eBay Advice

Top Ten eBay Red Flags, Part 2

redflagWe’re back to finish off the Top Ten eBay Red Flags. In case you haven’t read Part 1, you may want to begin there first. Again, this isn’t a countdown, and these aren’t listed in any particular order unless two red flags seem to fit well together.

#5 : Make an Offer Now

I’m not exactly sure when eBay added the “Make an Offer” option on Buy It Now listings, but I’m generally a fan of it. It gives me more options as a buyer, and I’ve gotten some pretty good deals with it over the years. Buy It Now makes eBay more Amazon-y, and Make an Offer returns eBay to its more flea market-y identity of yesteryear. So what’s the problem? Well, when it is accompanied by an exorbitant Buy It Now price, the Make an Offer option may contribute to retro videogame inflation. You’ve seen the listings. A Super Zaxxon cartridge for Atari 8-bit computers listed as a $399.99 Buy It Now / Make an Offer.  I call these listings “Make an Offer Now” because the Buy It Now price is so obviously inflated.  “Make an Offer Now” is similar to the super-high opening bid standard auction. There’s very little difference between a $400 “Make an Offer Now” and a standard auction with a $350 opening bid.

best offer

You might be wondering when eBay became like this. In 2011, eBay decided to make two key changes to its seller policy. The first was that Final Value Fees would be charged on shipping costs. Perhaps in anticipation of seller complaints, eBay also waived insertion fees and gave sellers a certain number of free listings a month (which could be used for “Make an Offer Now”). You see, insertion fees kept sellers sane. They also kept eBay more like a flea market and less like Amazon by encouraging low starting bids. If you wanted to start bidding at a penny, you paid the lowest insertion fee (I think it was a nickel or a dime). If you were selling something expensive, say a diamond ring, and you were too nervous to start the bidding at a penny, you could start the bidding at $1,000. However, you’d have to pay a much higher insertion fee. Now, I don’t remember exactly what the fee for a $1,000 item would be, but it was probably $20-$30. If insertion fees still worked the way that they used to, you’d have a lot fewer Super Zaxxons listed for $400. The major incentive for starting auctions at a low opening bid–cheap listings–is gone, so now everyone owns his or her own thrift store and price gun. Price stickers are almost free, so why not? This policy change reverberates throughout the retro videogame industry as Goodwills, garage salers, and retailers sometimes set their prices to asking prices rather than selling prices.

Why is this a red flag? When you see sky-high “Make an Offer Now” numbers, you know you’re dealing with a reseller. If you’ve read my article on reselling retro videogames, you know that professional resellers aren’t exactly beloved in the retrogaming community. Buying from a reseller isn’t necessarily a foolish move if you absolutely have to have something. Resellers often offer items that no one else has for sale, but the problem for bargain hunters is that resellers know this too. “Make an Offer” and free insertion fees are the ultimate combo for them. So the red flag is there to warn you that when you make them that generous offer, you may finally get your personal holy grail, but you will never, ever get a great deal on it.

#4 : Extremely High Shipping Quotes

shippingAlmost from day one of eBay’s existence, buyers have been complaining about sellers’ high shipping quotes. Several years ago, eBay tried to address this by capping flat-rate shipping (not to be confused with USPS flat-rate boxes) for certain categories. For instance, you couldn’t ask for more than a flat rate of $4 to ship a videogame because eBay figured that most items listed under the “videogames” category could ship for $4 or less. Sellers could always choose to skip the flat-rate shipping option for the “calculated” shipping option. Here, you were required to input the exact weight, and eBay would use USPS’ (or UPS’) fee scale to determine the shipping cost based on weight and buyer location.  Well, unscrupulous sellers just decided to input inexact weights to jack up the shipping costs, or they would try to sneak certain items into categories with higher flat-rate ceilings (such as listing a cartridge in the “console” category).  If you ever wondered why there are so many descriptions of “wholesale” lots of cartridges, it may be because the “wholesale lots” category (vs. the “video games” category) allows sellers to charge a flat rate of $9 for videogames.

eBay now allows sellers to add a “handling” fee. Here’s the worst part: the handling fee is not shown separately but is added into the shipping cost.  How can you tell if a seller has added a handling charge?  Well, look carefully at the shipping quote.  If it is an uneven number such as $11.68, then the seller is probably using the calculated shipping option, and there’s a good chance that the seller has come up with an accurate estimate of the shipping weight.  However, if the quote is a nice, round number like $20, then there might be a handling charge added.  In this case, it is good to know what the maximum amount is that a seller is allowed to charge using a flat-rate option (again, different from USPS’ flat-rate boxes).  You can find the numbers here, but I’ve also reproduced the chart for videogames to the left.  As you can see, a seller is not allowed to charge more than a flat rate of $15 to ship an item listed under “Systems.”  So, if the shipping quote for that Odyssey 2 is $20, and the item is listed under the “Video Game Consoles” category, there’s a good chance that a $5 handling charge has been added.

One other possibility is that the seller has defaulted to Priority Mail as the shipping option, which would result in high shipping quotes, particularly for heavy items. I’ve asked sellers if they would ship Parcel Select instead, and most usually do. Check USPS’ fee scale yourself by going to USPS.com and figuring out just how much it should cost to ship a ten pound package from Point A to Point B.

Save for this last reason, there’s not much for me to explain here why extremely high shipping costs are a red flag. You’re dealing with a dishonest seller, one who does not own a scale, one who handles merchandise in a very special way, or one who values his or her boxes, bubble wrap, and gasoline more than you or I do. None of these types inspires much confidence.

#3 : Extremely Low Shipping Quotes

Extremely low shipping prices are also a red flag because they usually signal an inexperienced seller. (I’m not talking about Free Shipping here, which is its own special option.) How can this guy ship an Atari 5200 to me for $4, you might wonder. Well, he can’t, at least not without taking a loss. If you see a videogame console listing with a $4 shipping quote, this means that the seller has mistakenly listed the item under the “Video Games” category (with a flat-rate cap of $4) instead of the “Video Game Consoles” category (an honest mistake, actually).  I’m not saying that a seller like this won’t do a bang-up packing job with copious amounts of foam peanuts in a proper-sized shipping box; I’m just saying that it’s a long shot. Worse, after the auction is over, you may get a message saying that the seller needs more money from you because shipping is more expensive than he thought it would be. Then you have to deal with a new hassle. If you really care about the condition of the item, I would message the seller before the auction is over and inquire whether the shipping quote is accurate. Offer to pay exact shipping costs as long as the item is packed well for shipment.


Other times sellers don’t make mistakes; the shipping quote is low because it’s simply not going to cost them very much to send the item to you.  If the seller is offering free shipping, don’t expect a brand new Uline box and Priority Mail.  If you’re ordering a game, you’re more likely to open your mailbox and see the bane of complete-in-box game collectors everywhere: the bubbleope.  Collectors lie awake at night fearing that sellers shipped their CIB Sammy Lightfoots in a $0.25 bubbleope.  Sellers who are not collectors themselves have no appreciation for shrinkwrap or original boxes.  They think that all that matters is the game inside.  This is why shipping is only $2.  I don’t know what it is, but for some people, finding a suitable shipping box is more difficult than finding a life partner.

Sometimes the shipping quote seems awfully low because the seller plans to use Media Mail. The USPS website expressly states that videogames cannot be shipped via Media Mail (even though, as we know, they are technically media). If this happens, you may end up getting a deal, paying about half of what you should have to ship your item. But you can count on one thing: a longer than usual wait. Media Mail is the slowest of USPS’ services, and items usually take over a week to reach you. Media mail parcels are also eligible to be opened to determine if what is being shipped is, in fact, media. Think twice about whether you want inspectors pawing through your shrinkwrapped games. Lastly, you are on the hook if USPS decides that that Atari 5200 isn’t media. The letter carrier will ask you to pay the difference between Media Mail and Parcel Select. You can always refuse, and then the parcel goes back to the sender. Know the risks if you decide to run Media Mail gambit.

#2 : “New”

newAlthough the meaning of the word is rather straightforward in the real world, “new” is relative term on eBay.  You would think that “new” means that an item is in the condition it was when it left the factory, save a few marks here and there from handling and storage.  Well, you’d be surprised. For a demonstration of how flexible its definition is on eBay, do a search for the word “Atari.”  Now, if you are using a web browser, find the spot on the left hand side of the screen that says “Condition,” and click the “new” box.

Collectors searching for new retro videogame items need to take extra care on eBay.  Items may be new but in terrible condition, or they may not actually be new.

The first problem should not fool anyone as long as the seller includes decent photos.  But getting decent photos is asking a lot. Not all buyers know this, but eBay made a policy change this year that gives seller a dozen free photos. Now, it’s not easy to take a dozen photos of a shrinkwrapped game.  But I know I’d like to see at least four or five.  There’s no reason why a seller can’t do this except laziness.

The second problem arises because some sellers don’t see a big difference between “new” and “new enough.”  “New enough” items are usually in excellent cosmetic condition, leading the seller to shrug and click that “Brand New” or “New (Other)” option.  But you’ll see the contents of games that were originally factory shrinkwrapped splayed out like an autopsy photo, console boxes missing their cardboard or foam packing, controllers with unwrapped, tangled cords, etc.  Observant buyers can usually spot these details for themselves.  However, only very experienced collectors will be able to tell the difference between factory shrinkwrap and a shrinkwrap reseal.  Be extremely careful if you are in the market for expensive factory-shrinkwrapped games.  Many retro videogame stores have their own shrinkwrap machines; even thirty years ago, mom-and-pop computer store owners were resealing software that was returned or that they themselves had pirated.  A description of “sealed” does not necessary mean the same as “factory shrinkwrapped.”

Even if you plan to open a shrinkwrapped game to play, reseals can be a problem because sellers don’t allow returns unless items are returned in their original condition (understandably).

#1 : Radio Silence

Raising the final red flag are sellers who refuse to communicate with you. And I don’t think it’s because they’re shy. Your relationship starts off innocently enough: she has what appears to be a CIB Truckin’ for Intellivision, and you want to buy it.  You message her asking for more details about it; you just want to know if the fold-out map is included. But a day later, you still haven’t gotten a response. You send another message requesting that the game be shipped in a box because, you know, bubbleopes are hell on those shiny foil boxes. Another day of nothing. Despite these danger signs, you bid anyway and win! A day passes, then another. No shipment notification, no tracking number uploaded. Finally, after a week of silence, you are forced to open a case with eBay. Although you get your money back, you’ve wasted a lot of time and energy while ignoring other, non-sociopath Truckin’ sellers. 


If you’ve never sold an item on eBay, you might not know that eBay sends you an email as soon as a user messages you. You don’t even have to log into eBay to check your messages. You don’t even have to go to eBay to reply, either. Moreover, eBay flags your listing in question with a bold, red “Unanswered Question” banner. So sellers are aware that you asked them a question; some just don’t bother to respond.

Unless the seller doesn’t speak your language, I think there are two big reasons why sellers do not respond to our questions.  The first is rather obvious: they just don’t care enough to.  Buy it; don’t buy it; I can’t be troubled.  Can you imagine dealing with such a seller if the item doesn’t match your expectations of it?  Expecting an immediate response isn’t reasonable, however, and buyers needing a reply within a few hours of an auction’s close should expect to be disappointed.  But 24 hours is a reasonable window for a response.  If a seller doesn’t respond to two consecutive emails over two days, I won’t bid on an item unless it is very, very cheap.

I suspect that the other big reason is responsibility.  That is, if you ask a seller to pack well and ship your game in a box, any acknowledgement of your request will mean that the seller is responsible to it to some degree.  If the seller just ignores your request, he or she can send off your game in a bubbleope and claim that your message went unread.  The seller doesn’t have to incur any extra expense packing and shipping properly and isn’t as liable if the item is damaged during shipping.  I would much prefer that a seller ask for an extra dollar or two to pack properly rather than say nothing at all.  It’s too bad that eBay has turned the buyer-seller relationship into a kind of game where you say only what you have to in order to protect yourself.

Although you don’t find out about a seller’s shipping practices until after you bid, not receiving a tracking number is never an encouraging sign.  These days, eBay makes it extremely easy to print shipping labels yourself.  Once the seller pays for the shipping label, eBay automatically updates the buyer’s “Purchases” page with the tracking number and also includes this information in an email to the buyer.  I mean, how difficult is it to communicate when a machine writes the message for you?

Caveat Emptor

All of these red flags are meant to supplement the most obvious one (and for that reason not worth blogging about): bad feedback.  And then, there’s no substitute for experience. If you’re bitten by the retro videogame bug, you will make buying mistakes.  And many of you will gamble on that dirty Heavy Sixer for $20.  And that’s fine, as long as the risk we’re taking is the equivalent of feeding a nickel slot machine.  We don’t want to lose any members of the retro videogame community to bad buying experiences that can be avoided.


2 Responses to “Top Ten eBay Red Flags, Part 2”

  1. I disagree with #4! The final shipping price is controlled by the courrer! If your post office has a scale that weighs heavy then you pay the heavier price! Even if you take them a package already processed through Paypal and weighed on your machine at home! I have a medical scale (like the ones that doctors offices have) at home. I know it’s right! But who can argue with the post office? I already had two packages of mine go through the dead letter office in Atlanta Georgia. It took TWO months to get the parcels back! And as for Parcel Select, ask for a quote from the post office! My post office asks for MORE for Parcel Select than for Priorty!!

    Posted by Michael White | December 21, 2013, 6:07 pm
    • I use a baby scale for most parcels over a pound, and it’s very accurate. I print the postage at home, and I’ve never been second guessed by my local PO. Your mileage may vary, of course. I don’t even have a problem if I’m overcharged by a pound or two for a heavy parcel, but some sellers overcharge by 50% or more, and that’s unacceptable.

      Posted by boxpressed | January 4, 2014, 4:26 pm

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