • Vehicles
  • Services
  • Items sold by Sotheby’s
  • Classified ads

So, if you are buying any of these items, be aware that you are not covered by the eBay money-back guarantee and therefore have no recourse if the seller doesn’t send you the item you have bought.

2) Empty Box

Another simple scam often used to target buyers keen to snap up a popular or trending item.

The item is posted and users bid hard, sometimes going way above the RRP. But when the item arrives, you discover that it is only the packaging and not the item itself.

Empty box

Usually, the item listing, while perhaps vague, does say this and so while the buyer feels scammed, the seller has a defence and will more often than not get to keep the money.

3) Fake goods

When you buy an item, you are totally dependent on the details provided in the listing, so make sure to read that listing carefully before you purchase.

This is particularly true when it comes to branded goods. There is essentially no way to tell the quality and authenticity of your purchase on eBay without buying it.

Back in the early days of eBay, I purchased a bulk lot of branded t-shirts for a reasonable price. As you can imagine, when they arrived they were of poor quality and certainly not genuine – you live and learn!

A lot of scammers are aware of this and take advantage by posting items that appear to be from popular brand names and are often listed at very affordable prices.

But they are actually counterfeit goods and the buyer will only find out about that when they are delivered. You might not even notice at all.

Other times they won’t even try to hide it.

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The most famous example is the box of first-edition Pokemon card booster packs that YouTuber Logan Paul paid US$3.5 million but which turned out to be fake.

As observers noted, “It was clear that the case was fake. Even the boxes within were fake. Then inside the boxes were packs of G.I. Joe booster packs.” We can’t all afford to lose as much money on eBay as he did.

4) The incorrect name scam

In this scam, the fraudster seller completes the sale as usual. But, the seller ships the item to the correct address using the wrong name.

The potential buyers will assume you have received someone else’s parcel by mistake and return it. When this happens, eBay will list the item as being refused or returned and the seller ends up with both the money and the item.

When a transaction reaches this stage, there is no opportunity to challenge it and the buyer ends up losing their money.

5) The Customer Service Scam

In this scam, a fraudulent seller places a fake cell phones numbers or other contact details on their profile or listing.

They will then manufacture some sort of problem with a buyer’s purchase or order. Perhaps it might not be delivered or they will send the wrong item.

The victim then attempts to contact eBay customer service using the fake number. Instead of speaking to eBay, you talk to the fraudster who will then attempt to persuade you to hand over either sensitive information or money.

6) Gift Card Problems

An eBay gift cards scam is when a fraudster contacts a buyer and offers them a significant discount or some other deal. This is always time-sensitive to create a sense of urgency so that you wouldn’t have time to think or double-check things.

They then take down the details of a gift card by way of payment. But once they have your gift card code, they will disappear, and soon after so will the balance on your gift card too.

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A famous example of this scam was the AT&T scam in the USA, where hundreds of AT&T customers were told eBay would pay half of their bill for six months if they paid up-front using gift cards. Thousands did and hundreds of thousands of dollars were lost by innocent consumers.

7) Fake emails

eBay’s popularity means it is a popular target for phishing scams. You might receive an email from eBay telling you that your account has been compromised or an item you are watching is about to end.

In a rush and a panic to sort out the problem, you click on a link in the email.

This sends you to a fake website where your details will be harvested and, quite possibly, your credit card or bank account drained soon afterwards too.

Fake Paypal email

The best way to avoid this scam, or any major eBay scams, for that matter, is to remain calm and not rush into anything before checking for common signs that many eBay scams share.

8) Outside payments

eBay sales are only protected when the transaction takes place within eBay. The most common eBay scams are therefore the ones that attempt to take the purchase outside the confines of eBay.

If you win an item at auction, a fake seller will then ask you to make a transaction in a different way. They might ask for a bank account transfer, cash payment, cheque, or wire transfers.

As soon as the bank transfer is made, the seller will then disappear with your money. And because the payment was made outside of eBay, there is no way for you to get your money back.

8 Common Scams on eBay sellers

The above issues are targeted at people looking to buy on eBay, but what about those selling items on the site?

Well, those selling aren’t immune from scams either. Here is a rundown of the ones that selling users should be most wary of:

1) The Overpayment scam

In this scam, the buyer contacts the seller with an offer to pay more than actual market price of the same item, usually to get you to take down or amend the auction to let them buy it now below the asking price.

The buyer sends money by cheque, which you accept. When it arrives you ship the item. But when you try to pay the cheque in, it bounces and the scammer ends up with the unpaid items.

2) The Change of Address scam

A more recent variation on the overpayment scam is when a buyer pays more because they need the item to send to an overseas country (often Nigeria) and are happy to cover the shipping service.

They will also ask for your email address and shortly after you will get an email purporting to be from eBay. It will request the postal tracking ID and tell you that you will receive payment once they are received.

But if you decide to ship the item and send the tracking numbers offered by the post office, the scammers will disappear and you will lose not only your item but the additional shipping costs too.

eBay scams headlines

3) A private deal

In the scam, someone will offer to buy the item you are selling offline, usually with the excuse of avoiding eBay’s transaction charges.

But if you agree to close the listing and send the item to them, they will then not pay for it.

There are a few variations on this scam. Sometimes, they will then make a spurious claim to eBay that the item was broken or the listing was fake to claim money back. Either way, it is you, the seller, that loses out.

4) The Empty Box scam (2)

This scam is a variation on the empty box. A scam that is used to catch out many buyers.

In this version, the transaction is completed but the buyer then makes a complaint to eBay that you have sent them an empty box.

If eBay is convinced by the buyer claims, it will order a return, refund the eBay transactions to the buyer, and they will send the box back to you and keep the item that was in it as well as the funds.

5) Unreceived items

More expensive items sold on eBay have buyer requirements, such as signature delivery proof. Clever scammers know this but not all sellers do.

This means that for high price items, a scammer can receive an item as usual but because a signature confirmation wasn’t needed, they can then claim they haven’t received it and demand a refund as well.

6) The Broken item scam

In this simple scam, a buyer receives an item but then claims it was broken on arrival. They will provide proof, perhaps with a replica or another item and demand a refund.

If eBay accepts their claim, they will end up with the item and the money and you get nothing.

7) Feedback Blackmail

Reputation matters on eBay and a lot of sellers want to keep their 100% rating. But scammers know this and can use it to their advantage in a rather common scam.

It is increasingly common for scammers to buy from you and then reach out and demand you send money through a private means to stop them from posting bad feedback on the site.

Because it is not possible to delete or block negative feedback, a lot of sellers will pay up rather than risk their reputation taking a blow on the site.

8) Payment cancellation

It is possible for a buyer to cancel the payment whether they have paid on credit card or PayPal.

This forces the payment provider to issue them with a refund and if you have already shipped the item, you could end up without the item or the funds.

How to protect yourself from common tricks

Are you feeling worried about using eBay after reading all this? If so, our apologies but there really isn’t too much need to.

With the right tools and precautions, it is possible to minimize the risk and use the site with relative safety.

Just follow the recommendations outlined below and there is no reason why you can’t buy and sell without the risk of being ripped off.

1. Always conduct transactions through eBay’s official channels

Never take any transaction or communication offline. Always conduct everything through eBay’s official channels.

That way you have a record of everything that has taken place and you have all the evidence that you can use if you need to go through eBay’s official channels to reclaim lost money.

2. Document Everything

Even when keeping stuff on eBay, be sure to keep clear documentary evidence of everything to do with your transaction, including the tracking number, details of payment, Paypal receipts and photos of items bought and sold.

If an item has serial numbers or other identifying features, be sure to keep a log of them. In the case of expensive items, a detailed description of the item should be on record just in case you need to file a police report.

3. Tracking Numbers

Whether you are a buyer or a seller, always request a tracking number to ensure that the delivery of an item can be tracked by both parties. This can help avoid disputes about whether an item has been delivered or not.

Tracking number

In the case of items worth more than US$750, always ship using a signature on delivery and if you are buying something at that price, be sure it is sent to you that way.

4. Request genuine photos

If you are a buyer, don’t accept a stock photo of an item you are thinking to buy. Instead, demand a genuine picture of the actual item.

If an eBay seller won’t provide one, you would be best to look elsewhere.

5. Never click on email links

Phishing tricks are the most common eBay scams and it can be easy for anyone to fall for them.

So, as a simple rule to avoid falling into this trap, don’t click on links in any email purporting to be from eBay. Instead, open your browser and log into your account. All communication and actions will be found there.

6. Don’t accept cheques

If you are selling on eBay, never accept payment by cheque. It is an old fashioned way of payment these days anyway and someone asking to pay that way should be a red flag.

A cheque is far too easy to cancel or to bounce and you could end up losing items and funds. They are not worth the risk.

7. Use your common sense

This might seem like a patronizing recommendation but it is amazing how many of us fall into simple mistakes that we should know better about. There are some simple things to remember, including:

  • Don’t share personal information.
  • Always double-check buyer and seller feedback carefully.
  • If an item seems cheaper than others similar, it may be too good to be true.
  • If someone wants to pay you more than the price, ask yourself why.
  • If a buyer demands shipment before payment, just say no.
  • If you receive a parcel not addressed to you, think what it might be before sending it back.
  • Always monitor your bank accounts for unusual activity – don’t lose money like Grimsby businessman Phil Green, who lost £14,000 and had to lay off staff and potentially close his business. “If nothing improves, I cannot carry on”, he sadly explained to the Mirror.

What to do if you are the victim of eBay scams

If you have fallen victim to eBay scams, there are some simple steps that you can take that will usually be able to help you claw back lost cash.

eBay is well aware that these types of scams take place and has set up a number of systems and processes that eBay user is expected to follow. Options include:

For more detailed help for PayPal seller protection, including more information on how to avoid eBay scams, how to claim refunds, and more, visit your PayPal account and the eBay customer support centre.

eBay customer service

Don’t forget to update them if you have a resolved dispute.


eBay is the biggest online auction site on the internet with hundreds of millions of users and a vast number of transactions taking place every day. It is therefore perhaps inevitable that there are risks for both buyers and sellers from using eBay.

Most cons are simple and common but can also be worryingly effective. We have listed the main ones in this guide but there are more.

But there are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself from almost any eBay scam.

Keep everything on eBay, keep records, be diligent with who you do business with, and use your common sense being the key ones. Also, familiarize yourself with PayPal rules, as well.

There are seller and buyer protection schemes in place to help you as well. Take advantage of these when you need to, follow our advice, and there is no reason why you can’t use joy using eBay safely.

Author: David Spencer

Cyber-security & Technology Reporter, David, monitors everything going on in the privacy world. Fighting for a less restricted internet as a member of the VPNCompare team for over 7 years.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading and politics. He is currently learning Mandarin too... slowly.

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