5 sites where you can buy for less, or free

eBay explained, plus four more money-saving alternatives

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When money's tight, there's no reason to pay store prices: buy through eBay instead.

A quick review of goods on offer reveals brand-new RAM that's 20 per cent cheaper than Crucial or Kingston, perfectly usable secondhand laptop drives from as little as £2 and brand new Pentium dualcore PC base units at £150 a pop.

Although some people are nervous about getting ripped off by fraudsters, eBay has a level of protection that you won't find at your local jumble sale.

Every time you buy goods from an eBay seller you get the chance to leave them feedback, whether it's positive, negative or neutral.

As a general rule, we'd advise that you steer clear of anyone with a feedback rating of less than 96 per cent. Make sure that you read through the comments in their feedback section before buying, too.

eBay gives sellers the right to reply to their critics, so take note of both sides. Recently – and controversially – eBay revoked the ability for sellers to leave buyers negative feedback.

The company say this was to stop tit-for-tat attacks on buyers who had left truthful, negative feedback on sellers' profiles. In other words, eBay truly is a buyer's market.

Some sellers have special 'Powerseller' status. They're eBay's big hitters, trustworthy members who make sales of at least £750 a month, have 98 per cent positive feedback and ship winning items within three business days. These are people you can trust to deliver – so buy from them with confidence.

Problems with eBay sales

When things go wrong, eBay provides methods of officially complaining. You can report buyers and sellers who don't pay up or dispatch goods in time through the Resolution Centre. You'll find a link to this in the Help menu.

The good news is that if you buy goods on eBay, you have the same rights as you do when buying from a traditional shop. That means that if something you buy doesn't work when you get it home, is the wrong size or model or fails to meet the original description, you're entitled to a refund. Current rules mean that buyers also get extra protection on items bought using PayPal.

If items are undelivered or are significantly other than as described, and dispute resolution doesn't work, you'll receive a refund. The seller may offer you a replacement instead of a refund, but it's up to you whether you accept it.

You don't have to take a credit note, either, even if the seller tells you that it's not their policy to give refunds. You are entitled to your cash back. If all goes well, eBay offers several ways to pay – but the seller is the one who decides which options to offer.

Online payment is by far the most popular method; cheques, postal orders and cash account for only 21 per cent of transactions on eBay. You're able to deposit payments into a PayPal account from your bank or pay for items with a credit card.

In the case of larger items, like cars and computer systems, you may be able to use an escrow service. This is an intermediary payment system that holds on to your money until the goods have been received and you are satisfied with them. eBay supports the use of www.escrow.com.