ARTICLES  BY SHIRL A. STEWARD

(from her SFNM blog 2003-8)

Slight of 'mouse' ľ Fraudsters on eBay and beyond

 

By Shirl A. Steward

 

It's true. There is a lot of criticism and controversy about eBay. However, despite it all, Ebay, founded in 1995 by Pierre Omidyar, is thriving with millions of auctions starting and ending every day. My guess is the company is not going away or folding any time soon.

 The above book "Dawn of the eBay deadbeats" contains, according to Amazon.com, "stories told by those who have been suckered, snookered, pinched, and robbed while buying and selling on eBay."  None of these stories is unique.  Might you be one of them?

How is this possible? How does eBay stay afloat with so much fraud and criticism shot at them? What of the various class action suits that claim eBay isn't all it says? One article I saw mentioned a suit seeking $9.3 million in damages. And, there've been others.

What of the claims, that eBay itself and not just sellers, are bidding near auction end times to boast winning prices? Is there any truth to this claim? And, back to the eBay auctioneers themselves . . . exactly how much fraud is going on behind the screens of auctioneers? Will we ever know?

I wish I could answer these questions but I can't. What I can do is share what I have been witness to . . . the experiences that a couple of friends and I have had with eBay.

I first got interested in writing about eBay over a year ago.

It just so happened that a friend was one of many 'victims' testifying in the latest eBay class action suit. She wanted me to tell her story. My friend, an artist, had a storefront on eBay in which she displayed and sold her art. She still sells on eBay but only with a carefully executed regiment. She has a much more discerning attitude these days.

There is a reason behind that change of heart. In fact, when someone told her about the suit going on, her frustrations regarding losses and experiences lead her to join the ranks of those victimized already committed to testifying about their experiences.

Each incident in itself could have been a mistake and easily corrected by eBay, my friend reasoned, but that's not quite the way it went down. First, she was billed numerous times for the same auctions or the auction fees were miscalculated and she was overcharged. When she complained, instead of crediting her, they billed her again. She had also taken advantage of a special eBay had for a very basic storefront. It was only $10 a month or so she thought. Instead of receiving what she had signed up for, without permission or request of confirmation, she was upgraded to a full-blown storefront with all the trimmings. She complained again . . . but many months later, she was still fighting eBay to credit her and remove options on her account she hadn't requested.                         

She found then that many others in New Mexico , her state of residence, had similar complains that continued to go without resolution. Contacting eBay by phone wasn't an easy option. At least, it was for my friend. With no tech support hotline, all correspondence and complaints had to be done by email and through the eBay website interface. It is my experience, by the way, that this interface, with all its lackings, is probably one of the most frustrating of communicating tools in existence on the worldwide web today.

These eBay users were all getting the identical feeling. They felt that eBay was looking the other way on all these 'mistakes' . . . Although, all tiny in comparison to the huge revenues being generated at eBay daily, they knew the total damages could amount to many tens, or even, hundreds of thousands of dollars if it is assumed that such random errors are but a mere sampling of the multitude of similar occurrences in the greater eBay mix. The initiators of the Class Action Suit obviously thought so.

The case finally settled out of court. The official word is that eBay won. There was a settlement but the amount was immaterial, according to my friend. The lawyers donated all of it to charity.

Nope, the money didn't matter. It was a small figure in comparison to what they had originally asked for. No, it was point of it all. To take on a giant like eBay and make them accountable for the many problems and inefficiencies in their systems was well worth the satisfaction gained.

Then there is my experience . . .

Not long ago I was on eBay looking for a professional camera. I was eager to see what I would find both new and used. However, it had been quite a while since I'd last taken any time to even browse on eBay. In fact, I had to look up my username and password. I had forgotten it.

One thing I noticed right away was that usernames were not given in the auctions 'listings' generated from a simple search anymore. I found this quite annoying. It made it a bit harder to shop from a general list if you wanted to avoid certain auctioneers. Anyway . . . I made due.

Pretty soon I happened upon an auction that sounded a bit too good to be true. It intrigued me. I guess it was because I like solving puzzles. The auction was very unclear as to what actually was being offered for sale. Many items were mentioned in the ad but not specifically 'as' included in the sale offerings. So, I emailed the seller. This person had listed an email in the body of the text. It said I should email first before making any bids. I went in pretty na´ve I guess. I didn't suspect foul play. I didn't think anything of these facts until I widen my search and started making comparisons.

Moments later, I found several other auctions with exactly the same photos, description and format as the previous one but the seller was different. Again, I didn't think that so strange. I figured it could be the same person double-listing under two names to increase their chances for finding buyers. I hadn't yet heard from the first email so I wrote the second seller then with the same enquiry made to the first and also mentioned this similarity and doubling of listings. That was my second mistake. My first mistake was sending an email at all to either party.

A few hours passed and I got a reply back from the first guy. He said that the Canon camera I enquired about was 100% brand new, in 'the' box, with the full TWO-year standard manufacturer's warranty. Big red flag went up. I spent a number of years working as a manufacturer's rep for Canon so I knew for a fact that they offered only a one-year warranty. Any legitimate seller would have known this. In fact, anyone, who's bought electronics in the last 10 years, would know.

I went back and looked for his original auction listing then. I just wanted to refresh my memory of what was said so I could better respond. The auction did not exist anymore! Someone had removed it.

I did not write back. Nor did I get a response from the second auctioneer I emailed.

Now rather suspicious and also very curious, I began searching, outside the camera category, for some of the 'suspect' phrases within these two sets of previously found auctions. I started finding patterns in the way phrases were used. They always had an email listed in the text body with wording to the effect that the bidder should email them before making any bids. The word answer was often spelled answear. Is there such a spelling somewhere in the world? There must be. I found it by itself many times in other auctions without the other phrase patterns' accompanying. Either, it's a real word or these guys are pretty stupid or, even a worse case scenario would be that they did the misspellings and these similar phrases as a 'red herring' on purpose. This means that they might actually WANT their errors in the auctions to be detected.  Now, why would they want to do that? Think about the possibilities there one for a moment . . .

Yes, all these auctions were fraudulent. Big surprise, huh? I could not believe I had come face-to-face with a fraud ring. But, it gets more interesting . . .

So, what do I do? Simple. I reported all the auctions I found to eBay as suspicious and as possibly fraudulent. Of course, it wasn't that easy finding a suitable method to do the reporting. But that's another story.

Then, a funny thing happened just moments after making my report. Well, not such a funny thing really.

When I checked my email, there were several pages of emails from eBay saying I had placed auctions. There were 79 of them to be exact! I was in shock. I was horrified. What was going on? I was most perplexed.

I looked at the auctions that had been placed on my account in my name. They all had the same sort of patterns I had detected in the auctions I had reported.

I was now the one being victimized. Panic ran through me . . . I thought of all the charges that might soon be charged to my account and how much just the listings fees alone would be. I knew I had to act fact to avoid financial disaster.

For one thing, it meant immediately making arrangements to close my VISA and my bank account to protect what I had on deposit.

I took a deep breath and tried to remain calm.

I searched for a way to contact eBay. There was no phone number and no readily visible button anywhere that said 'click here if your eBay ID has been compromised'. Fortunately, in my case, there was a lucky 'accident' though. Someone had sent me a question on one of the 79 fraudulent listings. I clicked on the button to respond so I could explain that it wasn't my auction. Maybe, I thought, it would help prove to eBay I tried to do something.

I wrote a message but, when I tried to send it, I was instantly taken to a live chat screen where an operator was waiting to clarify the situation.

That's when I actually got to talk to one of the eBay representatives and on the phone, no less! The individual had to confirm I was the 'real' owner of the ID in question so he called me at home and we talked. After he verified I was the true ID owner, he reassumed me that all trace of the 79 listings had been successfully removed from my account and that my status as an eBay consumer has not been tarnished by the incident. He could not speak freely on the general issue or prevalence of eBay fraud but his manner, though compassionate, was quite mechanical. That said to me that such explanations, made to victims of account compromise, were all just a matter of daily routine.

Jeez, a part of daily routine? "Could it be that bad?", I thought.

I have since reported thousands of fraudulent listings I've seen on other users' accounts. It became a daily part of 'the research' for this article. I wanted to know how much and how it was happening.

My theory is this . . . The fraudsters, as I call them, hack into probably a hundred or more accounts a day. I assume they choose inactive accounts or those of low activity level because it limits immediate detection. They chose me simply because I got wind of their scheme and told them so. They got pissed. A friend of mine had his account compromised just two days later. I'm not sure if they made the connection between us (we bid on similar things).

Anyway, back to my theory . . . I'd say, the fraudsters have a huge bank of auctions somewhere ready to be uploaded. Before upload, minor changes are made in the listings then, so the listings have some uniqueness as to identity . . . a new email, a slight change in wording, a new photo . . . but the items remain much the same . . . mostly big tickets items . . . nothing is sacred though. You might see anything that has the potential to bring in a few hundred dollars or more. I've seen mobile homes, campers, trucks, animal transport vehicles, cameras, computers and big screen hi-def TVs. Apparently, in a split second, they are all posted simultaneously to the stolen account. (see mention of this below on how to detect a fraud)

The concern I have with all this is the 'unknown territory' . . . all the things that we don't know might be happening behind the scenes disguised by this endless fašade of 'red herrings.' Thousands of them appear daily. As soon as they are spotted by users, they are taken down by eBay.

Here are my concerns:

(1) These fraud listings are just TOO easy to spot. They always have the same wording. They always have an email and the phrasing similar to 'email me before you bid'. They are always placed on stolen accounts. Are they truly 'red herrings' planted to take every one off the trail of an even bigger plot to defraud eBay buyers?
(2) There is quite obviously a very distinct pattern to these fraudulent listings. Why hasn't eBay devised a system for filtering them out BEFORE they wind up as actual auctions? Certain combinations of words could send up an alert to eBay and that auction could be put on hold for approval before being made active. It seems simple enough. We do it at the newspaper with reader comments. Yes, simple enough but why hasn't eBay taken action on this?
(3) EBay automatically detects these fraud auctions when they are detected.  They ONLY notify people who have bid on those specific auctions that they are dealing with fraud perpetrators.     Why of those who actually take the bait and they (1) email the fraudster and (2) are drawn into sending Western Union
payments.   When these people find out they have been defrauded and try to go back to eBay, they WILL have problems.   First, the auction has been deleted.  That means that there is NO trace of the auction on eBay anymore.  Second, if they try to use the standard system of reporting and input the auction number, their attempt at communication will be rejected!     This is because the system will not recognize correspondence on an auction without an current ID number!    Rather convenient for eBay, I'd say.    Maybe a bit too convenient.  The system does not encourage victims to seek retribution or reimbursement.   It challenges them, instead, to just grin and bear their losses.   One can certainly send an email using another valid auction number and explain the situation from there but then things will get confusing.   In the end, the person is not only defrauded but driven to humiliation by a very user-unfriendly eBay system.

Reporting Frauds and how to spot them . . .

How do you report that someone has compromised your account or someone else's? I'm not sure if there is an established procedure but the following is what I did and it continues to work for me.

I went to the help page to the link called Security Center. I clicked on that link and the following links in this order: 'report another problem', 'listing violations', 'fraudulent items' and finally 'you suspect that a listing is fraudulent you didn't bid'. That gave me an email body in which to place my report. When you come to the email body put in some of the auction ID numbers, then in the body give your eBay ID and that your account has been used without permission for fraudulent auctions. Ebay will get back to you. They will send you confirmation that the emails have been cancelled and removed from your account without consequence. Your account will be temporarily suspended until they have identified you are the rightful party of the eBay account.

If this same thing happens to you, do not panic. Just follow the above instructions. From my experience, I would estimate there are thousands of these 'bad' listings on eBay every day.

I found more than a 1000 auctions that first night. They were all fraudulent. They all had the same patterns of words and the emails used were used in a 'run' . . . meaning that they all had the same emails or phrases listed. In addition, it appears that these auctions are slightly altered each time and added in a batch clump at the exact same moment. If you see 7-100 auctions all with the same ending time, it's a dead giveaway that's it's a fraudster's work. What I mean is that they picked various usernames and 'attached' auctions to them. It could be anyone's ID and yours in non exception!

EBAY KNOWS all about these people so contact them immediately and don't panic!

As a last word, I will mention here that one can still enjoy buying and selling on eBay.   As long as you look for the "clues" that will alert you to bad or fraudulent auctions, question everything you find the least bite suspicious and exercise extreme caution, you should not have a problem.    Since my experience, I have purchases 15 items on eBay.   All of them shipped fast and gave me exactly what I was expecting.    Also remember the old standby:  If it's sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

There are a lot of great deals on eBay.  Enjoy but be ever cautious!

Other Resources:

If you have an eBay complaint, you might first share your experience with others at http://www.ebayersthatsuck.com

Beware of eBay deadbeats, author warns - Book review of eBay deadbeats

 Beware of eBay deadbeats, author warns from PhysOrg.com
Imagine buying vintage Spiderman comics for $16,000 and receiving instead, a box of printer paper or losing a whopping $27,000 in purchasing a big rig that didn't exist in the first place. These are just many of the online auction fraud horror stories that brothers Edward and Steve Klink compiled from their eBay watchdog Web site eBayersThatSuck.com (E.T.S.). [
...]

 

 

 

Coss, 'The City Different' and its merchants conflicted

By Shirl A. Steward

 

I attended the recent Coffee with Mayor Coss last Tuesday.  It was the second of many meetings Coss plans to hold with local business owners and various other interest groups.  I'd estimate about 60 or so business people showed up.   Several friends who are merchants were also in attendance. 

 

There was a handout.  It contained an update on events since the first meeting and listed all the many unresolved issues to be discussed as an ongoing attempt to find solutions amidst a seemingly impossible maze of conflicting merchant viewpoints and needs.  

 

I sat there wondered to myself, 'How will Coss ever find a set of workable solutions for all these demands for change?'  All are equally valid but all conflicting and all from individuals with widely varying interests.  To please one, another's needs must be sacrificed or  . . . is it possible there is a solution that will please all? 

 

Humm.

 

So many before Coss, have tried and failed over the past 26 years.  It seems as much a can of worms as it ever was.  Now, Coss must take this albatross in hand and bring all into balance as best he can.  A daunting task at best.

 

I looked at Coss' face.  It was full of a determination I had to admire.  Oddly, he seemed a bit older than the excited newly elected mayor I had greeted on the street just a few months earlier.  Will his excitement as a new mayor fuel him enough to make things happen?  Will he . . . can he be the miracle worker that Santa Fe needs and all those before him couldn't be?

 

For a few moments, the suggestion of a council of merchants from several in the audience and city staff seemed like a godsend pressure release valve.  That, and the mention of new procedural guidelines in the works, that would be easily enforced and understood, noticeably relaxed some and incited others.

 

Let us look at the situation . . .

 

On the one hand, we have the established business owners near the Plaza.  These people pay high rents for the privilege of carrying on business in the downtown area.  They want and need more parking . . . not just available and reasonably priced parking but a viable means of access to that parking.   This parking issue alone, which has never been adequately addressed, is becoming a problem of daunting portion. 

 

However, that's only one issue.  Tourism is at an all-time low.  Something needs to be done to draw the masses back to Santa Fe, not just to a certain street or block of stores.  All businesses are suffering due to the downward trend in tourist trade.  Indeed, we must ask what has driven them away and what must we do to bring them back?  

 

Al Wadle, owner of Wadle Galleries, had one answer to that question.  All agreed with him that Santa Fe 's image isn't what it was some 25 years ago.  Santa Fe was once a quaint town that had the very best of Southwestern arts which attracted a very select well-to-do clientele.   Santa Fe was a thriving community.  It was the goose that laid the golden egg . . . but we are killing that goose, he said, by allowing nonjuried shows and non-New Mexican merchandise being sold at street and random unchecked vendors in every hotel?  Due to all this and other factors that come into play, Santa Fe has lost its 'uniqueness'.

 

Merchants say they are drowning because of the high rents and lack of foot traffic.  They also say they suffer because both Plaza vendors and shows that carry non-New Mexican 'i.e. nonauthentic' products, block streets and steal foot traffic have been permitted to continue doing business.  Signs that promise huge discounts from fake closeouts also persist and harm the majority.  Then, there's the new convention center and other downtown renovations.  These new expansions trouble them.  They fear that more businesses will come with which they must share the dwindling influx of tourists . . . cause congested traffic and even fewer places to park.

 

On the issue of lack of adequate parking, Coss said that, although there is much development going on that might bring more merchants into the competitive marketplace picture, the city has also planned to expand bus routes and add more shuttles to compensate. 

 

Unfortunately, that wasn't exactly the answer that any in the audience wanted to hear.   Most tourists have their own cars and, being unfamiliar with a city, usually prefer to drive.  I ride the bus to work myself.  Often I am the sole passenger or see only a handful of others.  The tourists are obviously not taking the buses.  But, with gas so costly, why aren't the buses more full?   I'd heard some say it's because they're too few and go to all the wrong places.  Why, indeed, are Santa Fe residents avoiding the buses?

 

Forget tourists for the moment.  Is there anything the city can do to make taking a bus more attractive to just the residents of Santa Fe? Perhaps, if we could analyze and solve that problem, we'd learn how to attract tourists to take the buses also.  Attracting more people, both tourists AND residents, to the downtown shopping district would mean more business for all.

 

Then there are the street and show vendors.  Both defend their low fees to operate on the fact they must deal with the uncertainty of facing a sunny warm day or the stormy cold . . . success or bust is totally dependent on the turns of weather.  A rained out show bring no monetary returns.  They must pay fees be it rain or shine.  Downtown merchants see them as a threat.  Vendors see merchants as a threat.  They both see shows as a threat.  The reasons are obvious.  Is there any winning by compromise here?

 

Cliff Mills of Blue Door Studios, a vendor of blended art and historical photography, expressed his concerns about authenticity and the prevalence of fake goods, including fake certificates of authenticity, in shops, among Plaza artisans and show vendors' booths.  He insists that authenticity must be defined and it must be defined in writing as being purely "New Mexican".

 

I guess it all boils down to the question of whether we can do something to stop Santa Fe from becoming just another of the "tourist traps" that large cities such as San Francisco and New York have become.   All the major cities are packed with merchants hawking all sorts of cheap and 'poorly constructed' mass produced merchandise. It cheapens Santa Fe and contributes to the loss of our image as 'The City Different' Al Wadle mentioned.

 

No doubt, it is costing the city much in lost revenues.  Look at places like Sedona. It's a tourist Mecca (mostly because of the artists and the energy centers). But, they don't have bunches of people selling everything. Another good example is Jackson Hole, WY.

 

Tom Maguire, Interim Director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, mentioned the possibility of creating guidelines for an authenticity branding whereby products could receive an official stamp 'made in Santa Fe' or 'made in New Mexico'.   In theory, it seems like a great idea but I wonder how much such a system would cost to administer so that it would actually be an effective deterrent against fake brandings.  Also, how hard would it be to enforce such a system?

 

And, would the elimination of all 'fakes' and non-New Mexican items from Santa Fe shelves truly be the solution to regaining "our share" of the tourist trade we think belongs to our community?   Or, is this simply another pipedream?  I doubt if the answer is quite so simple. 

 

I've merely touched on a few issues here.  Please see Bob Quick's article on the event.  It does a great job of summarizing all the issues.  I'd highly recommend you read it if you'd like to know more.

__________________________________________
Shirl, wrote these articles on her blog while a member of the SFNM newsroom staff as a web producer/editor and can be reached via email at shirl.steward@gmail.com.   She is a photographer, journalist and writer of fiction and children's books as well.