Successful bidders can choose among many options to pay for an item they have bought on an Internet auction — credit card, online payment service (which often accepts credit card payments), debit card, personal check, cashier’s check, money order, or escrow service. Sometimes, the seller limits the types of payment accepted and posts that information in the auction listing. Many sellers require receipt of a cashier’s check or money order before they send an item. Higher volume sellers often accept credit cards directly. To protect both buyers and sellers, some auction sites now prohibit the use of wire transfers as a method of payment.
Credit Cards. Credit cards are a safe option for consumers to use when paying for items bought on an Internet auction: They allow buyers to seek a credit from the credit card issuer (also known as a “charge back”) if the product isn’t delivered or isn’t what they ordered.
Online Payment Services. Online payment services are popular with both buyers and sellers. They allow buyers to use a credit card or electronic bank transfer to pay sellers. They also may protect buyers from unlawful use of their credit cards or bank accounts because the online payment service holds the account information, not the seller. Many sellers prefer online payment services because the services tend to provide more security than, say, personal checks.
To use an online payment service, the buyer and seller generally set up accounts that allow them to make or accept payments. Buyers provide payment information, like bank account or credit card numbers, and sellers give information about where payments should be deposited. In some cases, sellers do not have to create an account with the online payment service to receive funds. To complete a transaction, the buyer tells the online payment service to direct appropriate funds to the seller. The seller then gets immediate access to the funds. Most online payment services charge the seller to receive the funds, but some payment services charge the buyer.
Some online payment services offer protections to buyers if the seller fails to ship the goods or ships goods that are not as described in the auction. Buyers should read the terms under which the protections apply. Usually, if a buyer uses a credit card to pay for goods or services through an online payment service, charge back rights are available to the buyer who uses the credit card. However, if the service considers the transfer of funds to be a method of sending cash rather than paying for goods, then charge back rights may not apply. If you cannot find out what will happen if you need a refund, or if you don’t understand how the payment service works from reading the website, find a different service or use another method of payment.
Debit Card, Personal Check, Cashier’s Check, or Money Order. Many smaller sellers accept forms of payment that are cash equivalents. These sellers often wait to receive the payment (and may wait for a personal check to clear) before shipping the item. Buyers should use this type of payment only when they trust the seller. At the same time, sellers should ensure that checks and money orders they receive from buyers are legitimate before shipping the goods; they should be suspicious of checks or money orders for amounts that exceed the price of the merchandise. Unlike credit cards or some online payment services, cash equivalents (and wire transfers) cannot be reversed if something goes wrong.
Wire Transfers. The FTC recommends that buyers not wire money (via a money transmitter or directly to a seller’s bank account) unless they know the seller personally or can verify the seller’s identity. Buyers should be suspicious of sellers who insist on wire transfers as the only form of payment they will accept. If something goes wrong with the transaction, you most likely will lose your payment and not have any recourse. In fact, to protect both buyers and sellers, some auction sites now prohibit the use of wire transfers as a method of payment.
Online Escrow Services and Bonding Services. For big-ticket items like computers, cars, or jewelry, buyers should consider using an escrow service or purchasing from a bonded or insured seller to protect their funds. The primary purpose of online escrow services is to protect buyers and sellers from fraud. Escrow services accept and hold payment from a buyer — often a wire transfer, check, money order, or credit card — until he receives and approves the merchandise. Then, the escrow service forwards the payment to the seller. The buyer pays the fee for an online escrow service — generally a percentage of the cost of the item.
Before using an escrow service, both the buyer and the seller should verify that it is a legitimate, reputable company.
Some sellers may state that they are bonded or otherwise insured against fraud. If a buyer intends to rely on a seller’s bonded status or the seller’s insurance to protect against fraud, he should investigate the legitimacy of the bonding or insurance company and then make sure that the seller really is a member of — or certified by — that company. If a problem arises with a bonded seller, the buyer usually has to engage in a dispute resolution process with the seller before being able to submit a claim to the bonding or insurance company.