They’re holding an auction at that old carpet warehouse on the City Road,” says a friend of mine eagerly.

Should be right up your street” Should be, but isn’t. The flyer he is holding doesn’t relate to a real auction. Although the cheaply printed sheet of paper doesn’t say so, he is being asked to attend a mock auction, sometimes known as a one-day sale.

Many people will have received leaflets advertising sales that boast the most unbelievable bargains. They are usually posted through the letterboxes of residents living near the venue. The leaflet will promise amazing bargains mainly on electrical and household goods. Most are covered with names of well-known products and brands. The happy householders read with growing excitement about the whole host of famous-brand televisions, DVD players, stereo systems and other electrical goods which are to be sold off at rock-bottom prices”.

Often a spurious reason for the so-called sale is given, generally along the lines of liquidated stock” or bankrupt business”. Unnamed creditors are sometimes cited as the reason for these unbelievable bargains”. Unbelievable is right. If you go to a mock auction, you will be ripped off, albeit with some style.

While a real auction will generally contain some bargains and a little bit of theatre, a mock auction is all theatre and no bargain, unless you are a collector of dubious sales patter. Here are some typical lines:

I’m not asking £100, I’m not asking £50, or £20 or £10. Who will give me just £1?”

Who will give me £10 for what I’m thinking?”

The lady’s bid £50 but I’m going to let her have it for £10!”

This is not an auction!”

This is not a mock auction!”

I can’t give you free gifts, so please give my assistant a penny!”

Now, remember, don’t open this till the end of the sale!”

Now, remember, don’t open this till Christmas!”

The last two lines are probably the most telling. If you go to a mock auction, you will be buying rubbish, and they don’t want you to discover the fact until it’s too late for you to do anything about it.

Sales like this make for great entertainment, but that is not a good enough reason to go.

If you attend one, the chances are that you will be caught up in a two-hour show by the front man, who uses psychological selling techniques which confuse purchasers so that they don’t know what they are getting and what price they will pay. Ultimately, the fantastic, branded goods will not be available and the products the punters actually end up buying are cheap, poor-quality goods being sold at exorbitant prices.

Typically, the front man up hints to the audience that there will be other treats available if they make an initial purchase. The goods are stacked by the stage or raised on a platform, and they do look tempting. Such treats are never made available, but, because of these implied promises, members of the public get really excited about the sale, and, thinking they will get a bargain, almost beg the organisers to take their £20, £50 or even £100 for a wrapped product that they haven’t even seen.

One of the reasons that they are so keen to part with their money is that, while they haven’t seen the goods, they have seen (or think that they have seen) other, braver members of the audience pick up bargains in the early part of the sale, while they themselves were too scared to bid. These brave early bidders are invariably planted in the audience, and the goods they seem to buy are for show only. By the time the real selling happens, all that is being sold is junk which is either faulty or worth only a fraction of what is paid for it.

During the sale, the seller will make jokes, and poke fun at the assistants. ‘Come-ons’, like the ones quoted earlier, will be bandied about. They will start by selling cheap goods at low prices. Then the goods will start to look better in quality, but the prices will still be very low. This is when the plants and the stooges appear to be walking away with the bargains and the innocent are drawn into the trap. Before long, however, the prices will go up and the quality of the goods will go down.

Like all the best con tricks, the mock auction relies on the victim to do most of the work, as the old saying goes, you can’t cheat an honest man.

Greed tends to motivate the people who go along and it makes them forget the most basic rules of buying. They don’t know what they are getting. They don’t know how much they are paying. All they know is that there is the vague promise of some real good gear, and we are practically giving it away, lady!”

Sometimes the seller will hint, with a nod and a wink, that the goods may be a bit, you know, dodgy. If they ain’t hot, they are certainly a bit warm, knowworimean?” Fallen off the back of a lorry, these have‚ “nah, nah, I’m only kiddin’!'” By doing this he involves the audience in a little conspiracy. Shush, it’s our secret. The audience feel they are living on the edge a little. Of course, it explains why the seller isn’t showing the goods openly and why he is only hinting at what they are‚Äö but that’s all right; it’s our secret.

Isn’t it funny that if you deliberately tell people that you are a bit dodgy then they will often trust you more than if you claimed to be entirely honest? By hinting that the stuff may be bent, the seller has made it even less likely that the punter will try to complain when he finds out that the goods are rubbish. Looking foolish is bad enough, but it’s difficult to complain when you may have taken part in a criminal activity and have tried , and failed, to be a receiver of stolen goods. Strangely enough, of course, the goods are rarely stolen, but then they don’t need to be. The punters haven’t seen them until it’s too late anyway.

Unfortunately, most victims do not realise what they have actually purchased until it is too late and, when they do find out, they rarely have the nerve, let alone the ability, to try to get in touch with the seller. Even if they could, they would probably have little redress.

After every mock auction, the local Trading Standards Office receives numerous complaints about the shoddy goods people have purchased. There is rarely anything that they can do to help, partly because the identity of the seller is usually not known, but crucially because in many cases no actual criminal offence has been committed. Goods have been sold on a nod and a wink; everything has been hinted at, nothing has been promised. The Mock Auction Act of 1961 is sometimes used to prosecute rogue traders, but the best defence one has is not to be fooled into attending in the first place.

Still, it can sometimes be difficult to identify the genuine sales from the con men; so, if you go to a venue you aren’t sure about (like a short-let shop, leisure centre or church hall), be wary and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you know how much you will have to pay? Be careful if the buying of goods is, or seems to be, restricted to people who have bought previous lots.
  • Do you know whom you are buying goods from? Make sure you know the name and address to write to if you are unhappy with what you buy. Remember that, unlike a shop purchase, you will not be able to return goods the next day and often firms holding sales are based hundreds of miles from the sale.
  • Do you know if you are getting a bargain? Make sure you know how much the same goods would cost in the High Street, don’t take the salesman’s word for it (this is true for any genuine auction too, come to think of it).
  • Try to avoid being caught up in the atmosphere of a sale. Do not buy if you do not really want the goods (again, this is sensible advice at any genuine sale).
  • Are the goods in plain view and numbered like they would be in most auction sales?
  • If in doubt, walk away.

If you find out about a mock auction/one-day sale occurring in your local area, your local Trading Standards Service will be interested to hear about it. Contact them and help to save your neighbours from being ripped off.

There are plenty of genuine auctions to go to throughout Britain, and many of these are featured in the listings pages. Genuine auctions give you the chance to inspect what you buy and to bid in a way that lets you know exactly how much you are offering. At a genuine auction you will pay sensible prices for the lots you buy, and every now and then you will have the chance to pick up a real bargain.

None of this applies at a mock auction or one-day sale, where you will be confused, rooked and robbed.

Here are ten tips to avoid being ripped off at a mock auction.

1. Be smart, don’t go.

2. Take a good look at the leaflet, as this is generally the first clue that something is amiss. This normally arrives either the day before or on the day of the sale itself. It will contain the venue, time of sale and an indication of items available but little other information except puff and flannel.

3. Sometimes prices are listed on the flyer and you should compare these with the normal selling prices. If substantial savings are being offered, be on your guard. Ask yourself, do reputable auction houses normally advertise by pushing flyers through the door? Do Sony and Panasonic usually allow their goods to be sold for a fraction of list price in scout huts and boarded-up charity shops?

4. Have you heard of the auctioneers who are listed on the flyer or in the newspaper? The chances are that you won’t have and that they will be from out of town‚ surprise, surprise.

5. If you go, be on your guard. Make sure you know what you are buying. Often the goods that have been advertised on the leaflet or displayed in the saleroom are not actually sold at the sale.

6. Be careful of sealed boxes and bags, how do you know what is in the container? If you cannot inspect the goods before buying, and trust me, you won’t be able to, be aware that you may not get what you expect.

7. Be aware that those who appear to be buying in the early stages of the auction may be stooges planted in the audience.

8. Watch out for the lock-out, where the seller suddenly pretends that he can’t sell the item because it’s just too cheap!” A big con is likely to follow.

9. Guard your purse or wallet carefully!

10. Be smart, don’t go.

Roger Thornhill

Our thanks to Reading Borough Council’s Trading Standards Department for their help in the preparation of this article.

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