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eBay Pitfall No.1 - The Shill (Schill)

Buying Safely on eBay

This is the first post in a short series we'll do on the eBay pitfalls we identified in an earlier post. Martin and I intend to expand on this in an e-Book.

In auction terms, a shill or schill, is a dummy bidder.  Put simply, a shill has no intention of actually buying (and paying for) the artwork in question; s/he makes a bid for the sole purpose of driving the price up.

Shills fall into two general categories:
  • those driving up the price on behalf of the seller, and
  • Trolls, those who are trying to be disruptive
The latter are a particular nightmare.  To use a current example: speculation is rife that the buyer of the Quianlong Vase called the Pinner Vase might be a shambolic shill. Theories as to why he (I think it's a 'he') did it abound; a popular one is that he's a Chinese nationalist protesting Western ownership and sales of Chinese antiquities.  That's as maybe; the bottom line is that if he wanted to bring chaos into a few people's lives, he's succeeded.

The price-inflating shill works in both 'real life' and online auctions.  We've discussed in-person dummy bidding in our Google Knol on auctions, and I can't improve on that in a short post.

Since this post is about eBay, the only thing you need to know about dummy bidding is that it is completely illegal in the eBay universe. Forbidden. Verboten.

It's also rampant!

I know of two men who are Deadeye Dicks when it comes to spotting dummy bidding on eBay.  One is a fellow from Western Australia, with the same sort of over-developed sense of justice that I have, and the other is my husband Martin.

Spotting and dealing with schill bidding is complicated, and Martin and I are going to write about it in some detail in the eBay protection guide we've just decided to write.  That'll take us a while, so in the meantime, here are some steps you can take to protect yourself:

  1. Be wary of eBay auctions with the buyer's identities hidden.  Unless the sale is for - ahem! - 'adult' materials, there's no real reason to hide identities.  President Obama is not likely to use his real name to buy new curtains for the West Wing, (and it would be scrambled in any case, see the point below) so, like, whom are they protecting from what?
  2. Check the buyers' purchase history of the folks who are bidding on the item you want. The identities are scrambled, (though with some detective work you can start to figure out the players given time) so you won't know the screen name, but you will know what they've bid on before.  Do they bid but never win the auction?  Have they only bid on automotive parts before and are now suddenly bidding on Royal Worcester?  Look for patterns, and ask yourself 'why?'
  3. If you suspect a sham, bid low!  It's the only way to really protect yourself from paying too much.
  4. Be educated!  You can't set an appropriate maximum bid without knowing what similar items should sell for. At the very least, use eBay's own 'search' feature' and check 'completed listings' to find out what the going rate has been for the last month.