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eBay Fails to Please

By Brian | March 1, 2009 | Share on Facebook

While I usually try to stay current on all things techie, I must admit that until the other day, I had never tried to buy anything on eBay. Now that I’ve been through it once, I don’t think I’ll ever try again.

I’ve gotten in the habit of watching DVDs on my commute to/from work. The trip is about an hour, so I’ve been watching TV episodes rather than movies (without commercials, I can comfortably watch two sitcom episodes or a single hour-long drama on one trip). One of my favorite series is The West Wing, so I set out to purchase the complete series, figuring 154 episodes could keep me busy for upwards of six months. The retail sites are asking roughly $200 for the set, which strikes me as a little steep, but then a Google search turned up an eBay auction with an $87 “BuyNow” option.

Now, I’m not one to dole out my credit card number to any random website, just because they claim to have a good deal going. But this is eBay. Plus, the seller (“rachel25671″) had a very high rating (I forget the number, but it was over 200, including a 99%+ satisfaction rating, and many positive reviews). Also, the auction claimed she had sold five sets, and still had five more in stock, suggesting that others had successfully purchased it from her in the past. So, I took the plunge.

The first thing I was hit with was a requirement to join PayPal. eBay uses PayPal to manage their credit card transactions. I’ve avoided PayPal in the past because I get so much spam claiming to be from them, and I didn’t want to be in a situation where I’d have to look at each one to see what was real and what wasn’t. I’m sure PayPal executives will hate to read that, but it’s true. Anyway, I had come this far, so I relented and joined PayPal. I gave them my credit card number, but stopped short of linking my account to a bank account for easy deposit/withdrawal.

All seemed to have gone well. I got a confirmation e-mail from eBay that I’d “won” the item, and one from PayPal that said my credit card had been charged. Then, the fun began.

Seven hours after buying (and receiving all the confirmations), I got an e-mail from eBay telling me that the item was no longer available for purchase. The e-mail listed three possible reasons:

– The listing doesn’t follow eBay guidelines.
– The item isn’t allowed on eBay or can only be listed under certain conditions.
– The listing contains pictures or words in it that may have created copyright or trademark issues.

It told me that if the seller could correct them problem, they hope that I’d bid on it again (clearly oblivious to the fact that I used the “BuyNow” option, as well as the fact that they’d already sent me a “You Won the auction” e-mail with purchase confirmation).  Technically, this could have meant that the item was pulled after I purchased it, but the tone of the e-mail gave me the distinct feeling that I wouldn’t be seeing any DVD’s showing up at my door anytime soon.

I went in search of help. eBay’s customer service consists of an online chat application, which would be fine, except that the “person” I got to chat with was obviously a computer feeding automated responses (it tried to appear human, but miserably failed the Turing Test). Anyway, he/she/it basically told me that since I’d used PayPal for payment, eBay couldn’t help me at all. I needed to file a claim with PayPal to stop payment on my credit card. Of course, I used PayPal because I had no other choice in the matter, but that’s besides the point. Basically, eBay had washed it’s hands of me.

On to PayPal. Unlike eBay, their website gives you a phone number to call.  I got a nice, professional (human) gentleman on the phone, who explained to me that yes, the charge had been put on my card, but the transaction was not yet complete, and if I click “Cancel” on the PayPal activity log for that payment, PayPal would credit my card the $87 to make me whole. It was only at this point that I learned that rachel25671′s e-mail address was foxybabes -at- hotmail.com, suggesting that she wasn’t a legitimate seller at all, but merely a way to lure me into some spam/marketing scheme. I asked the PayPal service rep why eBay didn’t screen their sellers before allowing customers to purchase the items, rather than wait until afterwards. As I expected, he couldn’t tell me, since he doesn’t work for eBay and can’t really comment on their practices.

Bottom line: I realize eBay’s in a tough spot with online auctions. It’s got to be very difficult to be sure that online sellers aren’t simply pretending to have the product in order to bilk people out of money, let alone deal with things like copyright violations, sale of illegal items, etc. Similarly, I’m sure they are constantly fighting the battle of illegitimate buyers, who provide fake names, credit card numbers, etc. to attempt to get merchandise they didn’t pay for. To combat these issues, eBay’s instituted an array of techniques (including seller feedback and transaction history) to prevent fraud.

My experience suggests that there are (and likely always will be) holes in the system. A “too good to be true” deal on eBay is just as likely to be exactly that – too good to be true, as it is to be a great find. In addition, the bifurcation of purchase and payment processing left me with a very uneasy feeling about my purchase. eBay had no answers for me at all, and would only direct me to Paypal. PayPal helped clear up the credit card charge (at least I hope they did…), but couldn’t tell me exactly what happened to the auction. Was this a person trying to illegally sell copyrighted material? Was it someone looking to steal my credit card number (and if so, did they succeed?) Or was it simply an elaborate way to get me to send an angry e-mail to “foxybabes,” so the owner of that address could sell my e-mail address to the known universe and triple my spam traffic? I guess I’ll never know…

I also wouldn’t be altogether surprised if, in the coming days, I receive a set of West Wing DVD’s in the mail, or an erroneous $87 charge on my credit card, or additional spam e-mail. Heck, I’m already getting e-mail from eBay saying, “Since you won that auction, why not bid on these?”

I know others have had success there, and I know that eBay is a legitimate concern that tries hard to please it’s customers. But for what it’s worth, this customer will be steering clear of eBay deals from now on…

Topics: Random Acts of Blogging, Tech Talk | 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “eBay Fails to Please”

  1. Jeff Porten says at March 2nd, 2009 at 2:47 am :
    One of my favorite series is The West Wing, so I set out to purchase the complete series, figuring 154 episodes could keep me busy for upwards of six months. The retail sites are asking roughly $200 for the set, which strikes me as a little steep

    Never watched it myself, oddly. But I agree with you that it’s a little steep, especially seeing as how you’ve already paid for it. That is, you’re a cable subscriber, which means every one of those episodes has been fired at your TV many times; the difference between “having a copy” and “not having a copy” is mainly that your home recording technology does not allow an easy way to say, “give me all 154 episodes in a format I can watch on my laptop.” It does, however, give you difficult methods of doing so.

    So this would be a case where I think the ethical limitations against downloading the whole shebang from the Internet are nil, IMO. Your mileage and legal opinions may vary.

    Plus, the seller (“rachel25671″) had a very high rating (I forget the number, but it was over 200, including a 99%+ satisfaction rating, and many positive reviews). Also, the auction claimed she had sold five sets, and still had five more in stock, suggesting that others had successfully purchased it from her in the past.

    I have no idea if it’s possible to spoof high eBay ratings. I guess my instinct that it might be a scam is wondering why a $200 retail item is being sold at such a deep discount?

    I’ve avoided PayPal in the past because I get so much spam claiming to be from them, and I didn’t want to be in a situation where I’d have to look at each one to see what was real and what wasn’t.

    Happy user of PayPal here — legitimate email from them always includes your full name, and IIRC never tells you to click on a link inside the email. My spam filter seems to have generally figured out which messages are legit.

    I got a confirmation e-mail from eBay that I’d “won” the item, and one from PayPal that said my credit card had been charged.

    Any chance that these are the messages that were spoofed somehow? Or that the cancellation message was spoofed? It seems to me that those messages would be a great place to launch a scam by datamining eBay, since any messages you receive immediately after you bid or buy something are going to get through your radar and might induce you to click somewhere you shouldn’t.

    Corollary evidence, the email didn’t know you used BuyNow instead of an auction, whereas eBay does. So the question is, is there any way to figure out your email from the public information at eBay? If so, the original auctioneer might still be legit.

    an online chat application, which would be fine, except that the “person” I got to chat with was obviously a computer feeding automated responses (it tried to appear human, but miserably failed the Turing Test).

    Believe it or not, that was an actual human who failed your Turing test. Computer-automated responses aren’t good enough to run a chat; what you had was a human who used his/her computer-assisted chat extremely poorly.

    Anyway, he/she/it basically told me that since I’d used PayPal for payment, eBay couldn’t help me at all. I needed to file a claim with PayPal to stop payment on my credit card.

    Yeah, that would be corporate bullshit, because a) the transaction was initiated by eBay in the first place, and b) PayPal is wholly owned by eBay.

    Seems to me, the phone call you should have made is to your credit card company?

    It was only at this point that I learned that rachel25671’s e-mail address was foxybabes -at- hotmail.com, suggesting that she wasn’t a legitimate seller at all, but merely a way to lure me into some spam/marketing scheme. I asked the PayPal service rep why eBay didn’t screen their sellers before allowing customers to purchase the items, rather than wait until afterwards.

    LOL. Okay, quick lesson on eBay: you just purchased a DVD set from a legitimate eBay vendor. What do you suppose is the content of most of the DVDs that person sells?

    Suffice to say, depending on what that account was created to sell, that email address might just be good marketing.

    As for eBay screening, that’s a simple answer: eBay makes money on massive volume; excessive screening is not good for their business model. Their goal is to have a reactive operation that keeps everyone at a “high enough” trust level, but to make sure that the revenue streams happen first.

    In addition, the bifurcation of purchase and payment processing left me with a very uneasy feeling about my purchase. eBay had no answers for me at all, and would only direct me to Paypal.

    And you damn well should feel uneasy, since that bifurcation is a deliberate communications decision on their part.

    Was this a person trying to illegally sell copyrighted material?

    Probably not; the copyright infringement here would involve duplicating the DVDs, in which case the seller would likely not be in the US, and the price would be far lower.

    Was it someone looking to steal my credit card number (and if so, did they succeed?)

    Almost certainly not; that’s the whole reason for PayPal, and the legitimate reason why eBay forces you through them.

    Or was it simply an elaborate way to get me to send an angry e-mail to “foxybabes,” so the owner of that address could sell my e-mail address to the known universe and triple my spam traffic?

    No offense, but your email is a) not worth that much effort, and b) easily stolen elsewhere more easily.

    I also wouldn’t be altogether surprised if, in the coming days, I receive a set of West Wing DVD’s in the mail, or an erroneous $87 charge on my credit card, or additional spam e-mail.

    Well, it’s clear that something creepy is going on, and the question is where in this process someone tried to scam you (if anywhere). All you really need to do is pay attention to your credit card charges for a few days, and probably not a bad idea to turn off all your PayPal account options that involve automatically passing through future charges.

  2. Ilya says at March 2nd, 2009 at 5:48 am :
    Sorry to hear that you very first experience went awry, Brian. We have been using eBay for what feels like a decade now, both on buying and selling end. We have two PayPal accounts. Hiccups happen, just as they might with any “remote” commerce, but they are normally overcome quite easily. We’ve even successfully negotiated problem resolution directly with our buying/selling counterparts on occasion.

    I in no way mean this as an advertisement :-) If you had no need to buy or sell anything on eBay before now, then chances are that you will not have a serious need to try it again. But I wanted to offer you an assurance that someone you know has been moderately content with his eBay/PayPal experience to date.

    By the way, I loved West Wing during its run.

  3. Brian says at March 2nd, 2009 at 1:24 pm :
    @Jeff #1:

    I guess my instinct that it might be a scam is wondering why a $200 retail item is being sold at such a deep discount?

    I assumed she was either an a) authorized reseller trying to dump extra inventory on eBay, or b) an individual who had wound up with extra copies and was trying to dump them for some extra cash. Isn’t that why most things are on eBay?

    Also, it should be noted, there are several other eBay auctions out there for the same item. I’m just gun-shy to try them now. Also, I prefer the “BuyNow” model, so I don’t have to spend the next 4-6 days clicking “Refresh” to see if I bought the thing…

    Any chance that . . . he cancellation message was spoofed?

    I thought of that as well. I didn’t click on any link from within an e-mail (high alert mode, now…), and instead went to eBay.com on my own and typed in the auction number from the “you won” e-mail. The auction has been removed from eBay. So the subsequent e-mails were likely legitimate.

    Believe it or not, that was an actual human who failed your Turing test. Computer-automated responses aren’t good enough to run a chat; what you had was a human who used his/her computer-assisted chat extremely poorly.

    Well, after it became obvious that he/she/it couldn’t help me, I typed “are you a computer or a real person?” into the chat, and the response was something like “I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble. Is there anything else I can do to assist you?” Now, there’s bad customer service and then there’s bad customer service. Short of actually saying, “why yes, I’m a computer. How could you tell?” I took that response as pretty convincing evidence…

    Seems to me, the phone call you should have made is to your credit card company?

    I have online access to my credit card’s activity. Interestingly, as of this writing, neither the $87 charge nor the $87 credit have appeared on my card.

    We’ll see which (or either or both) actually show up…

    @Ilya #2:

    Thanks, Ilya – I’m intellectually aware that lots of people use it without a problem, but emotionally scarred (for now) by the experience. If the opportunity arises again, I’ll probably take another plunge, but for now, I’m going to lay off for a while.

    Call it a “customer service penalty box” for eBay, in which they lose a small amount of revenue by straining the trust of a new customer. If only they had a way to track such things. ;-)

  4. jason says at March 2nd, 2009 at 5:05 pm :
    Sorry you had such a lousy experience, Brian. Hopefully it was all just a snafu and you won’t lose any money.

    Sadly, the golden age for eBay was about a decade ago, when it was all individuals peddling the dusty old crap out of their attics, Buy It Now was yet to be invented, and there was a real thrill in winning an auction. Pre-PayPal, everybody exchanged funds with actual paper checks (I know, the friggin’ Dark Ages) which was a lot slower but seemed to go with much less hassle, IMO. The site was like a giant flea market then, and it really was possible to get some amazing stuff at dirt-cheap prices.

    Now, the site is almost entirely dealers, often of questionable providence and often peddling knock-offs and bootlegs of actual items. When you buy a DVD from eBay, there’s a good chance it’s a Chinese pirate job. eBay has effectively priced out the individual seller with a ridiculous fee structure… I’m pretty sour on the whole thing these days, and from what I understand, I’m not the only one.

  5. Jeff Porten says at March 2nd, 2009 at 9:20 pm :
    FWIW, I think eBay is an acquired taste; I think the concept is fascinating as both a retail and a cultural phenomenon, but I’ve never been too thrilled about either shopping or selling there.

    I assumed she was either an a) authorized reseller trying to dump extra inventory on eBay, or b) an individual who had wound up with extra copies and was trying to dump them for some extra cash.

    Well, yes, but even so, most rational sellers wouldn’t sell at a 60% discount unless they had a very good reason. Much better to maximize the sale by putting it up for an auction with a reserve price and leaving out the BuyNow option, unless previous auctions indicated that $90 is the “true” value. Since that means the rest of the market is horrifically overpriced, this seems unlikely.

    I thought of that as well. I didn’t click on any link from within an e-mail (high alert mode, now…), and instead went to eBay.com on my own and typed in the auction number from the “you won” e-mail.

    Smart idea, and helps to isolate the problem. Sounds like you really did get involved with a dicey auction. Again FWIW, I suspect the odds are *very* low that this would happen during your first at bat.

    I typed “are you a computer or a real person?” into the chat, and the response was something like “I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble. Is there anything else I can do to assist you?” Now, there’s bad customer service and then there’s bad customer service.

    Oh, no question that this is bad customer service. But I think it’s more likely you were dealing with a human who was using macros to manage 30 simultaneous chat windows, and doing very badly, than with a computer.

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