Dear Ruth; eBay is the shit!
I'll start off by saying that eBay is one of the coolest things that has ever been invented (besides credit cards and the Internet that are needed to make eBay work well). Being a collector and music fan, I have bought so much crap off of eBay that it makes me shake my head, so I know a few things about the process.
One tip I have is to buy from sellers with a good “score”. I'm rated an 88; that means I have 88 people who have made positive comments about me and my transactions, and you can read each and every one of them. I would be at 100 or more but if you deal with the same seller more than once, it doesn't matter how much feedback they give you. It only counts for one positive (or negative) remark from that seller towards your score.
Another way to let your eBay fears go is by buying only from sellers who accept Paypal payment. To set up an account, all you do is go to www.paypal.com and sign up. You give them your address and credit card or chequing account information and that's all you need to get started. The trick is that you need to wait until your next bank or credit card statement comes in the mail because you're going to need the small pin number from that bill to prove that you are who you say you are in order to activate your Paypal account.
I have never had trouble with Paypal. Their site, as well as eBay, has very strict conflict resolution policies to make sure people don't get burned and can be refunded if someone doesn't deliver the goods.
You can still send cash in the mail, but most sellers won't take it. You can also send money orders. When I was in my eBay infancy, I used money orders a few times because Paypal wasn't around. I have to be honest and say I was burned twice. Not for much cash, (perhaps a total of $20 plus the money order fee), but after the second time I got burned, I never bought anything from someone who didn't use Paypal. Now you'll see almost 90 per cent of buyers and sellers using nothing, or at least recommending, Paypal.
Another tip I have is to read the auctions carefully to make sure you're actually bidding on the item that made you click on the headline. XBox game for 99 cents? Oh, it's the instruction manual only. Read what the shipping costs are as well. I hate when you see a cheap auction only to see they are charging four times the price of the item for shipping. Eff those people.
It also never hurts to email the sellers who have their item listed as “shipping to US only” to see if they would ship to Canada. I just say that I'm interested in the item, use Paypal and have great feedback. I also assure them that shipping will be only a few bucks more and I don't have a problem with paying that little extra if it's something I really want or know it's still cheaper than bidding on the same item that's more expensive with North American shipping.
My last little tip is very important. Don't drink and eBay. You'll wake up the next day realizing that a) you spent too much; b) you bought too much; and, c) you really shouldn't have bought that one-cent Spice Girls CD, even if you did need the laugh.