Only a few short years ago, stock-market analysts wondered how anyone could make money from the Internet. Sure, millions of people were logging on, but relatively little cash was changing hands on all those free sites with winking banner ads. Since then, however, the Net has transformed itself into the ultimate global bazaar, and the stock prices of the leading companies are soaring into the stratosphere. Among the fastest growing are online auctioneers who offer free access to buyers while charging small commissions to sellers. The pioneer and leader, eBay, lists more than two million items daily―in more than fifteen hundred categories―that nearly four million registered users bid for over the internet.
Bidding for an item at eBay is similar to placing a bid at a traditional auction, with a few variations. First, a bidder clicks on a category or runs a search for an item―say an autographed picture of Elvis Presley. If such an item is being auctioned, she can make a secret maximum bid for it―say $50. If someone bids $20, the site automatically places a counterbid on her behalf for the stated minimum increment - say $20.50. If she is still the highest bidder when the auction closes, she contacts the seller by e-mail to arrange for shipment and then sends her payment. Not long after, if all goes well, a signed Elvis photo hangs on her wall. And selling is just as simple. Set up shop at an online auction house and you can offer anything from fishing lures to Ferraris.
Aren't there dangers, one might wonder? The online-auction equivalent of snake-oil salesman? Undoubtedly there are, but satisfied customers seem to far outnumber rip-off victims. And before you bid on the Brooklyn Bridge, note that eBay offers a feedback system whereby potential buyers can judge a seller's reputation by reading comments about past transactions. Other safeguards include an escrow system that allows successful bidders to place their payments in a secure account until purchased items are delivered.
Also, though eBay does not try to police every transaction―an impossibility given the thousands of deals done daily―the company has tried to crack down on the more flagrant abuses, including ingenious software programs called “bid bots” that jump into an auction at the last possible moment to make a higher bid at the lowest possible increment.
Potential rip-offs aside, many bidders find themselves victims of their own obsessions. Instead of spending days, weeks, or even years poking around flea markets and thrift shops for that antique glass vase that graced your grandmother's cupboard, you can find one―or even dozens―instantly on an auction site. Soon your own cupboards are bulging with antique glassware and your bank account is running low. But don’t despair. There is a way to replenish it―become an auction-site seller!