There's the old adage that "a fool and his money are soon parted," but there's often a different factor at work with scammers preying on Magic players, and it's as old as the confidence game itself. Since so much money changes hands in Magic, the market attracts scammers, just like most other markets. The biggest arena that I see this in is in auction collections on eBay. I've been drawn in before, as have many other people, and this week, I'll share how you can both avoid scams and profitably look for collections on eBay.
The setup: how the scammer gets you snared.
Call it a hustle, a scam, a game or whatever - the setup is different but the objective is the same. There's this persistent notion that a con, short for "confidence game," involves tricking someone. Sure, the allure of a deal is big, but the best cons and the most frequent cons are ones that get the mark (you!) to feel like you are tricking the scammer! The con artist puts you in a position where you think you can take advantage of them. Of course, you're an amateur and they're a professional. The most savage cons and swindles involve this approach - they give some vulnerability away and say "exploit me!" In the meantime, they're making away with your loot.
With eBay auctions, the scam follows a pattern. Someone has a bunch of old cards and they don't know what they are. They post two pictures of boxes filled with cards and a list of Revised rares. Maybe they tucked a Bayou into that list. That gets bidders going nuts, wondering what else is in there. They want to exploit the vulnerability of this person who "just found these in my son's closet" and get boxes brimming with Black Lotuses. Instead, this is typically what they get:
Drunk on the idea of finally getting one of those dream boxes filled with goodies, people put up massive amounts of money for unseen cards. The scammers depend on this. They fill those boxes with trashy commons. They fall back on "I had no idea what was in there anyway!" They play you because they get an eBay account with no Magic purchases in the feedback history. This can be one they created or just got from a friend - a friend who will take a few negative feedback ratings to make a couple hundred dollars in the exchange.
The old adage that "you cannot con an honest man" rings true. If you find yourself thinking "I am going to get such a deal on this!," remember that there are people who are very good at setting up a scene to make you feel that way. In the pic above, the person had split about 15,000 cards into 1,000-count lots. Most sold for $125-200. That's a $3,000 profit on a good day for a scam.
There are no "sure bets" in eBay collections any more.
You'll never see collections sell any more online where the price of the auction is less than the pictured, listed rares and other hot cards in the listing. This is because you and everyone else is tallying up the price of the cards that they know that they can get rid of and then they're determining how much risk they can bear on the "unseen" cards. I think eBay is still a great place to buy up collections, especially Standard-rich collections. It's a good way to get trade stock and the tools for good decks. Good collections that you see listed will have photos of everything and they will have lists of all the playable rares. These are the collections of people who are getting out of tournament play for whatever reason and they know that the cards are valuable. These are strong collections to bid on because you can pretty significantly price everything out. You don't take many risks.
I was on a foil kick awhile back and I saw an excellent collection of foils. It had a foil Tangle Wire and Thran Dynamo, which was about $45 combined at the time. There were other Urza- and Masques-era cards in the lot. Nothing spectacular, but not absolute trash, either. Unfortunately, the seller did not take photos of every page of foils and just listed highlights. This made sure that bidding went out of control, because other bidders were going nuts over what they could not see. The final bidder paid about $180 for what I put at about $75. They probably lost money.
People will "seed" auctions to look hotter.
I don't know if that foil auction was intentionally seeded or not; when someone won't show you the rest of what you're buying, you have to assume that they're only showing you expensive things for a reason. I could easily buy a foil Tangle Wire and a few other choice cards, then get some era-specific foils that were awful and mix them in. You can make obscene amounts of money for the effort doing this, because people still count on the hidden gems that they can't see.
A person I knew once sold off the remnants of his collection by holding back some good cards and seeding his pictures. He remembered the mentality of players around Revised, so he made sure to set that narrative in his auction. His "big money rares" picture showed three Shivan Dragons, a Vesuvan Doppelganger, a Mox Emerald and a Lord of the Pit. See what he snuck in there? He even mentioned "I know this Emerald was expensive when I first opened it and I paid $15 each for those Shivan Dragons." He effectively sold a Mox Emerald and thousands of old, junk commons and bulk rares for about five times the value of the Emerald.
This is especially effective because the first thing a suspicious person is going to look for is "do they know what they have?" When he says sure, the Emerald is worth more and he's sure the Dragons are, too, you're going to trust him and believe that he's got box brimming with dual lands. A good con man knows how to disarm all of these warning bells and replace them with a slobbering, greedy imp in your head that shrieks "rip this poor sucker off!"
When you see something suspiciously placed in an auction, stay away. The Tropical Island next to Thoughtlace is a trap.
There are "hot words" and phrases that should instantly scream SCAM.
Let's begin with the obvious: if it says "found in a closet/basement/yard sale," it is a scam.
If they were cards that a roommate or a boyfriend left, it's a scam. Nobody leaves 10,000 magic cards at their ex's house if there's anything of value in there. Magic players are not stupid people.
If someone says "I really don't know anything about them and don't have the time or desire to learn so I am just going to let these auctions run their course and let you guys decide what they are worth," it's a scam. That's from a "crazy ex-boyfriend" auction. Most people who know how to use the internet know someone who plays Magic. Alternately, they Google "how much are Magic cards worth?" and see a bunch of Yahoo answers of people saying "take these to a local game store and they will give you a fair price. They are worth a lot."
Any sob story is a scam. Occasionally, the mom selling the cards in the closet happens at yard sales. It does not happen on eBay.
How far can people take this?
Or as a corollary, how stupid can people be? Just take a look at this auction:
Ebay deletes listings after three months, so see it while you can - this is #220940463434 and it's worth looking at for a study in scammery. I don't expect that any Insider would bid on this obvious hustle, but you can see many hallmarks of a good scammer. Why have they only taken pictures of money cards in the binder? The green page has a few cropped hints at what's on the other side - Reiki, History of Kamigawa and Midsummer Revel, among other stinkers. If they didn't know what was in the collection, why did they photograph this page of solid gold instead of that one? The trend miraculously continues across all other images. Where's the binder page with Celestial Dawn, Spiritual Focus, Raksha the Slayer and other stinkers? It's in there, but you'll only see it if you win this pile of crap.
Further, anyone taking a photo of a page full of rares has got to be curious about what they're worth. They would likely punch in "Rofellos" into eBay, see that it's worth money, and then at least list him in the auction description.
This is a good scam from a scammer's prospective because they turned about $120 in rares from expensive times of Magic into $3,100. You could set this whole thing up in a weekend afternoon if you felt inclined. The scammer messed up one thing, though - one thing that could have gotten them possibly another thousand dollars.
They don't have any feedback.
A few bucks spent on buying t-shirts with cats on them, a new towel rod and a home decorating book could have easily sold the "we found this in the attic" story.
Don't be scared - be informed!
This shouldn't scare you off of buying collections on eBay, but it should educate you about the warning signs to notice. I suggest sticking to buying collections of rares that are listed and photographed; that don't have phony 'found in closet' stories attached; and that are valued at about what you'd pay for the listed cards, anyway. I invite people who have had successful and intelligent collection purchases on eBay to let me know what your experience was like in the comments section below!
Until next week,
(I actually have a page with Celestial Dawn, Spiritual Focus and Raksha the Slayer in a binder :\ )