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How I was caught by website fraudster

Dr Peter Saul thought he'd got a bargain from an eBay seller, but instead he paid out £180 for nothing

It was too good to be true and sure enough I was right, I had become the victim of an eBay scam. Almost before you could say 'internet' I found myself £180 poorer. Many GPs and probably all their teenage children will be familiar with eBay, the internet auction site. Log on and you can buy almost anything, sometimes snapping up a real bargain. But as they say, 'buyer beware', so take the advice of somebody who learned the hard way.

It all started when I was looking for a new mobile phone. I wanted a decent model but didn't want to tie myself into a new contract with the practice mobile operator. But buying a phone off-contract can be horrendously expensive so I thought I'd check out what was on eBay. I'd bought three things before on eBay, and the transactions had been trouble-free.

I quickly found a seller with four 'top of the range' phones on offer, brand new at the excellent price of £160 each. This was listed as a straightforward sale, not the more common auction where purchasers bid against each other. The purchaser just says they wish to buy, the seller supplies his name and address and indicates how they want payment.

Alarm bells

Normally there are a number of options, but generally speaking you have to send the money before you get the goods. Previously I had paid people by sending a cheque in the post but in this case I was asked to send a 'Western Union' money order for the amount.

This was a new procedure to me and should have set the alarm bells ringing. You have to go to an agent, pay the amount over and get a reference number. This number is sent to the recipient by e-mail who, together with some ID, goes to their local agent, quotes the number and picks up the cash.

I convinced myself the seller must be trustworthy as I paid over my crisp £20 notes, plus an extra one for the service. eBay had listed his 47 other transactions and every single buyer had indicated their deal had been perfectly satisfactory. So off went the payment.

Next day, a check of my e-mail brought disturbing news. A message from eBay said they were concerned that the account selling the phone had been hijacked and that it was a fraudulent sale. They advised me to cancel my payment. Alas it was too late. Western Union said the cash had been paid out. I heard nothing more from the seller and, as for my phone, well I'm still awaiting delivery.

I've always had a soft spot for the police. I realised why when a few days later I reported the fraud. They show you a completely straight face and murmur sympathetically when you admit to having been a complete idiot.

Luckily it looks like I may get some of my money back. eBay operates a purchase protection service. It covers up to £120 of any losses, so maybe it's just £60 I'm down, equivalent to an hour or two at the GP co-op.

Buying from eBay

It can be a good idea, but if you're tempted please follow some basic rules that I learned the hard way.

lCheck the track record of the seller, not just the 'satisfaction rating' but also if what is on sale fits with what they have sold before. Had I done this I would have seen that the 'hijacked' account had never sold anything except second-hand videos and PlayStation games.

lMake phone (not a mobile) contact if possible, check on the sale details.

lMake a payment using a crossed cheque – at least the seller can be traced through the bank and it will have to go to a real address. Alternatively use a service like PayPal which offers fraud protection. Best of all, if you can and the bill is for more than £100, pay by credit card and get full fraud protection.

lRemember if something looks too good to be true it probably is.

Peter Saul

is a GP in Rhos, near Wrexham, North Wales

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