Amazing Deals and Scary Risks of Peer-to-Peer Online Shopping

Smart Buying

Amazing Deals and Scary Risks of Peer-to-Peer Online Shopping

EBay is about to turn 15, but there’s always lots to learn about buying from your peers online.

Since its birth 15 years ago, peer-to-peer online shopping—buying and selling among fellow Internet users—continues to be a great way to find rare items and good deals.

Jim Buckmaster, chief executive of, says usage is growing by 50% a year. The most popular items on Craigslist’s huge marketplace are home furnishings and cars., the granddaddy of peer-to-peer shopping, has been going strong since Labor Day of 1995. Just this year, joined the fun with Facebook Marketplace.

Sure, there are bad seeds. Earlier this summer, a joker from Tennessee posted on Craigslist a “slightly used” time-travel device for “only” $300. But a little common sense goes a long way. Most of what’s for sale is genuine. If you understand how to use these channels and take proper precautions, you can scoop up terrific deals. After all, someone else’s trash may be your treasure.

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You (hope to) get what you see

You’re at the mercy of any online seller’s effort to write honest descriptions of his or her products. Jim “Griff” Griffin, marketplace expert at eBay, says it’s always wise to contact the seller with any questions. You can request specifics, such as the dimensions of an object, or for more (and perhaps current) pictures. On eBay, you click on “Ask a question” to send a message to the seller, which gets there through his or her eBay account. A serious seller will be happy to hear from all interested parties and reply promptly and candidly.

Advertisement, a site for buying and selling tickets for sporting events, concerts and the like, guarantees everything sold on the site. StubHub requires sellers to register with a valid credit card, so they’re on the hook if they try to pass fraudulent tickets. For that level of security, you’ll pay a 10% fee for each purchase—but you won’t decry it if you score last-minute tickets to a sold-out U2 concert.

Pay it Safe

Unless you’ve found something for free, you’ll have to decide the safest way to pay your peer. This largely rests on the type of payments the seller will accept.

If you’re asked to pay using credit, consider a single-use card number. Several banks offer one-time-use credit-card numbers so you can make a transaction without giving out your personal card number.


EBay owns PayPal, a service for transferring money online, but PayPal isn’t just for eBay sales (though all eBay merchants accept it). Many sellers on – a marketplace for handmade goods such as clothing, crafts, décor, accessories and so on – accept PayPal payments or credit cards. If you’re using a PayPal account, you can try the new Security Key ($5), which does for a PayPal account what a one-time credit-card number does for your credit account. The key is about the size of a credit card and has a screen that displays your account number, which changes periodically. It’s synced with your account, so only you know the current magic number. Or you can establish a mobile account and have the codes sent to your cell phone at your request.

With Craigslist, through which you’re likely to pick up your merchandise in person, you’re best off paying cash or writing a check. Always avoid wiring money to anyone or paying by credit card into an online escrow account. Those are red flags signaling a rip-off.

The man behind the curtain

When you buy from peer-to-peer sites, you are doing business with strangers. Usually, there’s no store or company whose reputation suffers if the transaction goes bad. The seller’s standing lies in his or her customer rating and comments from previous customers. If the site you are using provides feedback or user profiles, those can help you judge the seller’s integrity. Blunt remarks such as “never received my purchase” are obviously not a good sign.


Craigslist encourages all business to take place locally, which is why the site is broken up by cities or metropolitan areas. is also separated into city-specific sites, though no money changes hands. You’ll be contacting gifters, not sellers. The local nature of the site creates a strong community feeling for Freecycle users, says the site’s executive director, Deron Beal. That cuts down on funny business.

The switch

After you agree on a purchase, it’s time to transfer the goods. In a Freecycle or Craigslist deal, you’ll probably pick them up yourself. One of Buckmaster’s cardinal rules: Meet in a public place. If you’re going to retrieve an item from the seller’s house, ask for it to be left in the yard or on the porch, and out of sight if possible.

When a transaction is not local, discuss who pays the shipping charges before you buy and establish a shipping date. Don’t pay more than you have to. Check the rates with the U.S. Postal Service site. Ask the seller for a tracking number so you can watch the progress. The same holds if the shipper is UPS, FedEx or another private carrier.

Reporting problems

Each peer-to-peer site has a system for dealing with problems, complaints, and scams. So if you come across a posting that seems fishy, tell the site’s administrators. All sites have an e-mail address for reporting or flagging suspicious posts.


A common scam involves a crook asking a buyer to complete a transaction away from where the post originated. When you go off the site, you leave behind any safeguards or guarantees. By paying with your PayPal account, an eBay purchase is covered, but you’ll have to keep an eye on the calendar and report any problems within 45 days of payment. The same principle goes for all other sites: Be vigilant and report problems as soon as they arise.