The Common Law

Buying on eBay - Caveat Emptor (Let the Buyer Beware)

This is the first column in a series devoted toward America's new favorite pastime – buying on eBay.

Is there anything I should know to protect myself if I buy a lot of things on eBay?

Yes! The first – and most important – thing for buyers to remember is that when they place a bid on an item, they are entering into a contract with the individual seller of that item; eBay is not a party to the actual transaction between you and the seller.

Resist the urge to impulse shop; don't press that "Bid Now" button until you're ready to commit. Because your bid constitutes an agreement with the seller, be sure to read the listing thoroughly. The listing provides the conditions of the sale, and you must abide by those conditions unless they violate eBay's User Agreement or are unlawful.

Never give anyone the benefit of the doubt. Instead, assume the seller moonlights by selling "Rolexes" out of his trench coat. eBay provides some useful indicators of a seller's history in its member profile feature. This profile includes a rating number in parentheses, as well as feedback from other members who have completed transactions with the seller. A "new ID" icon appearing in the member profile indicates that a seller has been a registered eBay user for less than 30 days. The site also provides an icon when a user has recently changed his or her User ID. Often, a user may assume a new ID in order to escape negative feedback.

Once you place a bid, attempt to verify the seller's identity. You may request a seller's name, city, and phone number directly from eBay. However, eBay will not release the seller's street address. (Obviously this is to prevent disgruntled customers from slashing the tires of particularly vexatious sellers.) Obtaining this information prior to sending payment should enhance your confidence in the transaction. It's also useful for contacting the seller in the event that your item fails to appear within a reasonable amount of time.

What should you do if you've already bid on a seller's auction and realize you no longer wish to purchase that item? Be sure to read next week's column, which will discuss your options when you wish to retract your bid.

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP,

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or

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