Electrical distributors and contractors could buy and sell slow-moving, obsolete, and obscure electrical equipment on about two-dozen electrical e-commerce sites two years ago. While many of those online ventures have vanished, it's still possible to unload surplus equipment through Internet auctions, Web bulletin boards and online directories.

When purchasing electrical equipment online, however, buyers should always remember the common phrase, “caveat emptor” or “let the buyer beware,” says David Rosenfield, one of the founders of the Professional Electrical Apparatus Recyclers League (PEARL), a trade association for surplus dealers.

“The caution that I would offer to anybody about buying on the Internet is that if you don't go out of your way to verify the product, you could get a bag of junk,” says Rosenfield, president of ROMAC Supply, Commerce, Calif. “The worst thing about trading online is that people demand cash in advance more often than in any other venue. One of the shortfalls of buying on the Internet is that you have a tendency to forget that you're still dealing with humans and not just a computer screen.”

For example, Rosenfield unknowingly bought a counterfeit circuit breaker on eBay. Someone had re-marked a trip unit to look like an original factory device, and the seller couldn't tell the difference. Because of how easy it is to silk-screen new product labels and how difficult it is to spot a fake, some counterfeit products can slip through the cracks on Internet auctions.

“In the used-equipment business, counterfeiting has been a problem for a long time,” he says. “When we caught the problem with the circuit breaker, we sent it back. The seller was good enough to make it right for us.”