The same basic rule applies to suddenly popular Internet auctions as to used-car lots and flea markets: Buyer beware. There are some good deals to be had, but it will takes a little luck and a lot of careful shopping to find them.

That careful shopping starts with knowing the rules of the game. Depending on the on-line auction, various strategies can strengthen your hand:- BID EARLY. In the case of matching bids, the tie breaker is either the number of items being purchased (if more than one is offered) or the earliest time stamp. Cover yourself by entering an early first bid.

- BID LATE. Let someone else think he's bought the item, and with minutes to go, make your best offer.

- EMPLOY A ROBOT. Some auctions - typically those that run on software designed by OpenSite Technologies - not only can record bids in real time but will place additional bids automatically, if you want, anytime someone tops yours, up to a maximum you have secretly specified.

- KNOW THE STREET PRICES. In a hotly contested auction, the bidding often exceeds the actual value of the item you are bidding for. Lacking solid information on the price, you may pay too much.

One note of caution: The ease with which you can bid in an Internet auction is what makes it easy to be ripped off. Of the top 10 categories of Internet fraud last year, auctions ranked No. 3.

A common practice is to accept the bid, take the payment and never deliver the merchandise. Auctions are also susceptible to ringers - sellers who bid up their own merchandise from other Internet accounts they control. Your best protection is to know what an item is worth to you and not to bid more than that.

And whenever possible, pay by credit card or consider an escrow service provided by some auctions (such as www.iescrow.com and www.trade-direct.com) for a nominal fee.