When it comes to bidding on eBay, we’ve always held ourselves to a strict $20 limit. Granted, this means we’re largely restricted to throwaway costume jewelry, discarded Smurf memorabilia, the first five episodes of 21 Jumpstreet on VHS (complete with bad ’80s Fruit Roll Up commercials). But overall, we’ve been fine with this—or maybe we’ve just been too scared to shell out a half-month’s paycheck for the Chloe Paddington bag that never arrives, the Dixie cup that Morrissey might’ve touched lips to (but probably not). Hearing from others about how little recourse there is against eBay scammers has always been a deterrent for us, and a call into eBay headquarters in San Diego confirms this: According to eBay spokesperson Catherine England, the company’s main courses of action involve restricting or shutting down accounts, and what she refers to as “rehabilitation and reeducation.” Assuming the perpetrator is not “malicious” but just “new to eBay,” explains England, “there’s a variety of tutorials, training and education materials we’ll ask people to complete.”
These measures are all well and good, of course, providing the perp hasn’t dashed off to a remote tropical island with your precious Prada-bag bucks. eBay does have a free buyer protection program that reimburses victims of fraud. But assuming one even qualifies, the reimbursement covers only a fraction of what was lost and maxes out at $175 per claim. PayPal’s free buyer protection is somewhat better, offering up to $1000 with items purchased through them. But then again, PayPal Buyer Protection is only offered with items from certain pre-approved sellers (for a full list of what qualifies one as an approved seller, go to this).
The bottom line with eBay has always been buyer beware—but how to protect oneself? eBay’s site features an expansive section devoted to this concern—and if unlike us, you aren’t normally too lazy to scan through it all, the safety tips can be extremely beneficial. (In our humble opinion, they should be required reading before one’s even allowed on the site.) While some advice is quite familiar—contact the seller beforehand to discuss the merchandise, review feedback—other tips are worth a closer examination, such as the table that discusses at length the pros and cons of every form of payment. PayPal and credit cards rank highest for their traceability and the potential of retrieving funds; Western Union and Moneygrams rank lowest. “It’s one of those things that once you use that money, it’s gone,” says England. “With other forms of payment, there’s ways to track that money and you’re more likely to recover it.”
For advice from a practiced eBay buyer, we turned to a friend of ours (well, a friend of a friend)—Smoking Gun reporter Joseph Jesselli, who, as an avid collector of baseball and New York memorabilia, has engaged in many successful, high-end transactions over the past 8 years. He says:
1) Never respond to personal emails. After losing bids on expensive musical instruments, Jesselli frequently receives emails from people pretending to be the seller. “I get dozens of [fake] offers to buy the instrument, saying ‘The bidder reneged on the deal, and we’d like to offer it to you at your price.’ It is so rampant that eBay can’t control it. And it happens every single time.”
2) Look for “brick and mortar” sellers. “The authenticity—whether it’s a real Louis Vuitton bag or an autograph of Babe Ruth—that’s where you simply have to buy from a person who knows what they’re doing, and you have to pay for their knowledge.” Sellers of big-ticket items like designer bags or rare collectors’ items will almost always have a more established presence, whether that involves being a known dealer in the field or having an actual shop.
3) Once again: Use PayPal. “It’s incredibly safe,” stresses Jesselli, a sentiment that is also naturally shared by England (eBay owns PayPal): “The nice thing about PayPal is that once you’ve established your account, your financial information is never actually shared with the merchant. Not only are you sending your payment through a secure system, but your information is protected.”
4) Make sure the seller’s feedback is legit. “Sometimes you look at the feedback and it looks canned,” explains Jesselli, “and you certainly want to differentiate between buyer and seller.” What Jesselli means is, click on the feedback from buyers. It doesn’t matter if the person selling is an excellent buyer, you want to know what other customers have to say about the person’s performance as a seller. Always go for sellers with a feedback of 99 percent or more.
5) Correspond with the seller. Both eBay and Jesselli heavily encourage this. By talking with the seller, Jesselli believes, one can usually gain an indication as to his or her credibility. “You can generally tell by the tone of an email whether the person’s real or even in this country.” Although Jesselli does believe there are bargains to be had on eBay, he’s also seen too many scams—”I’ve seen items for sale, where the picture I’ve seen is the same elsewhere—and I know it’s a scam artist who’s selling it.” Occasionally he will even do a Google picture search to check on an item.
“I’ve also asked people if I can call them and talk to them on many occasions.” For an old Marx tin wind-up toy, Jesselli put in a call to the vendor, who was actually selling it on behalf of his mother. The seller didn’t initially trust Jesselli either. “He thought I was trying to scam him,” explains Jesselli. Though it ended up being a “delightful” transaction, for a while there, “it was like spy vs. spy.”