Auction Report

On shills and chandeliers: The murky world of fake bids

by David Zenlea
1 April 2022 4 min read
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Photo by Courtesy Bring a Trailer

Most of the internet has been abuzz with The Slap, but for those of us who spend time in the car-obsessed corners of social media, this week has actually been all about The Shill. For those of you who missed out: A 240SX initially represented on Bring a Trailer with 590 miles drove into crosshairs of savvy commenters, who pointed out various signs that the car had undergone significant paint work. Bring a Trailer modified the description, but comments soon spotted another, even more serious issue: The high bidder was none other than the seller, Gary Duncan of Duncan Imports.

Most of the reporting thus far, including on YouTube and The Drive, has focused primarily on the players—what Duncan intended; what Bring a Trailer (who pulled the listing) knew or should have known; and the vital role of car forums, as much of the debunking happened on Zilvia.net. All good questions, but we were more interested in the game: Is the instance of shill bidding we just witnessed an aberration, or is it rare only in that the shill bidder got caught?

We spoke to several industry insiders about the listing. None wanted to go on record, both for fear of antagonizing Bring a Trailer—a vital outlet for sellers these days—and because much is still unclear about this incident. Nevertheless, almost everyone we spoke to agreed upon two points: 1) Shill bidding is not uncommon 2) It happens everywhere, but might be easier to do online.

Let’s start with the second point. Everyone we spoke to was careful to note that issues with bidder authenticity have been going on as long as there have been auctions and still occur regularly at in-person sales.

Start with the fact that at in-person auctions, the auctioneer is legally allowed to bid a car up to its reserve price (a practice known as “chandelier bidding”). This is why Insider is typically careful to describe an unsold car’s high bid as “reported.” It’s also not unheard of for a seller’s friends or associates to raise a paddle. The speed and frenetic energy of in-person auctions—which auctioneers are trained to cultivate—can also lend themselves to funny business.

Yet there are some natural brakes on nefarious actors. First and foremost, auctioneers want to sell the cars, not just call out high prices. Shill bidders create a real risk of driving the price too high for the actual bidders, and sending the consigner and auction company home with nothing to show for their efforts. For this reason, an auctioneer will often exercise restraint even in the “legitimate” chandelier bidding. In many cases an auction company will decide to waive some of its fees to get a consigner to let a car go under the reserve price—not an option if the high bid is imaginary. Reputable auction companies also go to great lengths to verify the identities of bidders and to ban those who break their rules.

Most of the above safeguards also apply at online auctions. None of the platforms want shill bidders for the very reasons we saw this week—it can result in reputational cost, not to mention an unsold car. Most platforms, Bring a Trailer included, require a credit card and other identity checks to register as a bidder. Online auctions also have some inherent advantages when it comes to transparency: They usually elapse over a longer period—”More time for bidders to take cold showers,” as one dealer put it—and provide ample opportunity for third-party experts to uncover shady activity, which is exactly what happened with the 240SX.

Yet there are also advantages for potential shill bidders online. The most obvious is the anonymity the internet provides. Duncan happened to use a known account tied to him (and has claimed, both on Bring a Trailer and to The Drive, that he was not trying to mislead others); the more devious and harder to detect move would be to create a different account or ask a buddy to bid. Online auction companies try to verify identities behind accounts, but most admit it’s a tall task, given the numbers—Bring a Trailer alone claims 300,000 registered bidders in addition to 700,000 commenters. There’s also the fact that most online auction companies, compared to their in-person peers, have less skin in the game. Most do not take physical possession of the car or title, nor are they party to the actual transaction.

Oftentimes, the shill bidding becomes apparent to end users only in retrospect. If a car gets listed as “sold” then reappears at auction weeks later, something might be up. A much higher than expected sale price might also be a sign of illegitimate activity (although it’s just as likely to be just an outlier).

No matter the platform, shill bidding is unfortunately baked into the auction format, where you have many people competing for a financial and psychological edge. “Saying you can stop shill bidding is like saying you can exist on earth without water,” quipped one expert. A bidder’s only protection is their own knowledge and skepticism: Research how much a car is worth before placing a bid and be wary of getting caught in the heat of the moment. Of course, these personal protections are no different than what one should take when buying a car from anyone. As the same expert noted, “I’ve been ripped off far worse by a private seller than I ever have been at auction.”

Comments

  • Keith says:

    Please tell us that Duncan and his business is forever barred from BAT. Real POS

  • Matt Wright says:

    The final statement here says it all. Pay what you feel is right in your heart and your (hopefully) educated mind. The shill is nothing new, and an incurable fault in any auction platform.

  • Harvey A Ward Jr says:

    I placed bids on a GMCMC In a San Diego, CA auctioned sponsored by a Canadian third party promoter. Everytime I bid my concious increase by $500 each time (3 in a row) was met with an instant automatic $100 bidding increment. I was never informed that there was an automatic bidding increase process to compete with from my deaf text phone. After the 3rd instant increment, I withdrew from the bidding process sensing an illegal “bid rigging” practice by an unfair internally involved bidder until the auction finished at it’s time and date. Is it possible this was a case of “Shrill” bid rigging?
    I consulted my my USMC granddaughter who and her USMC husband lived in the area and had been in service to our country, and was warned that California is loaded with auto auction fraudsters!
    Thank you.

  • Tom Fair says:

    As a early BaT user I agree completely with your comments, I met Randy, Howard,( actually knew his father), and Zach at LRP BaT reunion…i set a record yea ago with a 300 TD-T at $35,000 , have bought and sold a small number of cars….I bought a Disco off FB market Friday, car arrived practically on a ‘shovel’ it was such a Fright Pig, compared to description and phots…. All from a nice civilian
    Lawyer….6 personal cars currently on Hagerty….👍

  • cigarmerchant says:

    BaT seems to be more of a novelty in that most of their listings are cars to oogle over and would hate to be in a bidding war with someone who could be a shill for the seller or even the seller as stated here. Though I watch the listings daily, the thought of actually buying one is far fetched. Many of the cars seem to be California based which means that even if I won an auction it would cost a fortune to ship it to Georgia.

    • Jonathan Drabek says:

      It’s important to do your homework on the vehicle you are looking for. Ask questions, seek an inspection- at your expense, then make an informed decision. I feel most sellers will present what they have honestly and answer questions. It’s still up to the bidder to make a decision. I would not look at this case and make a blanket assumption this happens even 5% of the time. Auction sites need to monitor who is registered to help protect the general bidders from some who practice shilling.

  • Robert Murch says:

    I see this all the time, some on BaT and a lot in “live” auctions. I’m not a huge fan of BaT because of the “commentators”. These people may serve a valuable purpose, but often they are offering “opinions” couched as actual knowledge. An example is a 1975 280Z I put on BaT several years ago. It actually had only about 5500 miles on it. I know it for a fact, I bought it from a collector on the East Coast and it had good documentation. A couple of the commentators ranted and raved about how it was impossible for a car that was 45 years old to only have this mileage. Their totally uninformed comments detracted from the price, and it did not make my reserve. So yes, be careful about shill bidding, but also be careful about people posing as experts…you could miss a rare find. The 280 Z people certainly did….I recently sold it for wayyy more than the original reserve to a private buyer.

  • Redvette2 says:

    I was fooled as to the condition and originality of a long distance car buy a few years ago. Did not see it first and even though I had it inspected, it was not even close to being as represented. I will never buy a car again without personally reviewing it myself.

    • Don says:

      You just confirmed why I will not buy at an auction.

      • Jim says:

        I was watching an auction a month ago where there was a car I was really interested in purchasing. I could buy a really low mileage example with all the right options, and low mileage, garage kept, southern car for about $7,000.00 to 8,000.00 and had missed a couple at the $7,400.00 price range. I decided to look at an auction and found one that was perfect for me, and the bidding had reached about $7,000.00 and I put in what I considered a reasonable $7,500.00 hoping that nobody would beat me in the next 10 minutes. Lo and behold, someone snuck in at the last minute with a bid of $11,5000.00. It was apparently someone with more money than brains.

        That turned me off on the auction scene.

        • jim says:

          sorry, that was $11,500.00, finger slipped.

          • dantheman says:

            I’ve seen (mostly on EBay) where the bid stops at a point until close to the end and then jumps.
            It seems to be that the high bidder has a max bid that hasn’t been touched.
            Someone comes in and bids it past that high bidders max. price so th bid stops at the next high increment.
            That bid wins the action. Shortly after that you get an email from the item’s owner asking if you want it for the one bid higher that the winning bid or at the winning bid. The explanation being that the winner isn’t following through with the purchase.
            I have watched cars that I have bid on get re-auctioned with this excuse.

    • Mike Deni says:

      There is no substitute for inspecting any potential vehicle purchase yourself. Having said that, expert help in areas you may not have experience with certainly is recommended.

      I’ve been a wholesale buyer in used consumer market vehicles for almost 40 years and shill bidding has always been a challenge. It’s been even more difficult to detect since the advent of digital bidding, especially at a “hybrid” sale, which all physical dealer only auctions have adopted, where both live and online bids are submitted simultaneously.

  • DT says:

    Please let’s not be so nonchalant about these practices. Auction Companies and sellers profit by these unethical schemes and the result is buyers actually paying more than market prices. But it’s not just these schemes that are bad, the very worst is odometer rollbacks. It sickens me to see vehicles advertised with misaligned odometer numbers and yet dealers and owners advertise “original low mileage”. When questioned the typical response is: I have an odometer statement signed by the seller” or “the vehicle is more than 10 years old and exempt”. It’s time to reiterate to all – LET THE BUYER BEWARE!

    • Michael Benét says:

      DT. You cannot be serious. Misaligned odometer? You sir need to do more research. From Alfa to Jaguar to Chrysler, Lamborghini and beyond. Odometers do not by any stretch of the imagination roll straight consistently. To condemn a car for a misaligned digit is for amateurs. Next you will tell us that we shoudl only buy Carfax certified vehicles.

      • DT says:

        Michael+Benet, you sir no nothing about odometers. I serviced and repaired odometers for 45 years. Numbers should mechanically align as EACH NEW FULL MILE is recorded. When 10s, 100s and 1000s are not in alignment, there is a non factory mechanical misalignment. Novices or dishonest sellers who tamper with mechanical odometers generally are not experienced nor knowledgeable as to the specific steps and in what specific order those steps must be performed to align the rolling wheel system of a mechanical odometer. Any one cog not in specific alignment will misalign the 10/100/100 reels. I’ve serviced thousands and can easily ascertain a rollback when I see one. Additionally, rollbacks can easily be determined by a professional examination of the back side of the cluster that houses the odometer system. Especially when those who tamper, leave behind their fingerprints on the tamper proof strips.

      • DT says:

        M+B you sir are not an expert on odometers. I serviced and repaired odometers for 45 years. Numbers should mechanically align as EACH NEW FULL MILE is recorded. When 10s, 100s and 1000s are not in alignment, there is a non factory mechanical misalignment. Novices or dishonest sellers who tamper with mechanical odometers generally are not experienced nor knowledgeable as to the specific steps and in what specific order those steps must be performed to align the rolling wheel system of a mechanical odometer. Any one cog not in specific alignment will misalign the 10/100/100 reels. I’ve serviced thousands and can easily ascertain a rollback when I see one. Additionally, rollbacks can easily be determined by a professional examination of the back side of the cluster that houses the odometer system. Especially when those who tamper, leave behind their fingerprints on the tamper proof strips.

  • Marty Roth says:

    Shills and shill bidding have existed for time immemorial – even if virtual, and in the potentially devious mind of the sellers. When the seller says he/she already has someone willing to pay some higher amount, is it truthful or just a ploy to jack up your offer? You have no way to actually know. “Let the buyer beware”. Do your own research, know the market, keep emotions out of the mix, keep the free-flowing alcohol out of the mix, and most of all, either inspect the vehicle in person, or have an inspection by a TRUSTED appraiser where possible. Most of all, know when to quit and to not get caught up in the energy of the competitive nature and excitement, generated by the auction environment. The old adage still applies in most cases:
    Just like a streetcar, if you miss this one, another one will come along – and there just may be a cosmic reason for it .

  • Greg F says:

    Now might be a good time to discuss the big differences between legitimate in person auctions, which are true auctions, and online “auctions” which are really just “hot leads” for the seller to follow up with once time expires. There are many important fundamental differences that every potential buyer and seller needs to be aware of before they try to buy or consign. This would be a good article for the magazine or this format, but either way my guess is 99% of people don’t understand what the differences are and why they matter – and this can be very costly for the uneducated.

  • Hotrodbuilder says:

    Another scam is “Dealers” who will set unrealistic reserves on their cars and then bid the car up to just short of the reserve. They then repeat this at another auction again stopping just short. Finally at another auction, they will proudly point out the preceding high bids and no sales as a new bidders chance to buy the car at a reduced price. The auction houses are fully aware of this deception. Bidders think they are getting a great chance to steal the vehicle at a still highly inflated price.

  • Gary Duncan says:

    Thanks for the truth! My cell Is 540
    230 0077

  • Peter says:

    Please refer to my below 2020 post in which I proved to my satisfaction, that shilling was taking place on BaT.
    >>>>>>>>
    OnlyMe
    Pit Crew
    ‎11-07-2020 12:33 PM
    Gezz….I hit ENTER & it posts!@?#….what I trying to say, is that I found evidence of Bring a Trailer using long time posters to hype auction cars. Not shill biding but “shill Hyping”…seems obvious they are fighting any downward thread in market values.

    • Russ says:

      Unfortunately the ‘hyping” is every bit as bad as the shill bids – most of the comments on any given auction tend to be “fanboys” extolling the virtues of the car. They far outweigh the knowledgeable skeptic or expert. It’s been a great time to sell the flawed low mileage dog – all you need is a great detailer, a good photographer and the army of non bidding commentators who probably take the bus to work or live in their parents basement.

    • David says:

      So true. In a couple of BaT auctions and there were two names repeatedly bidding against me…..but never against each other even when I stood down. Another example is two non bidding commentators extolling how under priced bidding was in the last two minutes of auction. Cheering for the seller not the buyers in this instance. Frustrating. Would only buy cars in person if I could but in my part of the country local options are limited.

  • RT says:

    I’ve been looking at the bidding histories of bidders on BAT. Some of them have REALLY long strings covering almost every type of vehicle and price point with NO wins. So is this recreational bidding or something else? And can we please stop with the conversations hoping for a GREAT price. Cars are meant to be driven, not have 7 previous owners with 4700 total miles. No one can drive these things because that’s where their value is. Everything perfect. I bought a C5 Z a few years back and open track it. It’s amazing. That’s what those cars are meant for. So that’s my rant. First and only time I’ll ever comment.

  • Rudy Samsel says:

    As the Co-Founder of http://www.GuysWithRides.com, we go out of our way to prevent this practice from happening with three mechanisms we believe boost transparency that gives private buyers the confidence to bid online, sight unseen:

    First, we tried to create a dealer-free level playing field for private buyers and sellers. We only accept vehicles titled to private parties and we do not allow either dealers or their agents to sell or bid on the rides we offer. It’s forbidden in our Buyer’s Agreement. If discovered, their bid is removed and they are immediately banned from the site. To date, it has proven to be an effective deterrent.

    The second is that unlike BaT and other Collector Car sites, we do not believe in two-minute, end-of-auction, time extensions. This practice provides another incentive for unscrupulous people to help pump up bids at the end of an auction. Instead, we follow eBay’s practice of providing a way for potential buyers to enter the maximum bid ahead of time (called Proxy or Automatic bidding). This eliminates the false narrative the two-minute rule somehow how an anti-sniping device.

    Third, we provide a complimentary third-party pre-purchase inspection (“PPI”) on the majority of vehicles we cannot physically inspect ourselves as a way to confirm the true condition of a vehicle before we start an auction. Sadly, we’ve had several instances where the PPI confirmed the car was not as nice as what the seller presented it as, so we would rather eat the cost of the inspection and not offer a vehicle than to have a potential winning bidder not be happy with their purchase.

  • Maestro1 says:

    Another reason why I ignore and won’t use social media of any kind, and certainly won’t go near an auction. I have been in the car business and I buy cars my own way and stay away from the BS.

  • Howard says:

    This is nothing new. Anyone who has attended an auction should know what the value of anyting of interest is. Have a keen eye and inspect anything, as best as possible. Keep to your budget. Even if you are bidding against a dealer, if the bidding surpasses his profitable offer, then he will pass. He knows his b
    business. Buying a vehicle, sight unseen, is a dangerous habit. I am in the process, right now, of considering a car that is 400 miles away from me. The owner appears to be straight up and honest, and I feel very comfortable dealing with him. That being said, “HE” is insisting that I view the car personally, to understand what it is that I am buying. Even having a local appraiser do an inspection, does not guarantee that you will be satisfied.
    There are many unscrupulous dealers out there, just as there are corrupt private sellers.
    As previous said:” BUYER BEWARE”!

  • Lou Salvalaggio says:

    Recently I broke my own rule and bought a truck without seeing it in person, as expected I was very nervous about the whole experience, I sent the money, arranged shipping etc. I was extremely fortunate and the truck was delivered and was way better than the pictures portrayed. Having said that I am thinking of selling my 1965 Cobra 4000 and listing it on BAT, however I have decided just to advertise it and put up with the calls and tire kickers, if someone wants it ….come see it,…pay the man and leave, if that does not work I will just have to keep and 427 Cobra in my garage…too bad for me.

  • Henry Feinberg says:

    Having passed 63 years in the collector car hobby, the seller shenanigans have only become more sophisticated since the advent of the Internet. Many private sellers are taking reported sales as the absolutely true pricing guide regardless of their car’s similarity or condition to the one “sold”.

  • Jim says:

    I am one of those 300K bidders on BAT. I have never won one of their auctions as I will stop when the car gets above a realistic value and most if not all of their cars are WELL sold. The amount of hype on that website is ridiculous….comments from people who have no clue about a car and say that it is x when it is a far cry from that. In one auction that I was interested in, a bidder was bidding the price up to unrealistic price levels. A quick click of his screen name showed that he had only ever bid on that one seller’s cars but had never won any of them. I contacted BAT with that information and that I suspected shill bidding. I received a response of ….not to worry, it wasn’t shill bidding. I have my doubts. In also happens in live auctions also. I was at the Mecum Houston Auction for the past few days. When a car starts out, all the bidder assistants yell that they all have bids in unison until it gets to a certain price point, but that’s not all. Yesterday, one of the newer, young auctioneers supposedly had a bid of $65K and was looking for $67K…….without a bid, suddenly the price is $78K and he’s looking for $80K. Legal??? Since the car had a reserve, yes but the practice stinks. Many of the dealers that I know and spoke to were complaining because the pricing was too high to allow them any profit after the buyer fees.

  • Al says:

    I won on BAT a 1990 7 UP Mustang (15,000 miles) against a bidder who just had to have it. Even offered to buy it from the seller if I did not have the money. His name never showed up again on any low mileage Mustangs and his name did not appear in the activity section. I paid what I wanted. It was interesting how this bidder appeared then disappered. At least with BAT, you can now check the commenters and bidders history.

  • Darwin Ottolini says:

    Well, I am a bidder (occasionally) on BaT and I like to see the cars that are presented. There is a LOT of Hype/pumping of some vehicles. I find prices on BaT to be other-worldy (overpriced). I think there is a a lot of Buyer’s remorse coming down the road. Funniest thing? I have NEVER seen an auction comment such as “wow, paid WAY too much for that!”. Nope it’s always, “well bought”. Not.

  • Bill Rosen says:

    When I about 13 I walked through a Las Vegas casino with my dad. I noticed that a woman playing slots had won a big jackpot but showed no real excitement. I commented to him about this. “She’s a shill,” he explained. He told me to look at her left hand. It was blackened by the repeated handling of the coinage during her shift. I’m grateful I learned about shills at a young age. As unethical as the practice of shills, so long as a buyer has done his homework, knows what he’s willing to spend, and then keeps his head during the manufactured frenzy of auction, shills have no power over that buyer.

  • Still443 says:

    I’ve always heard that if you are high bidder at an auction that you were the only one bidding that thought the car was worth that much money.

  • Dan W. says:

    In any endeavor involving large amounts of money there will always be thieves, using whatever methods are available to them.

  • joetunick says:

    I am no BAT fan. I don’t like the 3rd person approach to describing a car, i.e, “The owner purported to have the car painted by an ex NCRS judge” as the car I bought was described. The paint turned out to be an amateurish job at best. And shills? I’m pretty sure they were there but, as stated in some of the other comments, there were certainly “shill hypes”-people making comments like they were old time friends advising me to keep bidding. Never again will I buy on BAT.

  • Steve says:

    Had a similar situation on Hemmings as far as commenters who seem to never be bidders. They just like to hear themselves talk . Commenter thought he knew Ford F-100s and had/made negative comments. My truck never reached reserve. I listed it locally and sold for more than I was planning to on Hemmings. I definitely think commenters have to also be BIDDERS or they should STFU

  • Oldgoat says:

    10 years from now, we will look back on the auction era and wonder what the hell we did to ourselves and the enjoyment of the classic car hobby. I have no interest in the arena. Lost it 20 years ago when I did something I would tell people never to do. Bought a car on eBay. It was obviously being bid up by shill buddies of the seller, that had no history of winning purchases, yet had accounts for a long time. I backed off. After the auction ended the seller contacted me to say the bidders above me backed out on the sale and did I still want the car. I said sure, at the last price I bid before your shills bid it up. He, of course, denied that. I turned him into eBay and they did nothing. He did nothing, except sell me the car at my bid. A guilty plea in my book. Car was overrepresented, high shill bid was $5k over value. Price paid was reasonable, with no 12% buyers premium. Car restored and enjoyed for 17 years. But no more auctions for me.

  • amazingwaldo says:

    I live in Georgia and I bought a car off BAT a few years ago from a dealer in New Jersey. When I got there it was just as he had presented it. My high bid was in the low range of what the price guides showed. Still have the car, it is beautiful, and I love it. I agree we have to be careful, maybe I got lucky, still, I have learned a few things from the previous posts in this thread. Due diligence, buyer beware, use your head, not your heart.

  • Jim Neiburger says:

    Don’t buy without a personal inspection. Misrepresentation may be deliberate or accidental, out of ignorance. By so doing, you are more likely to know exactly what you are getting. A trip across the country can prevent overpaying and years of corrective expense and work. A professional appraisal may be of some value but does not substitute for you laying your own eyes on it. Go and meet the appraiser and review it together. Don’t only take someone else’s word. Find a real expert in the model you’re seeking if you aren’t sure and join them on site. That way, you are more likely to avoid the hype, exaggeration, and misinformation. You can be sure your purchase is what you expect and want. Also, I would be reluctant to sell to a buyer who refused a personal inspection. As for auctions, nice to spectate sometimes, but to buy, no thanks.

  • John Fredsall says:

    Very interesting way to finish the story, with a rationalization by an unnamed expert. If you get ripped off by a private seller it’s clear you didn’t do your due diligence. Sure sellers misrepresent, but at least in a private sale you have better options to inspect a car and verify the information than at auction. I read BAT everyday and their listings are very short on condition facts. Such as what works and what doesn’t work. I feel this should be a mandatory feature in all online auctions.

  • Woji says:

    Barrett-Jackson Was the worst case and I see it has been wiped from most internet searches

  • Edward S says:

    We’re all assuming that the winning “buyer” pays the 5% via credit card. There’s nothing to say these “buyers” aren’t fake accounts run by BaT itself. Take a look at any random winning bidder. The majority have several large wins… one random buyer I looked at had over $315K in winning bids from May 25 to July 7 in a single year. That’s a lot for anyone unless you’re a dealer and/or you’re fake. If a dealer, we would expect to see the car for sale elsewhere. But we never do. Hoping for sellers on BaT who actually sold to real buyers to chime in.

  • jory e lavitt says:

    I have recently observed BAT for only a few months and have wondered myself as to why these cars have extremely high prices and seem to come up for resale so frequently some only after a few weeks of previously being sold! Is there abuse of shill bidders on this site?

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