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Shortcuts: Be an eBay expert

By Linnie Rawlinson for CNN
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(CNN) -- As the holiday season looms, our guide will help you pick up unique gifts with teeny price tags from eBay, the worldwide garage sale.

E-what? eBay. "The world's biggest online marketplace" was founded in 1995 by Pierre Omidyar, who set out to see if one man's junk truly was another's treasure. Eleven years later, it seems he was right: The site sees millions of items up for auction each day.

Why not the high street? A hand-picked, "not available in the shops" auction item can give your gift the personal touch. A Bob Dylan bootleg, a David Hasselhoff teddy bear or a vintage My Little Pony -- what better way to bring a smile (or a mystified look) to your loved ones' faces?

Read first, bid later: Has your magpie eye spotted something you fancy? While that genuine 70s lava lamp signed by Heather Locklear might look like a bargain, first check the small print. Read the auction description carefully (are you sure it's a genuine Mr. T autograph, not a pre-printed one? Is that coat Prada or Prada-style?) and examine the pictures -- you might only be seeing the front of that antique Tiffany lamp 'cause the side's got a big chunk chipped out of it.

Check the shipping: Before you bid, check the postage -- it can sting. A seller will often add their packing and eBay fees to the cost of shipping. Beware of some sellers (especially those in mainland China) who charge a nominal sum for the auction lot but whack on hefty shipping costs -- suddenly that priceless "Ming" vase isn't quite such a bargain.

Feedback is everything: Trust holds eBay together -- people leave positive, neutral or negative feedback based on their transactions. Over time, each user builds up a profile to indicate their level of trustworthiness and experience. Check your seller's feedback profile before you bid, and be wary of anyone whose feedback dips much below 99 percent. Seasoned eBayers often prefer to deal with established sellers, even if it costs a little more. (Firefox users can also get the "eBay Negs!" plugin to show all of a user's negative and neutral feedback at the click of a button.)

Bid as late as you can: Don't be hasty. The trick to winning an eBay auction at the best price is to bid as late as possible -- ideally within the last 10 seconds. This practice, known as "sniping", reduces the odds of someone else bidding against you and raising the price. Skulk around on eBay and wait for your auction to finish -- or sign up for an automated sniping service such as Auctionstealer or Bidnapper, which'll place a bid for you.

Pay safe: Cash, check, magic beans -- the auction should list the payment methods your seller accepts. Increasingly, buyers are paying via Paypal, eBay's sister company. It's integrated with eBay and offers more secure online spending, as your credit card details are never released to the seller.

If it doesn't arrive: Have you given your seller time to post it? Check when they said it'd be sent -- some can only ship once a week. International post takes longer -- even airmail between North America and Europe can regularly take a couple of weeks.

If it's still not arrived: If you've waited a while, both eBay and Paypal have systems in place to help fix transactions that go bad -- but you need to act sooner rather than later. Don't hold back from leaving negative feedback if you can't resolve a deal -- as well as giving you a venting outlet, it'll save others from throwing their money away.

Don't get carried away: As eBay will remind you, your bid is a contract and you're obliged to honor it. Didn't mean to pledge $200 for that Pinky & Perky album? Tough. But if you wake up one day and can't get out of the house because the front door's blocked with parcels, you may be an eBay addict -- there are support groups who can help.

If it looks too good to be true: It is. C'mon, seriously. What are the chances that your $15 Chanel handbag is real?

Make cash from your trash: Check out our guide to selling on eBay >>

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