Online Rock: Empowering Musicians  
OnlineRock Instructional Column  


By Jon Spear
© 1999 Jon Spear. All rights reserved

The internet is changing the way a lot of folks do business, and the sale of musical instruments is no exception. On-line auctions of musical equipment and gear, in particular, could be the greatest thing since frets. The variety of musical instruments available through on-line auctions -- from rare vintage instruments to cheapo Asian knock-offs -- is astonishing. But if you’ve spent more time toggling between pickups than you have switching between websites, you may want to do some homework before you start bidding.

As you enter the world of on-line auctions, it is important that you keep in mind that most auction sites do nothing more than provide a forum for individuals to sell items. Unlike a traditional auction house, on-line auction companies usually don’t take any steps to verify that the item is accurately described or that it even exists. (Gibson’s auctions are a notable exception, with Gibson’s luthiers inspecting and authenticating each instrument).

I have had largely positive experiences with on-line purchases and auctions, and have found some fabulous bargains – but I know of others who have not been as fortunate. Sometimes sellers have misrepresented items (out of ignorance or by stretching the truth to the breaking point), while bidders have sometimes flaked off and ignored their legal obligation to make good on their bid. In fact, internet fraud is serious and growing problem. According to the National Consumers League, the number of reported internet fraud cases has leaped from fewer than 1,000 in 1996 to nearly 8,000 in 1998 -- the overwhelming majority of which (68%) involved internet auctions.

So, before you make your first on-line bid, one web site you should definitely visit is maintained by the National Fraud Information Center (NFIC), which has a number of useful steps you can take to avoid being the victim of internet fraud. One of the points made by NFIC is that many consumer protection laws apply only to businesses, NOT to sales between individuals. This makes it even more important for you learn about protecting yourself before something happens, rather than doing damage control later.

Here are some of my suggestions for avoiding problems while doing business on the internet:

  1. Take your time before bidding and be prepared to honor your bid. Remember, once you bid, you are legally obligated to follow through with the purchase. Failing to honor a bid is very unfair to the seller and to the next-highest bidders, and it may also result in your being on the wrong end of a legal action. The same is true if you offer an item at auction and later renege on the high bidder. One denizen of eBay who has bought and sold hundreds of instruments online wrote me that he actually called a local police department to deal with one party who delayed and made excuses about completing a transaction as promised.
  2. Make sure you understand the seller’s return policies. – Is the product sold "as is" or does the description say "all sales final"? If you want to be able to inspect the item and return it if it does not meet your expectations, be sure you reach this understanding with the seller. If you are buying a new item, find out the warranty policy.
  3. Pay for your purchase by the safest way possible. -- Most people who sell by auction want a cashiers check or money order, but some will take credit cards. Your credit card company can reverse the charge if you have a valid reason and the seller won’t cooperate in solving the problem. If you can’t pay by credit card, try using C.O.D. if it is convenient. Another alternative is to use the escrow service now provided by a number of on-line auction sites, under which the auction web site holds the payment and doesn’t release it to the seller until the buyer is satisfied. The National Fraud Information Center says that when a seller demands cash, it is a sure sign of fraud.
  4. Know who you’re dealing with. – Some on-line auctions have a system that allows buyers to rate sellers (and vice versa). This way, you can see what others have said about a buyer or seller before dealing with him or her. You may wish to avoid doing business with people who have an unacceptable amount of "negative" feedback. (Beware, however, that favorable feedback can be orchestrated and faked!) Once you win a bid, make sure you get the name, actual street address and telephone number of your seller. Don’t deal with people who won’t provide this information. Don’t get stuck with canceled post box number. Check out merchants with the Better Business Bureau.
  5. Use common sense in dealing with first-time sellers. One common scam is to open up one of those free 30-day trial internet accounts, auction something off, get the money and then close the account. Several auction sites have taken steps to prevent this scam by providing information about how long a seller has been a "member" and whether they have had previous sales. requires a valid credit card number from anyone who wants to buy or sell via their online auction site. You may want to consider using an escrow system with first time sellers who have no feedback.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask the seller lots of questions. If a "new" guitar seems surprisingly inexpensive, perhaps it is a factory second or has a problem. Pictures can be tricky -- a guitar may be smaller than standard, or a blurry photo may not reveal all the detail that you need. Sometimes you will come across a seller who is selling a guitar but professes to "know nothing about guitars" or who is "selling this item for a neighbor." If sellers are not able to answer my questions, I pass the item by no matter how tantalizing it may seem unless they agree to an escrow arrangement or make the sale subject to a satisfactory inspection.
  7. Consider buying from someone nearby – Some auction sites identify the geographic location of a seller, which may give you an opportunity to prefer a seller who is close by as opposed to a distant one. If you are comfortable doing business with a seller face-to-face, you can avoid shipping costs (and the risk of a shipper committing mayhem on your new-found prize!), and you will also have a chance to inspect the item first-hand before you pay for it. If you have a good relationship with a local music store where you regularly do business, you could ask the seller to meet you there to get an expert second opinion.
  8. Look at what similar items have sold for in previous auctions. eBay and several other auction sites have a feature where you can also look at items that have been auctioned off in the past 30 days. So, for example, you are interested in an Epiphone Sheraton or a Gibson Blueshawk, you can search previous auctions to see how much other successful bidders had to pay for similar items. You might also see that a seller is re-auctioning the same item, which may indicate a problem with the previous sale.
  9. Get help if you think you are a victim of fraud. Auction sites have significant expertise in dealing with con artists and may be able to help. will reimburse you up to $250 if you are defrauded on their auction site—an excellent safeguard. If the U.S. mail was involved in any way in the fraudulent transaction, you can complete Form 8165, Mail Fraud Complaint Questionnaire, which is available at all post offices.
  10. Educate yourself on the products you are interested in. If you’re not an expert in older instruments or different models that have been marketed over the years, you can increase the odds of making a good purchase by educating yourself before bidding on vintage or esoteric models. Several books I read to educate myself are: The Ultimate Guitar Book (by Tony Bacon), The Electric Guitar -- An Illustrated History (Paul Trynka, Editor); Classic Guitars of the Fifties (introduction by Tony Bacon); and Amps!--The Other Half of Rock ‘n’ Roll (by Ritchie Fliegler).

There is certainly no foolproof way of doing business on the internet, and you may be hit by a scam despite your best efforts to be careful. But your odds of avoiding trouble will be improved if you do your homework and take a few, simple precautions.


National Fraud Information Center
EBay auctions
Yahoo! Auctions
Excite Auctions
City Auction
Gibson Guitars
Harmonycentral (links to digibid)

About the Author: Jon Spear (e-mail grew up during the ‘50s and ‘60s in Port Chester, New York, where he taught himself how to play guitar. Early influences include Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Duane Eddy, Link Wray and James Brown. His teenage band opened for national groups such as the Isley Brothers (Twist & Shout), the Angels (My Boyfriend’s Back) and Nino and the Ebbtides (Juke Box Saturday Night). Gear at that time included a Fender Jazzmaster and Showman he wishes he still had. He put aside musical aspirations to attend college and law school in Washington, D.C. where he worked as a senior congressional aide for over 20 years (and couldn’t resist an occasional open mic night). Today he lives the Philadelphia area and works in Public Affairs for a major pharmaceutical manufacturer. His current group -- known as Lost Coin -- plays eclectic rock, and donates its services to worthy causes and charitable fundraisers in the Cenral Jersey, SE Pennsylvania area. In an effort to unlearn 40 years of bad guitar playing habits, Jon is currently taking lessons from another onlinerock contributor, Harry Jacobson

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