Do not buy silver plated (clad) items. Auction sites like eBay is awash with sellers of silver plated bars that only consist of a few dollars worth of copper and silver plating. You only want to buy solid 99.9% pure silver bars. They should be clearly labelled with the weight and purity. Sellers of some bars try to trick you with wordplay. They might be labelled “10 Troy ounces 100 mills .999 Fine silver” The 100 mills is your red flag, as this is a measurement of thickness of the silver plating on this otherwise nearly worthless bar of copper. You can add “-mills -mils -plated -clad” to the end of your searches on ebay to automatically remove these plated bar and coins from your eBay search results.
Never buy silver from Chinese sellers on eBay. When you are shopping for silver on ebay, you should avoid buying from sellers in China. The vast majority of the fake silver coins and bars are coming from Chinese counterfeiters, and some of them are very convincing. I suggest buying from only USA and Canadian sellers. However, you should also consider checking the feedback of the person and see if they have been buying coins from Chinese sellers, because he may be selling Chinese fakes. You can click on the “Feedback as a Buyer” tab on the feedback page of the seller to see where they have been buying coins.
Invest in a digital scale and calipers, and find a good information source. You should obtain a coin collecting book or other trusted source with information about the weight and thickness of the silver coins, and verify the coins you are buying. 99% of all the fake coins out there will fail the weight or thickness test. One website I’ve found with free information about the thickness and weight of common silver coins as well as pictures of legitimate and counterfeit examples is silver-coins.org, but as always do your own research. The coin grading company PCGS has an excellent database of information and images of coins called PCGS CoinFacts, but it is a paid subscription service.
Don’t buy ungraded coins on eBay without a guarantee. A favorite practice of coin sellers is to claim that they are not coin experts, and that you should check the photos and judge the legitimacy of the coins yourself. They might say they recently inherited the coins and know nothing about them, or that they are unsearched coins recently purchased from an estate sale or found in an attic. What these claims all have in common is they usually do not gurantee authenticity of the coin, or sell it “as is” with no gurantee. Don’t fall for sucker tales. Always buy from sellers with high feedback, and check the feedback to see if they have a history of selling silver coins. If they have 30 transactions as a buyer for $1 items and suddenly are selling a $2,000 lot of silver coins, stay away.
Stick to common year, government minted coins. I recommend buying common bullion Silver American Eagles and Silver Maple Leafs. These coins are not commonly counterfeited in large quantities. The coins most counterfeited are the rare “key date” coins like 19th century Morgan silver dollars which command the highest premium. Common coins with low premiums are not worth the time to fake, for now. But as the price of silver continues to rise, we may see more counterfeit silver on the market.
If you are buying graded coins in slabs, only buy PCGS and NGC. These are the top dogs in the coin grading industry. All other grading companies should be avoided in my opinion. Some are outright scams, who gladly slap a MS-70 grade on any old coin and happily cash the check of the guy who sent it in. PCGS has a reputation for being slightly pickier about their high grades, and so command a slight price premium over NGC in some coins, but NGC graded coins are still a safe choice. Be aware that collecting graded coins, especially rare and high grade coins is more of an art and a hobby than an investment, as in a real societal collapse, collectible premiums would vanish and your MS-64 PCGS graded key date Morgan dollar that you paid a hefty premium for would only be worth its weight in silver. That is not to say investment grade numismatics should be completely avoided, but to me these are a fringe item for family heirlooms and special gifts and do not fit in with the fundamental reason I advocate buying physical silver.
Do not buy “German silver” or “Nickel-silver” bars. Beware of sellers on eBay selling bars of “.999 Fine German silver” trying to mislead potential buyers into thinking they are buying pure silver bars. German silver is another name for nickel silver, a copper alloy with nickel and often zinc, and contain no silver. Do not buy these bars!
If you are buying on eBay, always pay with a credit card. When buying on eBay, you should be going through the Mr. Rebates link and paying with PayPal so you qualify for rebate. PayPal allows you to use your credit card to pay for your auction purchases, so you should take advantage of this because under US banking laws, you will have recourse through your credit card company on a fraudulent seller. eBay and PayPal have their own Buyer Protection plans which also help protect you from losses, but paying by credit card through Paypal gives you another layer of protection and the upper hand in case something were to go wrong. Using your credit card also allows you an additional 1% cashback if your credit card has cash back rebate rewards. If you are buying from an online dealer, then you often will have to pay up to 3% extra for using a credit card, and the rebate isn’t enough to cover this, so when buying from a reputable dealer like Apmex, a check or money order is usually the cheapest way.
Learn some simple methods to test your silver bar or silver coin. One popular method is called the ring test. A silver coin can be balanced on the tip of your finger carefully, and ‘dinged’ with another silver coin. If it is pure silver it should ring with a clear pure ring tone. A silver bullion bar can be suspended in a plastic bag or balanced on a narrow platform and tapped lightly with a hammer, and should ring with a pure tone. Watch this video for a demonstration:
Pure silver is not magnetic. If a magnet sticks readily to the coin, its fake. If you want to test a large bar of silver of unknown origin, you can use a strong rare-earth magnet to test it. With the bar held at a 45 degree angle to the table, a very strong and heavy flat magnet placed on the silver should slide slowly down the silver bar, If it quickly slides right off, or sticks fast to the bar, it is not pure silver.
If you get stuck with a fake silver “dud”, then chalk it up as (hopefully, not too expensive) lesson. Hang onto the item so you can refer back to it and avoid others like it, and educate those around you who are buying physical silver.