I used to be a risk taker. When I was six, I tried to run away from home with nothing but a Baggie full of cheese and crackers. When I was 22, I moved on a whim to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to live with a guy who worked on a party boat. Just four years ago, I cold-called my way into a job at TIME. But I think corporate life may be making me soft. These days, I can't even drop a letter in a corner mailbox without double checking to make sure it went down the chute.
Perhaps that's why I'm so leery of online auctions. I am worried that if I start fooling around on eBay, I'll end up getting ripped off or selling to someone who never pays up. Last week's FBI report indicating that online auctions are the No. 1 source of Internet fraud hardly helped calm my fears.
Which may be why I'm so attracted to online bartering. Bartering, as opposed to bidding, is a great alternative for wimps like me. As with auctions, I can post things I want to get rid of. But instead of exchanging money with strangers, I just trade my junk for someone else's. Worst-case scenario, I lose nothing but that CD I never listen to, that book I already read or those earrings I never wear.
At least that's how it works in theory. When I checked out half a dozen swap sites with names like switchme.com swapit.com and secondspin.com however, I discovered that there can be all sorts of hidden fees, from transaction charges to cash sales disguised as swaps. Still, I found two sites that stood out above the crowd: mrswap.com and webswap.com WebSwap has waived all transaction fees, at least for now, making it the best deal on the Net. MrSwap, on the other hand, adds a small premium on mailing charges that averages around $1.50 per item.
I loved MrSwap--even though it deals only in music, video games and movies--because it's so simple. To list things for trade, all you do is type in the name of the item and assign a number of "swap points" indicating how much you think it's worth. One swap point is about $1, and you can easily pick a value by comparing your item with those of others on the site. For example, when I posted my Lauryn Hill album, I saw that 31 other people had grown tired of her as well. So I picked a relatively low price of 6 swap points and got an offer the same day. I then used those points to snag a Tracy Chapman CD from someone else. The biggest drawback: because MrSwap sends out a stamped, padded mailer to the seller, who then has to remail it to the buyer, it took nearly two weeks to get my CD.
WebSwap, on the other hand, lets folks mail one another directly. It's the biggest barter site on the Web, with people hawking everything from a half-full bottle of Prell to a flock of sheep. I listed a dozen items, including the latest Patricia Cornwell thriller, a Beatles CD and three Star Trek movies, but for some reason I couldn't manage a single trade in a month. (During the same time, I traded five CDs on MrSwap.) Part of the problem could be that WebSwap requires a one-for-one swap with whoever wants your stuff, making it harder to find a match.
Now that I've got the knack of bartering, I'm thinking like an entrepreneur--or maybe a rug saleswoman--as I scheme to get the best deals and make my junk seem like a steal. I'm getting so bold that I'm thinking of doing an auction or two. Maybe my day job hasn't sapped my adventurous spirit after all.