More Common "Too Good to Be True" Scenarios to Avoid

Hard to tell whether it's too good to be true? Go over these tips.

Gift cards can be tricky purchases on eBay. Make sure their price is sufficiently close to their face value. Daniel Case / CC-2.0

The fact that eBay is a much less structured marketplace than competitors like make it a playground for shoppers interested in finding unique goods and unique deals.

It also means, however, that buyers have to be just a little bit more careful and astute in their shopping choices. Some eBay listings are clearly frauds or scams, but sometimes there’s some gray area at issue and it’s up to you as a buyer to make sense of the risks you may be taking.

Here are four common scenarios you should look at very closely before making a purchase.

  • Confusion about multiple vs. single items. Sometimes sellers have trouble using the eBay listing form to list multiple items for sale. One particularly common error is to create a listing that specifies a quantity of one when the seller actually has many items to sell. In many cases, the seller then spells out how many items they have in their item description. For example, the seller may list a "Gray Plastic Water Bottle NIB" with quantity one, at a price of $6.00—then include "My sale includes 200 of these" in their description. If the price of a listing looks like the price for one item, rather than the price for a lot of many, you should presume that the seller made a mistake using the listing form, and will send you exactly one when you make your purchase.

  • Gift cards and phone top-ups for pennies on the dollar. There are many legitimate gift card sales on eBay, but there are also many that aren't legitimate. The best way to differentiate between the two is to compare the price on the listing to the cash value of a card. If they're within a few dollars of one another, and the seller has high feedback and has sold gift cards before, then you're probably on solid ground. If the listing asks $25.00 for a $100.00 gift card, on the other hand, it may be that the seller has received a gift card they’ll never use in a hundred years and really just wants to be rid of it, but it’s more likely that they’re selling a gift card or top-up that is invalid in some way, either purchased with stolen money, with a stolen code (that’s shared by some other hapless gift card or phone top-up buyer out there), and so on. Use your eyes, ears, and nose to feel gift card and phone top-up listings out; if they don’t pass the smell test, don’t go for them.

  • Listed as both used and new. eBay asks sellers to specify an item's condition at the time of sale, choosing between New, Used, and other conditions that vary by category. Some sellers think they have an item that is really, really, basically, oh so close to new that it just wouldn't be right to list it as used—so they split the difference. They may specify the item condition as "New," then mention in their description that it's actually "just used a few times" or "untested, but looks totally new upon visual inspection." Alternatively, they may specify the item condition as "Used," but then include phrases like "BRAND NEW IN BOX" in their title. In either case, be suspicious—if it looks like a used price, you're probably getting a used item. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily, if used is what you’re going for—but it doesn’t necessarily speak highly of a seller or of their customer service chops.

  • Removed from working environment and worked last time I tested it. To some shoppers, the sketchiness here is obvious, but to others, it probably needs mentioning. Sure, in some cases, there are legitimate reasons for items not having been tested. Sellers that liquidate a wide variety of goods from a wide variety of sources, for example, or individuals who no longer have the means to test items they’re offering for sale. But in such cases, the items are marked with “For parts or not working” as an item condition, and priced accordingly. Be wary of sellers and items that are “untested” yet somehow also listed either as “New” or as “Used” and sold at full market value—and be sure that the sellers of such items have a good return policy in place.

  • Desperately cheap or very hard to get event tickets. There are a reasonable number of legitimate ticket sales on eBay, but it’s very hard for eBay to police ticket sales effectively, since typically only an event’s venue can really determine whether a ticket is genuine or not. When shopping for tickets on eBay, use your common sense—if a ticket is particularly rare or hard to get ahold of, it should be priced accordingly. If there’s virtually no way to get ahold of tickets by any means whatsoever because of the interest in an event, what’s the ticket doing on eBay? And in all cases, if the ticket is priced lower than you’d expect it to be priced, there has to be a reason. Be a bit cagier buying tickets on eBay than other kinds of goods, because returns and disputes are harder to work through, for the reasons just mentioned, and because there’s nothing is a bigger hassle or more embarrassing than being denied entry by a venue for presenting fake or invalid tickets.

    If you’re a regular eBay shopper or just a dabbler, add these nuggets of awareness to your repertoire to help save yourself the hassle and frustration of a transaction gone wrong.