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Thursday, December 04, 2003  

Vigilante site targets eBay scammers

I have several acquaintances who are just getting into the Internet. They consider me their Web resource person. A recurring topic of conversation with them is eBay. Bill, a clerk at a grocery store I sometimes use, is typical. He has purchased items on eBay, but hasn't sold anything so far. Bill is pleased with some of his purchases, mainly books and compact discs, but wary of being taken advantage of. He has encountered the usual problems such as inflated postage, items that don't fit their description and negative feedback from sellers he has done no harm. And, as is also the norm, his complaints to eBay have fallen on deaf ears. Now, someone claims to be providing an alternative complaint system. Court TV has the story.

Christina, a pre-med student at Georgetown University and self-described "denim-fanatic," bought a pair of trendy, low-slung jeans on eBay. But after three weeks, she still had no jeans and no response from the seller to her repeated e-mails.

Christina, who declined to give her last name, knew she had been gypped, but other than leaving the seller negative feedback through the voluntary review system, there was little she could do but file a complaint with eBay.

"I got an e-mail from eBay that said, 'You are not at fault, but we're not going to do anything about it,'" Christina recalls, interpreting the company's response.

So she went to ebayersthatsuck.com, a Web site that encourages a new trend in online auctions -- online vigilantism.

Many new users of eBay don't realize the company purposely makes it difficult to make live contact with it, ignores complaints from buyers and sellers who do a small volume of business and approves a subsidiary, Square Trade, that removes legitimate complaints against savvy eBayers for a fee. The vigilante site may be the only recourse for most small-timers.

The FTC received 51,000 online auction fraud-related complaints in 2002, making it the second largest consumer complaint behind identity theft. Although the crimes are usually simple, tracking down a scammer through his e-mail address or telephone number can be difficult because both are easily changed.

At ebayersthatsuck.com, eBay members concerned about fraud can track down the con artists themselves. They post the user names of buyers and sellers they believe to be deceptive, discuss tips on how to trade safely and exchange information on the latest scams.

But, any site that routinely publishes unproven information that can harm people's reputations is also problematic. I would expect such a site to have difficulty knowing who is telling the truth. Often, the scammer is the person who will complain the loudest. And, what is to prevent eBayers involved in cheating from targeting their victims? Furthermore, if the site is a business, its interest is in encouraging complaints, regardless of their merit.

The proprietor of eBayersthatsuck.com, in addition to being grammatically challenged, has a mixed history at eBay himself.

Ebayersthatsuck.com was created a year ago by Steve Klink, a patrolman with the Paramus, N.J., police department after he paid $80 for a chewed-up wireless speaker. Instead of waiting for eBay to act, he posted his story and the seller's user name on a Web page and e-mailed the link to his offender. Klink even spoke with the seller's mother, and eventually the man returned the money.

But instead of taking the page down then, Klink decided to expand it.

. . . In any case, eBay and ebayersthatsuck.com have a somewhat contentious history. Klink was briefly NARUed this month because his site listed the e-mail addresses of certain suspected fraudulent eBayers, a company no-no. EBay provides an e-mail service that allows members to contact each other via user name alone. Klink says he was reinstated after explaining that he was in the process of removing them anyway.

Earlier, eBay asked Klink to alter his logo for trademark reasons, which he did.

Though it is difficult to determine whether the site has, in fact, led eBay to close the accounts of scammers, the high level of participation suggests ebayersthatsuck.com is influential with the FTC, eBay and eBay users.

Now the site has nearly a thousand registered members and receives an average of 30,000 visits a month. It lists about 200 eBay users to avoid. According to Klink, most of them were "NARU-ed'" (made Not A Registered User) by eBay shortly after he posted their names, although whether their outing was a result of Klink's actions is unknown.

I was disturbed by several aspects of the site when I visited. To do anything at it, including read the listing of alleged scammers or the stories of the victimized, one must join ebayersthatsuck.com. Sites that require membership usually are more interested in compiling information about visitors than anything else. Often, that information is sold to advertisers and spammers. There is no material about privacy posted at the site, so not only could Klink be selling visitor information, he could determine the identities of visitors and use the information for his own purposes. In addition, Klink's Internet business and the ebay complaint forum share the same space, doubtlessly inflating traffic to his sales site.

The track record for auction watchdog sites is not good. Only Klink's outfit seems to be currently active. A successful lawsuit by anyone who has been damaged by being outed there could easily bring ebayersthatsuck.com to an end.

I will tell friends who have complaints regarding transactions on eBay about the site. However, I will not tout it as a solution to being ripped off. The best advice I can give them is to be vigilant. I suspect most new users are taken a few times when they first begin participating in auctions. But, with experience, they learn to recognize dubious propositions and avoid them.

1:24 PM