In 19th Century New York, mock auctions revolved around the sale of cigars, horses and high quality furniture. In Denver, confidence man Soapy Smith and his Soap Gang auctioned off shiny brass watches as being made of gold. Other items were soap and candy wrapped with cash prizes. In more recent years the focus has been on electronic consumer goods.
How it happens
Typically, during the sale, members of the gang operating the scam will pose as customers; they will be given boxes of high-value goods for a very low price, and will pretend to be very pleased with their bargain purchases. In reality, these goods are handed back and forth between the fake 'lucky customers' and the sellers, out of view of the real customers, after each time the con is completed. The fake auctioneer, who is usually the gang's leader, will often be a skilled, practised orator, who will typically be able to win the confidence of a substantial proportion of his potential victims.
Commonly employed techniques include selling what appear to be boxed, high-quality branded goods, but which are actually very inferior, cheap fakes; or are rejects which have serious faults. Alternatively, the boxes may contain only blocks of wood or breezeblock or bottles of water etc. The gang will have members in the audience throughout the deployment of the scam, and will not allow customers to open any of their purchases in the shop/market. They will quickly lock up, and/or escape before any of the victims realise that they've been conned.
No-one will be given genuine receipts or guarantees, although the gang may claim these documents are within the sealed boxes. In common with many confidence tricksters, the gangs very often move from town to town, city to city etc. to reduce the risk of them being caught. They have been known to use violence when a lone (prospective) victim confronts them.
A detailed description of how the Mock Auction works is available in Colin Clark and Trevor Pinch (1995) 'The Hard Sell: The language and Lessons of Streetwise Marketing', published by HarperCollins, Chapter 10.
- "Mock Auction Sales.; How household furniture is disposed of. Our citizens swindled at bogus private sales--The names of the auctioneers connected with the fraudulent practice--Where they carry on their business.". The New York Times. 1876-11-12. Retrieved 2010-07-18. "The general phases of the fraud in all these sales are: holding out the assertation that a systematic auction place is a private residence; stocking the house with furniture, and saying it was the furniture of some party about to leave the city; the attendance of male and female dummies or cappers assuming by implication, to be buyers from the outside public; the cappers bidding and puffing in the interests of the auctioneers..."
- Smith, Jeff (2009). Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel, Klondike Research. p. 15. ISBN 0-9819743-0-9
- "Mock Auction". Retrieved 2008-03-03. "It's basically a large-scale confidence trick - the scammers win their audience's confidence and then abuse it."
- "Mock-Auctions or 'One day Sales'...". Retrieved 2008-03-03. "The organisers will also try to get the audience into 'buying frenzy' to make them purchase over priced goods in the belief that they are bargains."
- "Warning about mock auctions rip-off". Westminster City Council. 2006-10-26. Archived from the original on 2007-11-12. Retrieved 2010-07-18. "Typically enthusiasm to "bid" is whipped up by a front man with a microphone and an auctioneer's hammer. A selection of goods which will supposedly be on sale are often stacked by the stage."
- "Mock auction fraud gang face jail". The Argus. 2003-02-05. Retrieved 2010-07-18. "A gang of confidence tricksters fleeced the public of thousands of pounds in a slick and cunning operation...a scam dating back to Victorian times... People were persuaded to part with money for goods they had never intended to buy. When the auction-style sales were over, customers were hustled outside,where they discovered their purchases were faulty or of poor quality."