There are many reasons to try your hand at online auctions--the bargains, the selection, the fun of competing--but the most oddly compelling one may be the freakish things people try to hock. I recently watched a seller on eBay attempt to unload a "half cup of back hair from the back of a very hairy man." There were more than six bids on the errant follicles, and bidding had exceeded $70.

For those interested in walking this particular area of the Web fringe, there are two main types of auction. One kind is run by companies that are themselves selling the products in question or closely tied with third-party suppliers for the same purpose. The other kind allows anyone to buy or sell; the site merely acts as a combination electronic go-between and barker. With either kind, you can wind up with all kinds of bizarre and sometimes useful stuff--but you have to do your homework and understand the risks of online auctions.

OnSale.com http://www.onsale.com is a leading example of the first sort of auction. The advantage to consumers here is that in case of a problem, you have some recourse beyond hate mail; these companies have addresses, phone numbers and customer service departments, and since they take credit cards, you can also have your bank go to bat for you. But these companies' higher overhead costs tend to raise starting prices. Also, many of their vendors are companies you've probably never heard of, which can cause a certain amount of buyers' anxiety.

The second, more interesting, type of auction, at such sites as eBay http://www.ebay.com and Amazon.com http://www.amazon.com can offer better deals and a much more interesting range of products, but at a higher risk--given that you rarely know the seller at all. And if you think consumers can get burnt by sellers, remember that it's usually worse for most sellers, especially those with a lot of business on these sites. These folks usually insist on payment via bank check or money order; some will accept personal checks, but will wait for the check to clear before shipping the product.

If something goes wrong--whether it's dishonesty on the part of the seller, delayed or lost shipments or just getting something other than what you expected--your check has already cleared. Buyers need to stay aware here.

The way to do that is to do some homework before going on a bidding spree. Check out every seller before placing a bid--most auction sites have feedback forums where people who have done business with the seller can post messages about him or her for others to read. If you find too many negative or even just noncommittal opinions about the seller, think twice. Most auction sites will evict sellers with too many bad reviews, but there can be a substantial time lag between complaints getting posted and a seller getting booted from the site.

EBay offers an additional precaution--electronic escrow services to handle the exchange of item and money. This takes extra time and involves an additional fee on the part of the buyer, but if you're risking anything above $500 it's worth it. This way, you can inspect the merchandise before having the payment sent on to the seller--and you can pay by credit card, after which the escrow service simply converts your payment to cash. EBay also insures all transactions up to $200, less a $25 deductible; read its guidelines so you know how and when to file a claim.

But the most effective method of electronic buying protection, is to use your own common sense. Look for items where it's not hard to verify that you're getting what you paid for, remember that some deals can be too good to be true, and keep aware of the new-unit cost for something before you bid up too high. Just because the item appears on an auction site does not automatically mean that it's being sold for a good price.

But with your head planted on your shoulders, you can have a lot of fun here. Online auctions can seem like a Byzantine bazaar, but they're pure capitalism at its finest--anything from anyone at any price.

SOME AUCTION SITES ON THE WEB:

Amazon auctions

http://www.amazon.com

The online book/CD store is looking to compete directly with eBay.

American Flower Auction

http://www.flowerauction.com

As the name implies, a plant auction.

boxLot

http://www.boxlot.com

Another newcomer in the one-on-one auction game, but with a good selection of categories.

Collecting Nation

http://www.collectingnation.com

Auction site dedicated to selling collectible items of all kinds.

eBay

http://www.ebay.com

Over 1,000 auction categories and roughly a million auctions a day.

Lycos auctions

http://www.lycos.com

A search engine that culls auctions from other auction sites into one central area.

OnSale

http://www.onsale.com

Large auction vendor selling their own stock of warehoused products.

Yahoo auctions

http://www.yahoo.com

Yahoo's search engine brand of one-on-one bidding.

RELATED SITES:

BidXS Meta-Auctions

http://www.bidxs.com

A site that searches over 500 auction sites for the item you want.

The Internet Auction List

http://www.internetauctionlist.com

A Web portal site to the entire online auction community.

Ruby Lane

http://www.rubylane.com

A search engine that checks all mafor auction and shopping sites for antiques.

SecureTrades.com

http://www.securetrades.com

An escrow service for auction users.