By Max Breitenbach - www.silverdollarco.net for CoinWeek
When it comes to buying coins online, there are few better resources than eBay. As the world's single largest numismatic marketplace, eBay's selection can't be rivaled. Whether you're looking for a nice Memorial cent to fill out your cardboard folder or a PF-67 Stella, chances are somebody's selling it. Unfortunately for coin buyers, greater popularity means greater risk. As with any other type of online transaction, eBay sales are fraught with potential for scamming. Despite the best efforts of the eBay staff to crack down on scams, the website's numismatic section is full of overgraded and misrepresented coins.
But when all you're given is a couple pictures and a short description, how do you sort out the good deals from the bad?
As a private collector, I have bought and sold coins on eBay for nearly a decade. In that time, I have accumulated a substantial amount of experience dealing with honest and dishonest eBayers alike. It’s been my experience that the vast majority of eBay scams can be avoided through vigilance and caution on the part of the buyer. In this first part of an ongoing series on eBay Best Practices, I'm going to point out a couple of the most common eBay misrepresentation scams and discuss how to avoid them.
Perhaps the most commonly seen eBay scam is simple overgrading. Now, you might argue that coin grading is subjective, and that one man's MS-61 might be another man's MS-62. So if an eBay seller describes a nice raw VF-20 Barber half as a choice VF-25, you could give him the benefit of the doubt. But what I'm talking about goes beyond those minute grading differences, moving from an ethical grey area into straight-out scamming.
It has become a disturbingly common practice of many sellers on eBay to list Extra Fine and About Uncirculated coins as high Mint State. This scam is most commonly seen in Morgan dollar listings, where uncirculated coins can demand a substantial premium. To back up the outrageous grade claim, scammers will place the coin in a 2 X 2 cardboard flip and write on that flip various absurdities: "MS++++ Proof-Like!!! Blast White Gem @@@."
The seller might also write a ridiculous price on the flip, as if to imply that they originally purchased the coin for that much. The majority of these coins are circulated specimens that have been cleaned, polished, or harshly dipped to give them the illusion of a bright white surface and a higher grade.
But if these coins are marginal AU at best, why do people even buy them? Surely coin collectors will judge the proper value of a coin through the eBay listing's pictures, rather than the seller's biased description. Unfortunately, pictures can lie. eBay sellers routinely employ various methods of photo manipulation to improve the appearance of their coins.
Beware of coins that appear to have perfectly smooth surfaces. If the picture is very bright, chances are the seller purposely overexposed the photo to effectively erase all surface marks and scratches. Another common tactic is to enclose the coin in a hard plastic holder. The plastic obscures the surfaces of the coin just enough to give it the appearance of smooth, clean surfaces. Take a very close look at the high points of the coin's design to check for signs of wear. If the picture is too dark or blurry to make out minor design details, the seller is most likely trying to hide something. Caveat emptor.
Some buyers try to avoid these issues by sticking to “slabbed” coins, coins certified and graded by various professional grading services. But even slabbed coins have the potential for misrepresentation. For one thing, not all third-party grading services are equal.
While some have a reputation for strict grading, others are less reputable. At the top tier sit PCGS and NGC, closely followed by ICG and ANACS. These four have all earned solid reputations for consistent and honest grading. After that, the quality level drops sharply.
As an eBay buyer, I will willingly pay full book price for NGC and PCGS-graded coins, and a little less for ICG and ANACS. I won’t even consider buying a coin graded by any other company. The simple fact of the matter is that a SGS or PCI MS-66 coin might not even qualify for a MS-60 grading from PCGS.
Luckily, eBay has made it easier for buyers to shop only for coins graded by the first-tier grading services. Buyers can now sort eBay search results by Certification type, effectively eliminating the possibility of falling for an over-graded slab.
The final misrepresentation scam I’d like to discuss is one that many overly optimistic coin collectors fall prey to—listings of “unsearched” rolls or bags of coins.
The way many of these listings often work is that a seller claims he just inherited thousands of rare coins but he either doesn’t know anything about coins himself or doesn’t have the time to sort through them all. So because of his boundless generosity, he’s decided to sell off the coins unsorted. Who knows what the lucky buyer might find in that mystery pile of Wheat cents? But the reality is that very few eBay seller are generous or lazy enough to let valuable coins go unpicked. Some large well established numismatic companies do offer legitimate roll deals, however it is rare for a seller to let keys and semi-key dates slip through their hands for a bargain price.
Be carefull with any roll or lot of coins on eBay advertised as “unsearched” and most have been carefully picked through. A newer practice of these sellers is to sell a roll of coins, say Wheat cents, with two coins of a completely different series (i.e. Mercury dimes, Barber dimes, Indian Head cents) on either end of the roll. A couple of enterprising sellers have taken to placing the obverse side of a 1916 Mercury dime at the front of the roll and the reverse side of a Denver mint Mercury dime at the back of the roll, as if a couple of 1916-D dimes somehow found their way into a roll of Wheat pennies. The rolls then go on to sell for many times their actual value.
While most eBay coin sellers are honest and trustworthy, there are more than a few who misrepresent what they’re selling in order to make more money. In future articles, I’ll discuss some other important considerations when purchasing coins on eBay, including how to evaluate seller feedback scores and how to avoid counterfeits. I hope this article gave you some things to watch out for on your next eBay shopping spree. If nothing else, remember this maxim—if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Max Breitenbach has been collecting coins since he was 10 years old, and has been buying and selling coins on eBay for nearly a decade. His main interests are U.S. silver dollars and foreign silver crowns, though he’s also starting to develop an interest in ancients. He recently founded Silver Dollar Co., an online company that specializes in high-quality Peace and Morgan dollars. The mission of Silver Dollar Co. is to offer attractive, problem-free coins with completely unaltered photographs and accurate descriptions. Max also runs a regularly updated numismatic blog, The Silver Dollar Scoop.