Ask Dr. Webbie
Is there an Internet question you'd like to see answered in a future edition of Website Compass? Email your question to DrWebbie@WebsiteCompass.com.
To assist him in answering your question as specifically as possible, be sure to include the following: the name of the browser you are using (i.e. Microsoft Internet Explorer 7.0, Firefox 2.0, etc.), the name of the email software you are using (i.e. Microsoft Outlook Express 6.0, OS 10.4 Mail, etc.), and the version of your system software (i.e. Windows 98, Windows XP, etc.)
I've been seeing ads online for unbelievable bargains on electronics like iPads. Is there a catch?
The ads you're describing are probably from "penny auctions," also known as pay-to-bid auctions. Over the last couple of years, the Better Business Bureau has seen a sharp increase in the number of penny auctions online and has received many complaints about them.
Penny auctions operate very differently from other auction sites such as eBay. With penny auctions, the merchandise is being sold by the owners of the website, not third parties. But the biggest difference is in the bidding process. Potential buyers have to pay a fee, typically between 50 cents and $1, for each bid they make. Auctions start at zero dollars, and each bid bumps the price up by a small amount, usually a penny — hence the name.
Here's how a typical penny auction, say for an iPad, works:
- Bidders buy "bid packages," perhaps 100 bids for $50.
- The auction is announced on the website with terms such as "six-hour auction and each bid adds 1 cent to the price. Each additional bid made in the last 20 seconds of the auction resets the clock to 20 seconds remaining."
- With 20 seconds to go, the top bid might only be $1 or $2. But every time the clock nears zero, another bidder ups the price by a penny.
- Finally, only one bidder remains and he or she wins the iPad, which has a list price of $500, for whatever the final tally is — let's say $25.
- The winning bidder gets the iPad for $25 plus the cost of his/her bids and shipping. The other bidders, some of whom may have spent $100 or more on bids, walk away with nothing.
Penny auctions have been characterized as thinly disguised gambling sites. There have also been allegations that some use shill bidders or automated programs to drive up the bidding. Be aware that you'll probably spend far more in bids over time than you recoup in the value of items you may win occasionally.
I have friends that frequently send me important-sounding emails that I'm supposed to forward to people I know. How can I tell if the messages are legitimate or a hoax?
Good question. It's pretty simple. There are five signs that an email is a hoax:
You'll see lots of exclamation points and words in all caps, like URGENT!!! and WARNING!!!
- "Tell all your friends"
There will always be a request that you share this "important information" by forwarding the message to everybody in your email address book or to as many people as you possibly can.
- "This isn't a hoax"
The message may include a seemingly sincere premise like "My neighbor, who works for Microsoft, just received this warning so I know it's true. He asked me to pass it along."
- Dire consequences
The text will predict dire consequences if you don't act immediately
— a missing child won't be found or someone won't be able to die happy.
Look for lots of >>>> marks in the left margin. These indicate that people who fell for the hoax have forwarded the message countless times before it reached you.