Most people are happy to play the eBay game in a straightforward, principled fashion, satisfied in the knowledge that the goods will go to whoever is prepared to shell out the most cash. But there are ways in which auctions are often manipulated to place bumps in the supposed level playing field.
One is shill bidding. These days on the internet, the cry of "shill" goes up when anything seems vaguely underhand or not quite what it seems – for instance, a glowing review of a book that's clearly written by a friend of the author. But on eBay, it's about sellers driving the bidding on their own auction, either by having two eBay accounts or getting friends to collude with them. The aim is to induce bidding wars with poor chumps who have no idea that instead of bidding against another dehumidifier enthusiast, they're actually being pitted against the person who's trying to make a sale. There's a risk that the seller will end up looking stupid by winning his own auction, but it usually just extracts more money out of the bidder.
Carmel Swann, a reader, notes that eBay's bidding system – which bids on your behalf up to your maximum limit – does leave its users open to shills, as your bids are increased automatically, even if you suspect that something untoward is going on. Shilling is prohibited by eBay – indeed, people have actually been prosecuted in the USA for doing it.
Sniping, however, isn't against eBay's rules and has become widespread as a result. This is the practice of using software to automatically place your bid in the final seconds of the auction. To do it, you register with a site such as justsnipe.com, enter your maximum bid for a certain item and when you'd like it placed, and let their computers do the work. The reason many people – including, one presumes, the rulemakers at eBay – don't see it as underhand, is that the item still goes to the highest bidder.
But while last-minute frenzied bidding is one of the features of eBay, last-second sniping doesn't give the opportunity for anyone to counter-bid, which its opponents believe is against the spirit of the site; they've suggested that introducing a system where last-second bids trigger an additional five minutes of bidding might combat sniping.
But the method of winning online auctions is, as reader Jean Watson points out, always the same: "Bid the highest price you can afford, and do it as late as possible."
Richard Bland agrees, while adding that doing your research on prices is paramount: "No one – not even a cheat – wants to pay more than an item is worth. So if you are persistently outbid, it just means that you're setting your maximum bids too low."