Neutral auction house sniping is the practice of lurking at the neutral auction house (which is usable by both factions) until someone tries to use it to move items from one of their characters to another across factions, and then stealing it. Unlike someone who ninjas a mount in a PUG, this type of theft is totally OK with Blizzard -- all the sniper is doing is buying a posted auction.
How does this constitute theft?
The neutral auction house serves one main purpose in this game: It is the only way items can cross between the Horde and Alliance markets on a realm. It doesn't seem to have been built for this, though, as you need a second account or a friend to bid on the auctions you create. The neutral AH is an exact replica of the normal faction AH in every way but one: It costs three times as much to use. The high deposit and auction house cut, along with its relatively remote location, means that the neutral AH is almost never used to find a buyer for something.
Cross-faction arbitrage is the business of moving goods from one faction to another if there's a shortage (and a higher price) on one of the factions. It can be good money, but it's a lot less if you have to pay that 15% AH cut. Faced with the sure loss of 15% of their profit margin, most people work out a "solution": Simply list the items for 1 copper and avoid paying any AH fee! Unfortunately, this exposes their listing to snipers. What they're actually doing is betting that their auction won't get sniped, and every time they're right, they win back their 15%. Unfortunately, every time they're wrong, they lose the entire value of their shipment.
Avoiding the 15% fee is as much of as risk as leaving your car running with the door unlocked after buying a big-screen TV -- more, actually, because the police won't help you get your BOE epic back. It's not against the rules to buy an auction, even if the seller didn't intend you to buy it. It certainly feels like this should be considered theft to anyone who's just had their stock taken, but the short answer is that they should have played it safe and "sold" the item to themselves for some amount they'd be willing to let a sniper pay.
With the native AH interface, snipers can simply click the search button every few seconds and buy out any good deals they see as quickly as possible. There's usually less than one page on the neutral AH, making this an extremely simple proposition. If they happen to have Auctioneer, it's less than a half hour to set up a real-time searcher that will pop up a one-click buy window every time an auction matching their parameters is found. It's unreasonable to assume that anyone capable of configuring an addon as notoriously finicky and annoying as Auctioneer is incapable of keybinding the "buy" button and somehow managing to have it pressed repeatedly for hours at a time.
There is no protection from this practice. As long as people are willing to go to neutral auction houses and buy out auctions that weren't intended for them, cross-faction arbitrage will be a risk. There are, however, several tactics that can be used against these people. They're hopefully not breaking any rules, so I won't either.
- Canary auction Put up a single auction of something somewhat valuable, but not so valuable that you're unwilling to lose it. A stack of ore, perhaps, maybe a BOE from two tiers ago. Leave it up for a minute before you try to move some real payload over, and if it gets bought, shut your operation down.
- Chaff While the neutral auction in its natural, pristine state will have maybe a page of auctions (fish, crafted greens, etc.), you can easily find something cheap and plentiful to post thousands of auctions of. Bury your actual payload in the middle of it, and you might confuse snipers long enough to get one past them. If they're using the auctioneer real-time searcher method, you need to hope that they've defined a really stupidly simple searcher that flags any cheap auctions. That will mean that they have to decline hundreds of auctions before they get to yours, unless they stop the searcher and redefine it. If you're really lucky, they left their drinking bird on the keyboard with a stupid searcher, and you'll leave several thousand useless items clogging up their mailbox. Empty that at 50 per minute, Mr. AFK Sniper.
- Brute force If you're on a PVP realm, just gank them -- and/or the auctioneer they're using, if it's a PVE realm.
How to fix it
This problem would go away if Blizzard allowed players to do what they're already doing without having to misuse the neutral auction house. If Blizzard allowed cross-faction mailing of goods with a 15% fee, the poor, neglected neutral AH could go back to having a simple page of fish auctions. Now, I know this might sound easy to players, but remember that Blizzard doesn't have an easy way of determining "market value" to base that 15% on. It could replace this with a fee based on vendor value or a flat fee, though.
Additionally, it could implement persistent want-to-buys. This would mean that the only risk of moving goods across the neutral AH would be that the wrong person sells you their goods.
This would have the effect of evening out prices for a lot of types of goods on each of the two economies, but the extent to which they're evened out would depend on how heavily the transfer was "taxed." It would also be another welcome gold sink to help combat the ridiculous hyperinflation we've seen of late.
Maximize your profits with more advice from Gold Capped. Do you have questions about selling, reselling, and building your financial empire on the auction house? Fox and Basil are taking your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.