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shill bidding

noun [uncountable]

the practice of bidding (= offering an amount of money) for something that you are selling in an auction in order to increase the selling price

shill bid

noun [countable]

shill bidder

noun [countable]

'The company said the case, the first prosecution of its kind in the UK, was a clear warning against the practice of shill bidding to bump up prices.'

Guardian 20th April 2010

'Guilty pleas and civil settlements have concluded a New York investigation of phony bids in E-Bay auctions, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced … "The use of shill bids in on-line auctions illegally drives up prices and defrauds consumers," Spitzer said.'

Consumer Affairs 8th November 2004

'I have turned a shill bidder in several times. They have manipulated an item I won.'

eBay forum 26th June 2013

In spring of 2010, 39-year-old Paul Barrett, a small business owner from County Durham, was the first person in the UK to be prosecuted for an offence described as shill bidding. So, what exactly had he been up to?

even if you wouldn't dream of shill bidding intentionally, it's worth mentioning that you could unwittingly become an offender if you bid on an item which is being sold by a person you're connected with in almost any way

Attempting to generate a little extra cash by flogging off one or two unwanted items on the Internet is now a common pastime in 21st century life, usually via online auction sites such as eBay. The practice is now so familiar that eBay has even made its mark on the language, with eponymous use of terms such as eBaying for the activity or eBayer for those who regularly buy or sell on the website. Some people even go beyond this as a casual activity, and use their entrepreneurial skills to buy and sell at a profit.

However for the more unscrupulous among us, it seems that there's an all too enticing shortcut to ensuring that the item you have for sale goes for the highest possible price. Once you're sure that you have interest in what you're selling, why not bid on the item yourself, therefore falsely giving the impression to potential buyers that there's competition, and so forcing them to pay more than they would have? This is what is meant by shill bidding, which is a violation of eBay rules and, moreover, illegal. Anyone caught in the act of shill bidding can now face a fine of as much as £5000 for each item they have sold in this way. People who engage in the practice are known as shill bidders, and a bid placed deliberately to push up prices is described as a shill bid. The word shill can also be used as an intransitive verb to describe the same activity, perpetrators correspondingly dubbed shillers.

Even if you wouldn't dream of shill bidding intentionally, it's worth mentioning that you could unwittingly become an offender if you bid on an item which is being sold by a person you're connected with in almost any way – whether it's a member of your family, a business partner, or even a flatmate or close friend.

Background – shill bidding

Though the popularity of online auctions has brought the term shill under the mainstream radar, the word itself has been around for many decades, comfortably pre-dating the Internet and everyday use of computers. Shill dates back to 1914 and is thought to be a shortened form of the earlier term shillaber. Its original use was to describe a person who acted as a swindler's accomplice by reacting in an enthusiastic way in order to encourage others, often as an audience member at a carnival in order to elicit interest in an attraction. Over time the word began to be applied in a variety of contexts. For example in marketing, a shill is a person who gives the impression that they are a satisfied independent customer of someone they're in fact secretly working for. In gambling scenarios, a shill is someone employed as a player who keeps games going when there aren't enough players, or makes winning appear more likely than it actually is.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 17th September 2013.

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