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Snipe hunting

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This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 1, 2002
(Issue 2005, Your money online)

I'm not proud to admit it ... but I e-sniped on eBay.

Like most anyone who's ever bid on an online auction, I've manually sniped. But after my newly minted brother-in-law, Thom, sent me an e-mail about, I gave it a try. Won the auction, too (and am now eagerly awaiting a real, honest-to-gosh coffee percolator).

For the uninitiated, "sniping" in online auctions has nothing to do with high-powered rifles. Nor is it related to the harmless "snipe hunts" we used to inflict on the smaller kids when we were young (and which my kids may now do to others).

Rather, "sniping" on eBay and other auction sites is the act of waiting until the last second to place your bid, so that no one else has a chance to outbid you. Also, by waiting until only a few seconds remain to post your first bid, you don't contribute to an early driving up of the price.

When Thom first sent me the e-mail about, I wrote back to him that this seemed a bit underhanded. allows you to automate your sniping, and initially it struck me as, well, a bit sneaky.

Sensing my hostility to auto-sniping, Thom then proposed we write a pro-and-con piece on the eSnipe service – and volunteered to write the pro side, having been burned repeatedly in his efforts to get a pachinko machine by others who were clearly sniping in one form or another.

I agreed, and prepared to write a moralizing con article. Still, I figured I ought to give it a try before attacking it.

So I found two items I wanted that weren't much, signed up for the eSnipe service, and entered my bids.

And now the benefits seem clear, at least for buyers.

First and foremost is scheduling. Who wants to tell their friends, "Hey, love to meet you for dinner, but I have to camp out in front of my computer so I don't get outbid for a ceramic Elvis candy dish"?

eSnipe obviously addresses this concern for you. When you enter a snipe bid on eSnipe, you indicate how many seconds before the end you want it entered. eSnipe won't guarantee your bid placement, but does advertise that their servers are good to within 4 seconds of the closing of an auction. I placed both my bids at seven seconds before auction end just to be sure.

Another advantage to automated sniping is that you don't get caught up in a bidding war and ending up spending more than you wanted to (or can afford) on an item. Sellers obviously won't like this feature much, but as the mental health care community and financial professionals are already issuing warnings about how online bidding fever can lead to financial ruin for those with self-discipline issues, using a sniping service may be smart.

There are quite a few automated sniping utilities out there.- eSnipe was just the first one that came to my attention. eSnipe offers a free two-week trial period, after which you pay a small percentage of all bids won via eSnipe.

Other sniping services include Bidnapper, which offers three free winning snipes before you have to pay, and AuctionStealer, which gives you two free winning snipes per year.

If you have DSL or a cable modem, you might try one of the auto-sniping utilities you install and run from your own home computer. There is iSnipeIt and EZBid. The advantage to these over the online services is, obviously, no transaction fees. In addition, you don't have to give anyone else your eBay screen name and password as you do with the services. Disadvantages? A big one is that if your connection goes buggy while your PC is trying to place a bid, you're out of luck. (Of course, the same thing could happen to the sniping services' connections, as well, but supposedly they're paying for more reliable commercial connections than your low-priority residential account.)

And there are countless other sniping services and software titles out there – it's an incredible volatile market right now, and it's hard to see all of them suriviving – the above seem more entrenched than some of the others, and more likely to still be in business as you actually read this several weeks after its written.

So does using eSnipe make me a hypocrite?

Actually, I think it makes me smart enough to realize when I'm wrong. eBay clearly can't stop manual sniping, and using a sniping agent on your behalf is no different than hiring someone to manage your bids, which would be perfectly legal and ethical. By using a sniping agent, I'm less likely to overbid or overspend – in spirit and design, sniping is simply akin to a closed-bid auction.

I can understand why sellers dislike sniping, but all in all, it seems to be that the sniping services and software are fair and reasonable.

I'm hooked, anyway.