The next time you're casually perusing the listings on eBay, watch out. EBay isn't the same bidder-friendly place it used to be when it first carried novelty items in the 1990s.
Speedy and meticulous calculators are lurking on every page now. And these quick shots are taking aim at the same items you're coveting. They're so quick, with the click of a button, they can outsmart and outbid you.
They're known as snipers. And they're fast - very fast.
Snipers are a growing group of eBay users who keep an eye on items as others bid for them over a period of time. In the dying moments of an auction, within the last seconds, snipers get in a bid before everyone else has a chance to respond. Five" four" three"
Ka-pow. A direct kill. Bugs Bunny stuffed collectible, sold to Bidstoofast for $52.
Essentially, sniping allows a bidder to mask his or her interest in an item, and before you know it you're pulling your hair in frustration because your bid just missed the mark.
It's not about bidding any more on eBay. It's all about sniping. If you're quick-witted enough to discreetly hold back your bid until the final moments of an auction, you'll often hit the mark.
In a bloodthirsty bid war for a first-edition Green Eggs And Ham, by Dr. Seuss (1960), a few weeks ago, 12 bidders rose to the challenge. The bid started at $10 on the first day. But as Iclarabel appeared to have the final say at $205.99 on the fourth day, the item was sniped for $208.49 with six seconds left. Iclarabel had some nasty words for the sniper.
EBay should really hang a disclaimer on its Internet portal. Bidders Beware: Firing Overhead.
There's nothing illegal about sniping, in case you've thought about reporting one of these hit-and-runs.
"Any bid placed before an auction ends is legal," says Alexandra Brown, spokesperson for eBay Canada.
But snipers have an unfair advantage. Most have very fast computer or cellphone connection speeds that allow bids to be entered in the final seconds. The scarier thing is, snipers have evolved. They've not only overcome speed barriers but have even circumvented the need to be online to manually bid.
Why snipe when you can get someone else to do the dirty work?
Sites like Bidnapper.com , eSnipe.com , auctionstealer.com and bidrobot.com encourage would-be snipers to come to them. For a small fee, you can turn over your eBay log-on and password, indicate the items you have your eye on and staff will snipe your items on your behalf.
This is known as third-party bidding, also permissible according to eBay policy. You don't have to be online or even at a computer.
"When I first joined eBay, I was going nuts trying to keep up with all the bidding," says Golfren, an Auctionsniper.com user.
"Auction Sniper takes all the frustration out of the game and allows you to sit back and smell the flowers."
The sniping agent keeps an eye on the auctions and takes care of the bidding for you, but only up to the maximum you allow for any particular item.
So "true bidders" can take some solace. Snipers won't always win. They still have to outbid you. If you place a pre-set maximum bid of $52 and a sniper shoots $50 in the dying seconds, his snipe will fall short.
The pre-set maximum is known as a "proxy bid," and it's the only safeguard for bidders.
"At the end of the day, it's the person who bids the most," Brown says. "If you register a proxy you have a chance to win."
EBay isn't planning to restrict snipers, but there could be a designated section that by law, or eBay policy, prohibits sniping. It can be done the same way a person logs on to play games on Yahoo.
You have the choice of going into the beginner room, where guppy bidders can't get devoured, or the intermediate or advanced rooms.
Those who snipe in the wrong room can be reported to eBay authorities and potentially have their accounts cancelled or be prosecuted by future laws. Let's at least try to level the playing field again for us slow-minded users.
"The eBay community is incredibly vocal through discussion boards. If the community made a point about sniping, we would respond to it," Brown says.
Brown says eBay will consider an education initiative in the future on how to inform users about proxy bidding and why it works against sniping.
For now, if you think a sniper is watching an item, your time is better spent finding another seller with the same or a similar item rather than trying to race him or her to the finish line.
And be sure to check out some of my listings on eBay. Today's featured items: bulletproof kevlar vests.