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Auction Guides:
Not So Hot Properties

You've dreamed of owning a little red sports car or a vacation home on the shore, but the price has always stopped you. Until now. You've seen the ads in newspapers and magazines, on television and the Internet, and in coupon mailings to your home. They include photos of flashy high-end cars and well-maintained homes for a fraction of their value. What deals! Just call the toll-free number for more information.

Is there a catch? You bet!

The Real-ity Check
Some businesses are engaging in fraudulent marketing of auto and home auction guides. If you respond, you'll be pitched guides for autos and homes supposedly selling for pennies on the dollar. If you take the bait you'll be charged between $50 and $70 for each guide either on your credit card or through automatic withdrawal from your checking account. In some instances, salespeople say they'll include other guides as well. The catch: You'll be charged for those guides too, even though you never agreed to buy them. When your auction guides arrive, you see that they contain information that you can get elsewhere for free.

In some cases, the businesses bill credit cards or debit checking accounts even if you never agree to buy anything. The account information is obtained under false pretenses, such as a claim that the information is needed for verification purposes or to "hold" an order.

Don't Be Mis-Guided
Homes and cars are sold at auction, but you won't find the "deals" advertised by these fraudulent businesses. The auto auction guides they sell contain only general information about auto auctions and their addresses and phone numbers. In fact, cars sold at auctions typically sell for their fair market value. At many government sales, the items are appraised prior to sale and will not be sold if the bid price is below what is reasonable. The only cars that sell for $100 to $350 are damaged or junk vehicles purchased for scrap.

Further, government agencies do not regularly seize and then sell expensive high-end vehicles at auction. In fact, it's unusual for agencies to obtain high-end vehicles - even through drug seizures. When agencies do seize high-end cars, they often use the cars in undercover work. They're not offered to the public until they're too expensive to maintain. At that point, they're no longer considered high-end vehicles. If you find a seized car at auction, expect to pay market value.

The same holds true for foreclosed homes. Most well-maintained homes sell for close to their appraised value. The information in the guides is available for free to real estate brokers and the general public through Multiple Listing Services, newspapers and online resources. The houses that sell for significantly lower prices are in poor, often uninhabitable condition or located in unstable or unsafe communities.

How to Protect Yourself
Do your homework before you respond to an ad.

  • Information about federal government sales programs typically is available for free or at low cost from the government. Some agencies maintain mailing lists with the names of people who want to be notified about upcoming sales. In these cases, agencies may charge a subscription fee to maintain the list and cover mailing costs.

  • For information about upcoming sales, check the classified or business sections of national or local newspapers. Some government sales programs also advertise on local radio and television. Or you may see notices posted at post offices, town halls, and other local and federal government buildings.

  • Contact individual government agencies about their sales programs. For example, if you're interested in learning about the U.S. Marshals Service sales program, look under the Department of Justice in the "U.S. Government" listings in your phone book. Occasionally, current information on sales programs is published in trade papers like Commerce Business Daily. Check with your library or local Chamber of Commerce. Many maintain subscriptions for public use.

If you're still interested in responding to ads for auction guides:

  • Get the name of the company and check it out with consumer protection officials in your state and the state where the company is located. Consumer protection officials can tell you if there are any unresolved consumer complaints on file. One caveat: No record of complaints against a particular business doesn't necessarily mean no previous consumer problems. It may be that problems exist, but have not yet been reported, or that the business is operating under several different names.

  • Get a written copy of the return policy. Some fraudulent sellers of auction guides give consumers the impression that refunds are no problem. In fact, the businesses deceptively attach burdensome conditions on refunds that make refunds highly unlikely.

  • Pay by credit card. If you have a problem with merchandise or services that you charged to a credit card, and you make a good faith effort to work out the problem with the seller, you have the right to withhold payment for the merchandise or services. You can withhold payment up to the amount of credit outstanding for the purchase, plus any finance or related charges.

Where to Complain
The Federal Trade Commission online, or FTC Consumer Response Center (CRC), Washington, DC 20580, 202-FTC-HELP (382-4357), TDD 202-326-2502.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service through your local Postmaster. Or call 1-800-372-8347 for a Mail Fraud Complaint form by calling. You also may send an e-mail message to Fraud@uspis.gov and receive the form as an automatic response.

Other organizations that investigate fraud include your:

State Attorney General

State and local consumer protection offices

Local Better Business Bureau

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