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Buy and sell online the safe way; Websites like eBay and craigslist are a great way to find deals and sell unwanted stuff. But it's also easy to get ripped off -- or worse. Here's how to buy and sell without getting burned.

Jen Wutz-Lopes sold a condominium on craigslist and bought a classic car on eBay, but she was ripped off by a guy who sold her unusable tickets to a Philadelphia Flyers game.

Charlie Riley has used those sites for years to buy and sell electronics and furniture, but he lost a couple of hundred bucks on a counterfeit watch in his first eBay purchase.

"I was naive at the time. You learn your lesson," said Riley, chief marketing officer for an educational software company.

As Wutz-Lopes, Riley and other experienced users of online marketplaces have discovered, shopping on the Web has both benefits and risks.

As a buyer, you have a near-limitless inventory and it's relatively easy to find what you're looking for. And as a seller, these sites provide a convenient way to get rid of something you don't want anymore and to find a buyer willing to meet your asking price.

But buying or selling online raises a raft of potential issues, and some of these sites are havens for would-be scammers.

"I will never buy tickets on craigslist again," said Wutz-Lopes, a health care IT consultant who lives in Lockport. She said she paid $240 for tickets that weren't accepted by the arena because they'd been reported purchased with a stolen credit card.

Veteran online buyers and sellers, consumer advocates and website representatives have plenty of advice for conducting an online transaction.

They say it's important to research both the item and the person you're dealing with, to ask a lot of questions and to familiarize yourself with the site's policy for addressing problems.

"You want to be a smart and savvy consumer," said Peggy Penders, the locally based spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau of Upstate New York. "You certainly want to arm yourself with as much information as possible."

In its most recent survey on the topic, the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 52 percent of Americans in May 2010 had purchased books, music, toys or clothing online.

The same organization found in April 2009 that 49 percent had used craigslist or another classified-ads website.

Kevin Manne uses eBay -- "I've been on eBay since before it was eBay," he said -- to buy old video games, movies and hard-to-find items such as a super-thin case for his iPhone.

"Things you can't really find anywhere else. Secondhand things. Classic collectibles," said Manne, a Corfu resident and new media specialist for Genesee Community College.

He uses craigslist for larger items -- he bought a faux leather recliner there for $80 -- and sells items on both sites.

Riley has bought and sold on eBay since 1999, usually electronic equipment when he upgrades his devices or furniture when he moves. He has learned, as a buyer, that the lowest price isn't always the best option.

He bought a pair of jeans on eBay but didn't get them for a couple of weeks because the seller shipped them -- improperly -- as U.S. Postal Service Media Mail. Riley objected because he paid $13 for shipping.

"I called him on it. I said, 'I want a refund on my shipping,' " and he got one, Riley recalled.

Here is some hard-earned advice:

*Tip No. 1: Know how a site you're planning to use works.

EBay is the granddaddy of the online auction services. StubHub features tickets to concerts and sporting events.

Amazon Marketplace allows third-party companies or entrepreneurs to sell items to customers through the massive online retailer's website.

And the classified ads on craigslist boast items to suit every possible taste.

EBay, StubHub and Amazon provide more of a structure for the transactions on their sites, and offer more explicit promises to ensure a safe consumer experience.

On craigslist, which tends to involve sales within the local community, it's a case of let the buyer -- and seller -- beware.

*Tip No. 2: Knowledge is power. If you're selling an item, put out as much information as you can about the product, be honest about its condition and post as many photos as possible.

If you're buying, research the item, make sure you know how much it's worth and ask the seller plenty of questions.

Penders said the BBB recommends looking carefully at what is written about the product and the seller to make sure it's not public relations puffery.

"You can't always trust what you see in a review," she said.

*Tip No. 3: It's good to know as much as possible about who you're dealing with.

EBay and Amazon Marketplace, for example, assign ratings to sellers based on reviews from their customers.

StubHub doesn't provide a rating system because it doesn't identify sellers on the site as part of its efforts to protect the identity of users, said company spokeswoman Joellen Ferrer.

In addition to a seller's rating, look at whether the seller specializes in selling the type of item you're looking for and whether there are any unusual gaps in their history.

And Penders said the BBB recommends getting in writing what is expected of each side in the deal, to avoid misunderstandings and to create a record in case of future problems.

*Tip No. 4: Be careful in handling the item-for-money exchange. Several sites offer PayPal as one option because it builds in a level of confidence in the transaction.

Penders suggests setting up a PayPal account, but connecting it to a credit card -- preferably not your main credit card -- instead of a bank account. By linking to a credit card, you have the ability to challenge a charge or some recourse to get a refund.

On craigslist, Manne said, the rule typically is the seller doesn't ship out anything until receiving payment from the buyer.

In general, the seller's obligation is ship out the item promptly, in packaging that ensures it will survive the journey, and to keep the buyer updated on the status of the item.

Manne always sends out his items in a way that allows him to track its progress and to require a signature from the buyer upon its receipt.

If it's a transaction conducted by two people in the same area, it's always best to meet in person to conduct the exchange, said Susan MacTavish Best, a public relations representative for craigslist.

Do this in a public place, and be careful if the item in question is exceptionally valuable, Best said in an email.

When sellers aren't responsive to emails, and repeatedly change the time of a meeting, "that's a red flag," Manne said.

Always ask for cash -- or at least a money order -- and never accept a personal check.

And don't ever wire funds through Western Union, MoneyGram or another money-transfer service because anyone asking you to do that is most likely a scammer, Best said.

*Tip No. 5: Learn what protections are in place in case something goes wrong.

Amazon Marketplace, for example, has an A-to-Z Guarantee to protect shoppers using its network of third-party retailers.

StubHub has its FanProtect Guarantee. The site collects credit card and contact information from its sellers.

If there's a problem with a ticket, StubHub tries to find a replacement ticket for the buyer or -- if that's not possible -- the site will refund the cost of the ducat and go after the seller for the money, Ferrer said.

"We hold our sellers fully accountable," Ferrer said, noting that problems occur in less than 1 percent of transactions.

EBay offers its Buyer Protection, but the most powerful tool on the auction site may be a buyer's ability to respond to problems with a transaction by posting a negative review, Riley and Manne said.

On craigslist, however, buyers are on their own and, if possible, must inspect the item carefully before paying the full purchase price.

For Manne, Riley and Wutz-Lopes, the handful of bad experiences they've had over the years haven't stopped them from buying and selling online.

In addition to selling a condo for $390,000 through craigslist, Wutz-Lopes bought a $5,000 1975 Austin Mini off eBay for her husband a decade ago as a 35th birthday gift.

The car made its way from England to Florida to Boston, where Wutz-Lopes lived at the time.

The couple still has the car, though Wutz-Lopes and her husband are looking to sell it.

Naturally, she said, "I'm going to put it on eBay or craigslist."

email: swatson@buffnews.com

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More tips for online buying and selling

*Research the item and the person you're dealing with.

*Know how a site you're using works.

*Use PayPal or electronic payments for online deals. For local sales, always ask for cash – or at least a money order – and never accept a personal check.

*If you are meeting in person to complete a sale, do it in a public place, and be especially careful if the item is exceptionally valuable.

*Check out the online site's consumer protection policies.