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Who You Going to Call - eBusters?

I’m a victim of eCrime or at least I think I am.

Perhaps eSting or eFraud might be a better description but then I suppose it’s my own fault for not asking one very simple question when bidding on an eBay auction “Is the photo of the item on sale, the item that I will actually receive”?

In this example, the seller, we’ll call him ‘Newcastle Boy’, had gone to some trouble to paint an attractive description of an “Authentic” timepiece, with three photos, a front, rear and side view. The only problem was that when it finally arrived, it became immediately clear that an original manufacturer’s library image had been used for the display photograph, with all the correct branding, while two digital photos of what turned out to be a good fake, had been dropped in for the side and rear detail shots.

Caveat Emptor

This raises a broader question about auction sites and exchanges on the Internet that I’m finding hard to resolve, even though eBay have been most helpful and tell me that they have issued Newcastle Boy with a ‘Procedural Warning’ but how, in practice, do you deal with the problem of auction fraud, alleged or otherwise on the Internet?

I’m still struggling with this problem today, three weeks after the sale. The Police tell me that if deliberate deception can be proved, then it represents grounds for a complaint and eBay, caught in the middle, tell me that they are simply acting as a broker, an exchange and suggest that misrepresentation is a Trading Standards issue. In fact they appear reluctant to express an opinion and I wonder whether, they would be prepared to regard auctioning an authentic ‘Dell Computer’ and instead delivering a “Dill Computer”, as, at the very least, dodgy behaviour, beyond pointing to the terms and conditions on their website.

eBay comments, “Aside from taking possible disciplinary action to a user's account, which we do according to established protocol, eBay cannot initiate contact for a user or initiate formal proceedings against a user. From a legal standpoint we can only suggest options that you may take action on”. It continues, “As a venue for buyers and sellers to meet, eBay has limited legal powers to become involved in a buyer and seller dispute. eBay will only take action on our site as described in the third section of our user agreement”.

So how do I get my money back if the other party insists that he’s done nothing wrong? eBay suggest mediation through their Square Trade service at a cost of $20 or wait thirty days and make a claim under their buyer protection scheme.

One difficulty is that if a transaction isn’t completed using Pay Pal, then any compensation is much reduced. It’s surprising how many sellers still want payment by personal cheques, refuse to use PayPal, eBay’s escrow service or even Internet bank transfers. On any purchase involving a significant sum of money, this should immediately sound a note of caution; after all, you’re sending a personal cheque to someone you’ve never seen on the strength of an advertisement and a photograph that may be completely untrue.

In fact, you’re very unlikely to part with any money without looking at the seller’s rating on eBay. The company points to their buyer and seller feedback system, as a useful system of scoring which allows both parties to rate each other and which should, in principal, act as a guide to honesty and reliability over time and multiple transactions, an idea that I would like to see extended to any company website anywhere. This however appears to fall apart if the seller has a history showing a 100% approval rating and then decides to risk trashing his record with a cleverly crafted ‘sting’ as in my own example.

What can I do then, other than annoying eBay by asking a stream of difficult questions over their policies and procedures? Not a great deal it seems. It’s not a Police matter and it’s really a question of tracking down Newcastle trading standards and making a complaint. In fact, it all seems to be little different from a local boot sale, eBay are simply taking the fee for letting you set-up a pitch in cyberspace and there, it seems, is where their responsibility ends.

Even if your email dialogue with a seller suggest that an item is authentic, there’s no guarantee that it really is and equally, no guarantee of full compensation if it goes horribly wrong, if you haven’t paid by credit card or PayPal.

With more and more people using on-line auction sites, I wonder if we need much tighter regulations to deal with problems involving individuals and not simply businesses selling and mis-selling over the Internet. However, I do believe that if the evidence clearly shows an attempt to deceive or misrepresent an item in an online auction, companies like eBay should at the very least, “switch off” the offending seller until such a time as the complaint has been investigated and properly resolved.

Until then, where dealing with Newcastle Boy is concerned, it’s strictly Caveat Emptor.


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