eBay fraud - some thoughts

posted 1/3/2003

While it may once have been a fun and enjoyable venue, with a sense of community, eBay, which is the leading internet auction site, is nowadays anything but. Dishonesty, illegality, and fraud are rampant. Present in equally large sums is stupidity - staggering, mind-numbing stupidity. Below you will find some thoughts on this phenomenon, and some personal observations.
While many quite vocally complain about the horrible rash of deadbeat bidders on eBay, people who never pay for items they win, an even more prevalent problem on the site is bad sellers. When buying something on eBay, there are some things to be kept in mind: Anything sold "as-is" probably isn't "as described", and will almost never work. Anything that's untested is likely tested and found not working. If it can be fake, it almost certainly is, unless described as "genuine", "real", "authentic", or "natural". (and even then they may be lying.) Most descriptions should be read as "looks more or less like-", when referring to leather, silk, gold, silver, any kind of gemstone, and anything similar. My educated guess is that one-half to two-thirds of all gemstone auctions on eBay violate FTC rules, and that ten to twenty percent of all jewelry pieces auctioned are not as described. I would guess that about one percent of all auctions on eBay are stolen property, and that about one in twenty auctions listed violates one or more of eBay's rules. Additionally, some ten percent of all auctions start at or have reserves in excess of five times the item's actual worth. Keep the large volume in mind when considering these numbers, though; Some sellers are completely legit, and 100 percent honest; some are exactly the opposite.
It is in no way safe to assume that the individuals you will interact with on eBay are honest. Anyone who believes in the general goodness of human nature should never visit eBay; the shock could be fatal. If you treat is as a large flea market, largely filled with shifty, underhanded east-coast dealers, each trying to unload their latest batch of white elephants at inflated prices, you may be safe.
How rampant, overall, is this problem? Well, consider the last one hundred purchases I made on eBay over the last year. Six orders failed to arrive, one because of poor packaging, and at least two because of dishonest sellers (since barred from eBay). Eleven were significantly other than as described and pictured, including two that I believe were intentionally misrepresented. Five auctions were for multiple items and contained the wrong quantity (never in my favor).
So-called deadbeat bidders are a huge problem as well. I sold about fifty items on eBay in one year, and encountered four deadbeats, which I suspect is about par for most sellers. This is not to say that all bidders are bad - some are truly excellent people, prompt and courteous - and some are functionally illiterate jerks. It's all in the nature of the game.
I will say, however, that outside of America On Line, eBay has the highest concentration of downright stupid people anywhere online. Misspellings, broken grammar, buggy HTML, and really, really awful photographs abound. I get the distinct impression that most people never look at the pictures they use in their auction listings; there is no other rational explanation for the rash of underexposed, overexposed, blurry, out-of-focus, and color-imbalanced pictures in listings. Equally, it's amazing how many self-described professionals can't spell some of the commonest words in their fields of "expertise". And I truly love it when people add self-invented folklore for items or terms. One shining example was a seller auctioning a pair of dress shoes, which she described twice as "Patton leather", and went on to describe how this type of leather was named after the boots General Patton wore. Uh-huh. Not surprisingly, the shoes weren't even patent leather at all, but vinyl...
I try not to encourage these people. Dumb people and computers are a dangeous mix. As punishment for their horrible ways, I make a special effort not to bid on items with gratuitous misspellings or really awful pictures, no matter how badly I want the item. It's a boycott of sorts, I suppose; an application of economic leverage on eBay's finest. Join in, won't you? Refuse to bid on auctions listed by grammatically-impaired hill-people in Pennsylvania, or inbred rednecks in Louisiana. In fact, I propose the following course of action for the discerning eBay user, if there is such a thing: Don't bid on auctions by people who can't spell, or can't be bothered to take decept pictures. Don't bid on auctions with no meaningful description, for your own protection. Don't bid on auctions with excessively high shipping fees, and never bid on an auction with a handling fee. Don't bid on Dutch auctions. Don't bid on auctions with hidden reserves. Don't bid on auctions by people with little or no feedback. Be very careful buying from outside your country - it can be impossible to take recourse against people in some coutries.
So, if so many people on eBay suck, why use it? Simply because so many of the sellers *are* stupid; Every day there are thousands of embarassingly good deals to be had, money to be made by reselling items off eBay elsewhere. If you know a lot about a specialised field, then you're going to be able to spot some amazing deals from sellers who don't know squat about what they're selling. Specialised, unusual fields of antiques are especially good for this.
Is it possible to use eBay without getting screwed over? Nope. But, if you're careful, you can minimise your risk, while having fun and getting some great deals.


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