There was a time when I thought online auctions fun, a little wheeler dealing and a way to find some of the more obscure things someone might want especially in the case of computer bits. There were some years ago quite a few auction sites to choose from ebay only operated out of the US and was generally used to buy small parts from the States because you could only list in dollars, however in the UK we had plenty to keep us going with ebase5, QXL, ebid, bidworld, freeserve auctions etc. If you were a regular you might get to know many of the other protagonists, I knew most of the people in the UK that were online and selling 2nd hand Apple Macintosh parts and they knew me, the site fora were active places between users and administrators and the experience was relaxed and most of all it was free.

QXL was the first to go on the offensive, founded in 1997 in the UK two years after ebay started in the US, lamentable customer support and a more profit-focused agenda selling shares and charging fees made QXL very much a no-go for personal sellers. Industry sources in 2008 cited ebay and the rise of online fraud as being to blame for QXL’s demise but you could see it coming far earlier than that. Which is not to say that it probably didn’t make somebody some money in the interim but as such was never going to be able to compete with ebay.

I first used ebay whilst it was still ebay.com and sold an item, I don’t recall what it was but it was as most of the things fairly worthless at the time and made no more than a couple of quid, I had listed it on a free listing day that ebay had advertised which gave me the impression that free meant free. I wasn’t used to being charged a secondary fee to sell so when I got a bill for about $1 I ignored it. Ebay did not and I got an unfriendly reminder to which I responded and explained that I was new to this whole thing and hadn’t realised about the final value fees and that in order to send an amount of $1 through the banking system would cost me substantially more than it was worth. I never received a response just a number of threatening reminders. I ditched my account and created another and for a long time afterwards used it only for buying. Ebay’s system would every so often catch up with me through my address or telephone number and pursue me for the $1, usually resulting in them suspending the account, each time I would pack up and move on.

Ebay is now a corporate giant, and it acts like it, for many years it has steadily implemented policies that have denigrated the whole experience. They have vastly increased their own profits due to the changing in listing and final value fees, they have made it far less cost effective for personal sellers to list cheap second hand items whilst business listings take up so much space in many categories it puts a number of people off. It used to be a given that you came on ebay to pick up a bargain, something you might want but not wish or need to have brand new and therefore not have to pay top dollar for. Likewise for sellers it used to provide an environment where you could quickly shift things you no longer had a use for, you wouldn’t make a fortune but if you took the time to list well you’d make it worth your while. I knew people in fact who gave up their day jobs and made a comfortable living using their expertise to root around and buy things either underpriced, or broken or sold in job lots and make them properly marketable before selling them on for a modest profit. Ebay even survived the dot.com bubble bursting, principally because it didn’t actually do anything it merely provided a forum for others to do stuff and provided others were still doing ebay was still creaming it’s bit off the top.

But although one might say ebay had a right to cream a transaction fee for the use of their site, there were flaws in the processes and they were at times system-wide and international and they could be and were often exploited wholesale. I sold a camera some years ago. It was a Minolta of which I was very fond, but that isn’t important, the guy I sold it to had contacted me whilst the auction was still ongoing and asked if he could bid from the US and send it to his cousin. I said provided he paid in advance and understood I could only post ‘international signed for’ then this was fine. I am aware there may be many now aware of the stories who are seeing the direction in which this one is going but I remind you this was some years ago, much of the online community still functioned on goodwill. He bought the item, paid in timely fashion, and asked that the camera be sent to the Ukraine. I stressed again that I would send the item signed for but that this method of postage made no guarantee of arrival, he agreed to the conditions and I duly dispatched the camera, he even left me positive feedback and I reciprocated.

One might have thought the matter was then concluded, and for 30 days so it appeared, until I received a notification from Paypal to tell me that the buyer had notified them that fraudulent transactions had been made on his credit card and Paypal had the authority to investigate and if they found evidence of this to issue a chargeback which meant refunding the buyer’s money. I was not worried by this, I know credit card transactions are subject to insurance for this sort of thing so I responded to Paypal’s investigation with what I knew and expected the matter to go away. Some two weeks later I was informed that the chargeback had been agreed and I was therefore liable for the £250 originally paid for the camera. I asked Paypal what sort of an investigation this was where I should lose my camera and the money when there was not as far as I was aware any implication that I was involved in the fraud. Their only response was that I had sent the item to a non-confirmed address and was therefore not covered by any Paypal seller’s or buyer’s protection. I replied to them that at no stage had I been informed that this was a stipulation and that having looked at the terms and conditions it had taken me the best part of two hours to locate the relevant section, and that perhaps they might like to issue this caveat before such time as a seller ships since they are aware of whether or not the address is confirmed at the time of purchase. At this point they shut down communications entirely and said they were merely the financial agent and declared that therefore this was none of their doing.

I decided to investigate a little and found, quite easily, that a number of people had been ripped off in the same way by the same person, not only that but that one of them had been conned after the point at which my transaction had been registered as fraudulent. This was the final nail in the coffin for any definition of the buyer’s case being authentic as I would have thought on his part the first course of action in such instance is to shut down the credit card and ebay account as it has clearly been compromised. This was not done, either by the buyer himself or by Paypal informing the financial authorities. Furthermore for Paypal to allow a subsequent transaction to go through after they have been notified of fraud smacked at best of negligence and at worst of direct complicity.

I decided not to let the matter rest and reported it to Trading Standards and my local Police. Trading Standards were friendly to the plight but said that as the actual fraud hadn’t taken place in this country there was a grey area for such things and they were currently investigating what could be done in such situations. The police said they’d log it, I never heard from them again. Paypal chased me for a while for the £250 and even threatened to send me a summons to court, at this point I responded and said I would be delighted to discuss the matter in court and looked forward to them furnishing me with a date. Surprisingly enough I heard neither from Paypal nor their solicitors again. I wondered at the time what someone in the same situation would have done had they been less bolshy or less fiscally challenged than I am? I think I already know the answer to that question.

This was not the only problem I had with online auctions and the like but it was by far the worst and concerned a potential loss of the greatest amount of money from my side. It was also the most blatant and easily verifiable episode of financial fraud that I had come across. What struck me was how little anyone appeared to be doing about it. It was as if the issue was in the words of Paul Keating a shudder looking for a spine to run up! All parties wrung their hands and made noises that it wasn’t their jurisdiction, or they were just the 3rd party or the crime was committed outside their patch etc. No-one disputed a crime had taken place, no-one disputed that I was not the perpetrator of the crime, no-one disputed that it highlighted a fundamental systemic flaw in the online transaction system, and no-one was prepared to do anything about it.

I have continued selling on ebay though the pleasure is long since gone and I use it merely for the fact that it is the most plausible way of parting with things that I can’t really afford to give to the local charity shop. My dislike for the system now has undoubtedly benefited the local charity shop who have had to accept bags of stuff that I simply did not want to waste my life away seeing whether or not I might scratch a few pounds here or there. A disingenuous way to give I’ll grant you but if that is a silver lining from this cloud then so be it I’ll take it.

The reason my hatred for ebay has returned from its simmering on the back burner is due to recent events surrounding a couple of items I sold recently. I sold a jacket, I did not get the money I wanted for the jacket but it was not one I wore and due to moving house the need to be rid of unwanted items outweighed the disappointment at the lack of revenue generated by it. I sent the item off along with a rugby shirt bought by the same bidder. Some considerable time after I was surprised to find I had received two negative feedbacks from this buyer. I had not been contacted to say there was a problem so I contacted him. He told me that the jacket was covered in cat hair and he was allergic to it. He said he was going to put it in the bin. I told him that I wasn’t aware that the jacket was covered in hair as it had been in a bag all the time but if he wished to return it to me I would give him a refund. This is standard contract of sale practice. He didn’t mention anything about the rugby shirt.

Before he responded to me personally he opened two ebay cases for both the items claiming they were “items not as described.” I responded that I had already offered him a refund if he returned the jacket and would do so if he particularly wanted to return the shirt too. (For those not familiar with the ebay claims system, as I wasn’t until this point, the buyer can make the case and suggest what his or her favoured action would be. In this case the buyer requested full refund. The ebay system allows you to refund the buyer at any point in the process in fact they entice you to do so by saying that you will have your fees refunded if you do however there is nothing either in procedure or guidelines that accounts for the returning of the items in question.)

[Now you wouldn’t expect to go into Tescos and state that you had bought an item with which you were unhappy and having disposed of the item yourself you would like your money back now, or at least you wouldn’t expect Tescos to honour your request would you?]

At each point I requested the buyer return the items he said he would but also kept saying he’d put the jacket in the bin. I confess I do not know how often the bins in his area were taken, it appears not as often as I am used to. My initial thoughts were that I would have expected if he had an allergy to want to send the items back as soon as possible. Twenty days later and they have not materialised. I am sensing a pattern here. Now this issue would be merely a matter of a chancer trying it on were it not for ebay’s subsequent action. After 14 days had elapsed on the case the buyer has the option to escalate the case to the ebay investigation team. Sadly the ebay investigation team constitutes an automatic acceptance of the buyer’s position and an immediate refund. There is no actual investigation, the whole process is electronically fulfilled with immediate effect. Thus buyer now possesses the goods and his money and the seller is left with nothing.

I decided to call my old friends at Trading Standards, but they don’t talk to you anymore, you have to speak to Consumer Action, who I believe themselves are in potential breach of the Trade & Descriptions Act because ‘action’ appears very much the last thing on their mind. They do give you a case reference number though. They are effectively the business world’s firebreak, the person offering you a cup of tea and a chat when you’ve informed them that the metaphorical world is about to end.

I know I’m not the most capitalistically-minded person but this does strike me as being slightly skewed in favour of the buyer and fundamentally flawed in terms of the flow of goods and capital. Ebay has so often quoted the old Latin ‘caveat emptor’ (buyer beware) but in this instance I think this should be replaced with caveat vendor for you appear to have no recourse whatsoever and if this information gets out it would allow buyers to run rampant thus surely bringing the whole system down…

In conclusion I have thought for a long long time that online auction sites such as ebay have had their day, the user experience for buying and selling is pretty bad and the customer service next to nil, that has always been the case but that they should have been able to get away with the sort of financial dealings usually reserved for the banks strikes me as being a step that most people must consider too far. Where is the alternative coming from, and when?

Song Of The Day ~ Everything Everything – My Kz, Ur Bf

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