Auction SNIPING

Irate online bidders steamed over last-minute tactics

January 08, 2001|By Doug Bedell | Doug Bedell,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Jay Brousseau can still feel the indignation - the horror - of his first encounter with an online auction sniper.

"In the last 17 seconds, this guy came out of nowhere and took the auction," says Brousseau.

"I had the bid with eight minutes to go. Then he just jumped in and grabbed it away."

Losing that $22 Kensington track ball was a bitter lesson, the Dallas photographer says. "It made me realize that that's the way the game is played, but it makes the whole thing a pain in the butt. I e-mailed the guy that he was a shmuck, but he never responded. And I've been much less active ever since."

Sniping is one of several cutthroat tactics that have soured some users of popular Internet auction sites on eBay, Ubid, Yahoo! and Amazon.com.

Complaints about sniping - the practice of entering a bid just before the close of an auction - are escalating as millions of bargain-hunters take their first forays into these new worldwide bazaars.

Spurred by customer complaints, some online auction houses have instituted anti-sniping measures. At the same time, software companies have developed programs that help snipers become even more efficient.

The pioneering auction site eBay says that only a minuscule fraction of its 12 million customers are griping about sniping.

There are also more serious schemes that bear watching. They include bid-shielding, in which two bidders collude. One bids low, the other bids very high to frighten off other shoppers. Seconds before the auction ends, the high bid is retracted, and the low bidder wins by default.

Shilling - putting an item up for auction, then assuming a different identity to bid up the price - is also a growing tactic, according to auction bulletin boards.

Nearly everybody agrees that shilling and bid-shielding are morally out of bounds.

Most services will investigate persistent complaints, then expel perpetrators they can catch.

But when it comes to sniping, there is no consensus about what's right and wrong.

Sniping "essentially preys on the ignorance of other bidders and contributes to a general sense of unfairness and unpleasantness at eBay," Barry Goldberg of Somerville, Mass., wrote to Auctionwatch.com, which monitors online auctioning.

"I hate the feeling that somebody is lurking in the bushes, just waiting to jump out at the last moment in an effort to catch me by surprise."

But for every complaint by the Goldbergs and Brousseaus of the world, there are equally ardent defenders.

Many are quick to point out that terms such as shill and snipe stem from common practices in live auctions.

Says Barry Scott Will of Richmond, Va.: "Sniping is frustrating, but so is getting cut off while driving. There's not much you can do about either, so you can either learn to put up with a little frustration or get off the highway."

Officials at eBay also say sniping is hard to control.

"The only way to protect yourself from being outbid at the last second (also called being `sniped') is to bid the highest maximum you are willing to pay," the service advises.

"Remember, it's not the last bid that wins, it's the highest. There is a common misconception that snipers always win. This isn't so. To win, they must outbid you. If someone places a last-second bid that isn't high enough, they almost never have enough time to try again and place a winning bid before the listing ends."

Sniping is one reason that eBay and its cousins provide automated proxy bid mechanisms.

If you find something you really want, you can sit at your computer all day and incrementally outbid each new offer until you've reached your self-imposed ceiling.

Proxy mechanisms simplify that process by confidentially bidding up to your maximum amount, freeing you from constant checking and rechecking.

Deft use of proxy bidding would solve most people's sniping worries, says North Carolina student Arthur Crenshaw.

"As long as people underbid and don't use the proxy bidding properly, the snipers will continue to thrive," Crenshaw says. "If everyone bid what they were willing to pay from the start, there wouldn't be any benefit to sniping, would there?"

David Coursey, an electronics industry consultant, online ZDNet columnist and recent sniping victim, drew hundreds of responses to a recent anti-sniping diatribe.

"The experience left a bad taste in my mouth since I felt like I'd played by the rules and the sniper hadn't," says Coursey.

"Of course, he who owns the playground makes the rules. And if eBay wants to run things like this, they can run them without me."

As auction observers point out, in-person auctions link all the participants together by putting them in the same physical spot. The person with the greatest will wins.

"On eBay, this equation is broken because the bidders don't all show up at once - except to snipe at the end, of course," says Coursey. "And proxy bidding doesn't quite deal with the issue of the greatest will wins."

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