Millions of people every day use the Internet to buy and sell goods.
It's a tremendous boon to buyers, who have a wider array of products to choose from and can more easily find deals. It's also great for sellers, who have more potential customers and an inexpensive way to advertise their goods.
The system, however, is not without its flaws.
Take my own recent experience as one example. A longtime eBay user when buying or selling small items, I decided to try posting a big-ticket item — my beloved Jeep — on a certain nationwide free classified site, just to see what would happen.
Within minutes I had responses from a handful of interested buyers.
One person liked the look of my vehicle so much that he wanted to wire the money immediately, if I would just send him my bank account number and the security code on my credit card.
Another was willing to send me an extra $1,000 — in a cashier's check drawn on the Congo United National Bank — to pay for a deluxe wax job and a couple of week's storage. Oh, and would I mind mailing him back any remaining funds, in the form of crisp $100 bills?
One guy wondered if I was willing to make a trade instead of a sale. Said he had a slice of yellowcake uranium. All I had to do was bring a lead-lined container and meet him in the alley behind the coffee shop at 2:18 a.m. Come alone.
The last to respond wanted to know what I was wearing, and if I smelled like violets.
That's when it hit me that the Internet might not be a completely secure place to be. I mean, a person less savvy easily could have given up his bank account numbers to a scam artist … and totally missed out on that sweetheart deal from the gentleman in the Congo.
An entire industry has been built with the sole goal of defrauding people online. They have their own health plan and a generous maternity-leave program. Since there's really no way to shut down Internet commerce at this point, I would just like all readers to follow safety precautions.
If someone asks for your Social Security number, don't just hand it over. This is how identity theft can happen. There are very few legitimate reasons why a stranger selling you a vintage Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook would need your Social Security number. If the stranger absolutely insists, make sure to protect yourself — give him your child's Social Security number instead.
If someone is buying an item from you, use a trusted financial service (like PayPal or escrow.com) or — if the item is the size of a Jeep and must be picked up in person — ask for cash. Personal checks are trouble, while cashier's checks and money orders can be forged. Specify American cash — the Canadian stuff all looks counterfeit, even the real bills.
If you purchase an item from a buyer in Nigeria, make sure to pick it up in person. Mail delivery from that country is just terrible.
If you're over the age of 70, you're the prime target of scam artists and should be careful to … eh, you should probably just step away from the computer. I know this is ageist, and probably won't hold up under Supreme Court scrutiny, but if we can just forbid the Internet to our grandparents, many of these scams would go away. For years I've tried to teach my mom how to use the computer properly, but every time she tries to reserve a hotel room online, I end up having to bail her out of an Ecuadoran prison.
Most importantly, if a deal sounds too good to be true, well, aren't you just a Negative Nelly? Someone has to win the Bolivian Sweepstakes. Sometimes an unknown rich uncle really does die. Occasionally a member of foreign royalty does have to flee the country, and really, who would be a more trustworthy person to hold the treasury's secret gold than you?
Be vigilant, but not stupid.
Email Steve Ouellette at: