Why ‘sit­ting duck’ eBay sell­ers are fi­nally tak­ing a stand against the scam­mers

It’s a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple as they fall vic­tim to the auc­tion site’s lav­ish ‘buyer-pro­tec­tion’, writes Anna Tims

The Observer - - Cash -

Vishal Vora used eBay to auc­tion a £115 BabyBjörn bouncer when his chil­dren had grown out of it. He washed it, listed it as used and ac­cepted an of­fer of £56 plus £5 postage from an ex­pec­tant mother. As soon as it was de­liv­ered the buyer com­plained that it was “lit­er­ally cov­ered in fae­ces” and de­manded a £20 re­duc­tion in the price. Vora of­fered £7.50, al­though the screen­shot of a photo sent by the buyer did not show ev­i­dence of stain­ing.

The buyer then opened a case with eBay which ad­vised she could re­turn it and re­ceive a re­fund. She was duly re­funded by the com­pany but she never sent the bouncer back. Weeks later, Vora found pho­tos on the buyer’s so­cial me­dia ac­counts show­ing her baby hap­pily in­stalled in it.

For most eBay sell­ers the story would end there. Vora, how­ever, de­cided to make a stand. He emailed the buyer de­mand­ing the item, or his money back. She then re­ported him to the po­lice for ha­rass­ment. So he took her to court and, two years af­ter the sale, was awarded £62.

“It hap­pens of­ten, buy­ers think­ing they are en­ti­tled to free goods due to eBay’s lib­eral ap­proach to re­funds,” he says. “My case wasn’t about money, more about the prin­ci­ple.”

The prin­ci­ple came at a cost – the £70 in court fees and ad­min­is­tra­tion out­weighed the award and he must find a fur­ther £70 if he wants a sum­mary of the judg­ment.

In 2014 Vora is­sued le­gal pro­ceed­ings af­ter sell­ing an iPhone4 to a buyer who claimed the box ar­rived empty. De­spite proof from the Post Of­fice that the par­cel weight cor­re­sponded with a hand­set, eBay re­funded the buyer. It even­tu­ally set­tled out of court.

Vora is one of a le­gion of sell­ers to have fallen vic­tim to eBay’s lav­ish buyer-pro­tec­tion pol­icy. Launched in 2013, it re­funds buy­ers who raise a dis­pute if an item is not re­ceived, or not as de­scribed. The prom­ise was to en­cour­age buyer con­fi­dence in the on­line auc­tion site, but it can be ex­ploited by un­scrupu­lous buy­ers to ob­tain free goods. Scores of sell­ers, both pri­vate and busi­ness, have con­tacted the Ob­server over the years to com­plain that the com­pany has un­ques­tion­ingly re­funded buy­ers who had failed to re­turn the goods they bought or sent them back used, dam­aged or sub­sti­tuted.

Anna Wabrob­ska is a busi­ness seller of car parts. When a buyer re­turned a part, which he ad­mit­ted had been dam­aged by his me­chanic, eBay told her it would in­ves­ti­gate but then re­funded the buyer with­out her knowl­edge.

“When I ap­pealed they told me to sub­mit a po­lice re­port,” she says. “The po­lice say they do not deal with such cases, so eBay told me to get a crime ref­er­ence num­ber from Ac­tion Fraud. I did so, but my ap­peal was re­jected as I did not pro­vide the re­port from the po­lice.”

Ebay told the Ob­server that, as the buyer had de­clared the part “not as de­scribed”, he was due a re­fund. Busi­ness sell­ers do not have the right to ap­peal against a de­ci­sion un­der eBay rules which leaves a court as the only al­ter­na­tive, it says.

Cather­ine Lewis was left out of pocket af­ter sell­ing a coat. When the buyer claimed she had not re­ceived it, eBay is­sued a re­fund. But when Lewis stud­ied feed­back about the buyer, she got a shock. “All the mes­sages told the same story,” she says. “Buyer claimed item didn’t ar­rive, eBay gave re­fund. Even on items that were signed for. Worse, the buyer has been re­ported to eBay three times be­fore for this and no ac­tion has been taken.” Only when the Ob­server in­ter­vened did eBay re­fund Lewis.

Ebay in­sists that each dis­pute is in­ves­ti­gated be­fore re­funds are is­sued. “As an on­line mar­ket­place we take ac­tion to pro­tect thou­sands of sell­ers in the UK ev­ery month, and we’re con­stantly im­prov­ing our sys­tems to make our mar­ket­place as safe as pos­si­ble,” it in­sists. “Our team is on the look­out 24/7 for bad buyer be­hav­iour and they’re backed by largescale, au­to­mated de­tec­tion sys­tems that ex­am­ine mil­lions of trans­ac­tions ev­ery day.”

How­ever, the com­pany freely ac­knowl­edges that its poli­cies are de­signed to keep cus­tomers spend­ing. Buy­ers can, for in­stance, leave anony­mous neg­a­tive feed­back against a seller, but sell­ers are only given a pos­i­tive but­ton to rate buy­ers, al­though they can type a more forth­right com­ment be­neath the cheery “+” head­ing. The seller’s only re­course, if a com­ment un­jus­ti­fi­ably dam­ages their sta­tus, is to re­port a buyer to eBay and neg­a­tive com­ments are only re­moved if eBay re­ceives nu­mer­ous com­plaints about an in­di­vid­ual.

Most con­tro­ver­sially of all, any case opened by a buyer shows as a de­fect on the seller’s record and a max­i­mum de­fect rate of 2% (0.5% for top-rated sell­ers) is per­mit­ted be­fore penalty fees kick in.

Since eBay or­dered its busi­ness sell­ers to ex­tend their re­turns pol­icy from 14 to 30 days last year, sell­ers com­plain that re­turn rates have es­ca­lated and they are be­ing pe­nalised for com­ply­ing. Cus­tomers who change

‘It hap­pens of­ten, buy­ers think­ing they are en­ti­tled to free goods due to eBay’s lib­eral ap­proach to re­funds’ Vishal Vora, eBay seller

their mind about a pur­chase of­ten cite a re­turn as “not as de­scribed” rather than “no longer wanted” to avoid in­cur­ring postage charges and these count against a seller un­less they are suc­cess­fully ap­pealed.

Ebay coun­ters that its penalty fees for re­turn rates of over 2% are “to en­sure buy­ers re­ceive the best shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence pos­si­ble, bring­ing more buy­ers and more sales for sell­ers” and “ma­li­ciously filed re­turns are stripped out of the cal­cu­la­tions”.

Like Vishal Vora, other sell­ers are fight­ing back. Roland Grimm, a per­sonal seller, sold a Tan­noy to a buyer who, 60 days af­ter con­firm­ing re­ceipt, claimed it had never ar­rived and raised a dis­pute with PayPal which of­fers an al­ter­na­tive buyer pro­tec­tion scheme to eBay.

“Pro­fes­sional scam­mers of­ten never no­tify eBay, nor leave feed­back be­cause, if they do, sell­ers can re­spond via feed­back which stays for­ever to warn other sell­ers,” he says. “In­stead, they make a PayPal claim af­ter 60 days when the sales record for a trans­ac­tion dis­ap­pears from the seller’s file and feed­back can no longer be left on the buyer’s record.”

Grimm sup­plied PayPal with proof of postage and the buyer’s con­fir­ma­tion of re­ceipt but PayPal none­the­less is­sued a re­fund. It even­tu­ally set­tled out of court days be­fore the hear­ing. The com­pany de­clined to com­ment.

Grimm is now con­sid­er­ing le­gal ac­tion against eBay af­ter a seller claimed a key­board he had sold was de­fec­tive. It was re­turned dam­aged. In its re­sponse to the buyer, eBay wrote that al­though the item had been re­turned “in a dif­fer­ent con­di­tion to which it was sent” he would be re­funded any­way.

Ebay claimed that, since it can’t ver­ify the con­di­tion an item is re­turned in, it re­funds sell­ers on a cour­tesy ba­sis, but that Grimm has made sev­eral such claims of re­turned goods, so no longer qual­i­fies. Ian Ew­ers re­ceived a sim­i­lar mes­sage to Grimm af­ter a buyer claimed two brand new £2,300 power sup­ply units he’d sold were faulty a week af­ter leav­ing a fives­tar re­view of them. They were sent back un­boxed, poorly pack­aged and ap­par­ently dam­aged dur­ing use.

He sent be­fore and af­ter pho­tos to eBay who told him they would re­fund the buyer and Ew­ers could ap­peal against their de­ci­sion af­ter­wards. When he tried to do so, he was re­fused. A mes­sage from cus­tomer ser­vices ex­plained opaquely: “I un­der­stand that in our re­turn pol­icy the buyer should re­turn an item in same con­di­tion and most of the times we our seller how if they re­ceive item back in dif­fer­ent con­di­tion. How­ever, there are pol­icy in place for this seller’s cov­er­age and I am afraid in this case it would not be pos­si­ble to grant your ap­peal [sic].”

Ebay told the Ob­server that busi­ness sell­ers can’t ap­peal against faulty re­turns and says since the buyer pro­vided a de­tailed de­scrip­tion of the prob­lem he had a right to re­turn the goods. It has since un­leashed debt col­lec­tors to re­cover the £2,300 from Ew­ers. “I’ve told them to take me to court and I look for­ward to de­fend­ing the claim if it ever hap­pens,” he says. He has also with­drawn his cus­tom from eBay to whom he’s paid nearly £30,000 in sell­ers’ fees over 14 years. “I have fi­nally re­alised I can­not do busi­ness with this com­pany any longer,” he says. “Ebay sell­ers are like sit­ting ducks wait­ing to be scammed.”

Pho­to­graph by Chris­tian Junge­blodt

Pay­ing the price: Vishal Vora sim­ply asked for an al­legedly dam­aged item he had sold to be re­turned.

Sell­ers be­ware! But eBay in­sists that each dis­pute is in­ves­ti­gated be­fore re­funds are is­sued.

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