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Advice for eBay Buyers

(Note:  This article was written in 2003 and has been revised several times.  However, now (in 2006) I am using eBay very little, so I am not sure that all the information is still current.  For example, if eBay has changed the way they handle buyer complaints, I am not aware of that.  Nonetheless, the basic advice in the article is still sound.)

I've written out my views on eBay in order to help buyers avoid being scammed.  I hope you find this useful.  eBay is like any other market:  some sellers are honest and some are dishonest; and then there are sellers who fall in the middle:  they are basically honest but don't have the most customer-friendly policies or attitudes.  My purpose is to help you identify the honest sellers so you can avoid a bad experience.

Interpreting Feedback

It is very important that you read feedback, but even more important that you know how to interpret feedback.  Negative feedback about a seller will tell you much more than negative feedback about a buyer.  That's because sellers have all the advantages on eBay.  Basically, a bad buyer can do only one thing wrong, and that is to not pay for an item (or to pay late).  But sellers can do many things wrong.  They can:

  misrepresent the item
  overcharge for shipping
  ship the item late
  not ship the item at all

Amount of negative feedback.  Once the buyer has sent his money to the seller, the buyer is at the seller's mercy.  Thus, you should always read feedback carefully to make sure the seller is honest.  If the seller has more than just a few negative feedbacks, you should not bid.  This is true even if the seller has sold thousands of items.  You may say to yourself, "20 negative feedbacks isn't that bad for someone who has sold 2,000 items that's only 1%".  But 20 negative feedbacks is a terrible track record.  It is entirely possible for a seller to sell thousands of items and get only a few negative feedbacks.  Do you really want to buy from someone who has made 20 customers angry?  For every buyer who leaves negative feedback, there may be one or two who do not because they don't want to get negative feedback in return.  The negative feedback you see is just the tip of the iceberg.  Neutral feedback should also be examined, as many buyers give neutral feedback, instead of negative feedback, in the hope that the seller won't give them negative feedback in return.

Nature of negative feedback.  The nature of the feedback a seller gets will tell you what kind of seller you are dealing with.  If most of the negative feedback says "the item was shipped late", then you know you have a tardy seller.  That's not as bad as "the item was never shipped" or "the item was damaged" or "the item was misrepresented".  A seller who has a lot of complaints about damaged or misrepresented items is unloading bad items on his buyers.  If just one buyer says that an item was misrepresented, you can discount it; but if many do, then you know it's true.  A seller who has a lot of complaints about shipments that didn't arrive is a seller who is stiffing his customers by you guessed it not shipping some items.  The seller will always claim that the item was lost in the mail, but I can tell you from experience that the number of items lost in the mail is very small as of winter 2006, I have shipped thousands of packages and only about two have been reported as lost.

You should also look at the seller's responses to the negative feedback.  If the responses are angry and defensive, then you know the seller is hostile.  In addition, you should look at the feedback the seller has left others.  If the seller gives a lot of negative feedback, then you should avoid that seller, as it means you may get negative feedback too.

The "eBay Shuffle"

I call this the "eBay Shuffle" for want of a better term if you come up with a better term, let me know.

Some sellers have discovered a dirty little secret, and that is that they can get negative feedback and still do a good business on eBay.  They have learned that there are plenty of careless buyers who don't check feedback or don't know how much negative feedback is too much.  Here is how the eBay Shuffle works:

The seller has a defective item he'd like to turn into cash, so he puts it up for bid saying it's perfect.  When the buyer gets the item, he is pretty much stuck.  If he writes to the seller demanding a refund and the seller says "sure", the buyer risks being victimized a second time when he returns the item.  That's because the seller will then have both the item and the buyer's money, and the buyer will have shelled out money for two shipments and have nothing to show for it!  If the seller doesn't ship a new item or refund the buyer's money, then the buyer has been cheated twice.  Since the seller has concluded that he can get away with a certain amount of negative feedback, he doesn't care if the buyer leaves an angry message about him.  He has made his money on the deal, and that's all that matters to him.

The buyer's hands are tied in another way:  If he leaves negative feedback, he risks getting negative feedback in return.  And since the seller is dishonest, it is possible even likely that the seller will make up lies about him.  (That happened to me.)

Complaining to eBay won't do you any good.  eBay's position is "this seller has only 1% or 2% negative feedback, so he's doing okay".  But as I said before, that's a lot of negative feedback!  eBay tolerates these shysters because it makes money from their transactions.  eBay doesn't care that you've been cheated any more than the seller cares.

The "eBay Insurance Shuffle"

This is similar to the "eBay Shuffle", but it involves an insurance scam.

The seller has a defective item he'd like to turn into cash, so he puts it up for bid saying it's perfect.  In his payment terms, he will insist that the buyer pay for postal insurance, or he may pay for the insurance himself.  When the buyer gets the item and complains, the seller says "it must have been damaged in shipment just file a claim with the post office".  That way, the seller gets his money and so does the buyer, except that the buyer is out the money he paid for shipping, and both parties have scammed the postal system.  In such cases, the seller always withholds his feedback to see how the buyer will react.  Most buyers don't want a fight, and they certainly don't want negative feedback, so they go along with the scam.  Sometimes the seller will send the buyer an inflated invoice so that the buyer can recover enough money to cover the shipping.  However, that makes the buyer all the more dishonest.  I personally won't go along with insurance scams, even when the amounts involved are small, and that's why I have one negative feedback.  The seller who gave me my one negative feedback was hoping I would recoup my losses by filing an insurance claim with the post office, but I wouldn't, since I knew that the damage didn't occur during shipping.  Don't let a dishonest seller make a dishonest person out of YOU.

The "Priority Shuffle"

If you buy small items, you should always ask for First Class shipping.  If you do, you may be surprised to find that many sellers will insist on shipping Priority, even though it is more expensive.  Here's why:

First Class goes up to 13 ounces.  Starting at 14 ounces, First Class turns into Priority.  Both classes of mail ship at approximately the same speed (sellers will tell you that Priority is faster, but it isn't).  If your small package weighs 6 ounces, the post office will charge $1.59 by First Class and $3.85 for Priority.  That's because as soon as you stamp "Priority" on the package, the post office charges the minimum Priority rate, which is $4.05.

So why do many sellers insist on sending small items by Priority when they could send them cheaper by First Class?  The reason is that the post office gives away Priority Mail boxes.  In other words, sellers want to ship Priority because they can get free boxes!  But small mailing boxes are not expensive.  They can be purchased for 30 to 50 each, depending on the size and the supplier.  Even if the seller includes the cost of the box in the shipping charge, a 6-ounce package can still be mailed for $2.

What you should do as a buyer is to e-mail the seller and ask for First Class shipping before you bid.  If the seller says no, don't bid.  Or, if you don't mind risking negative feedback, bid and then fight it out with the seller after the auction is over.

I should add that I consider the U.S. Postal Service to be primarily responsible for this shipping scam.  They know exactly what they are doing.  Every year the Postal Service gives away millions of Priority boxes with the full knowledge that small items will be shipped Priority which otherwise would be shipped First Class.  There is no good reason for the "Priority" postal class to exist at all.  The Post Office could use the "First Class" designation for large packages as well as small.  It's just a scam, pure and simple.

Shipping Overcharges

You should not, of course, bid on an item if the shipping charge in the auction is unreasonable.  However, you have to be careful in other ways.  I spoke with a buyer once who had the following experience:  She wrote the seller and asked if he would combine shipments, and he said yes.  So she bid on 7 small items (small packets of beads, which didn't weight much).  The seller's idea of how to combine shipments was to charge her $3 for the first packet plus $1 for each additional packet, for a total of $9.  But when the package arrived, it had only $2.39 postage on it, so the seller pocketed about $6.50 as profit from the shipping charge.  If you win an auction but then don't pay because the shipping charge is too high, eBay will not back you up and you will get a warning as a non-paying bidder.

Another eBayer I'm corresponding with had this horrifying experience:  He bought up all the items in several dutch auctions, for a total of $44 worth of beads.  The seller charged him a substantial shipping charge for each item, and the total for shipping came to $132!  In a situation like this, the seller was violating eBay's rules, since the rules say that shipping charges cannot be so high that the seller makes a substantial profit from them.  eBay doesn't collect a fee on shipping charges, so eBay loses money when sellers do this.  In this case, I advised the buyer not to pay the seller anything at all and to file a Square Trade complaint (which may allow him to have negative feedback removed if the seller leaves him any).  If the seller reports him as a non-paying bidder, the buyer can tell eBay that the seller was violating the rules, and eBay will most likely withdraw the warning from the buyer's record.  (If you don't pay for your auctions, you first get two warnings and then your account is suspended on the third infraction.  This would be the man's first warning.)  One of the reasons I advised him to pay nothing is that a seller who has shown himself to be dishonest is more likely to not ship the item once it has been paid for.

Interpreting Pictures

Pictures can be deceiving.  I used to think that the best way to sell on eBay was to have excellent pictures so that buyers could get a good look.  But if the item being sold is not particularly good, then a good picture will simply reveal that.  A poor picture, on the other hand, will mask the poor quality of an item.  Consequently, you have to be wary of poor pictures.

I had one of those experiences myself.  I purchased a ceramic owl that was accompanied by a very poor picture.  When it arrived, it was not the quality china item that it appeared to be in the picture, but a very cheap item made of poor-quality ceramic, and poorly painted.  Because it had some damage on the back, I was able to get the seller to take it back; but if it hadn't been damaged, I would have been stuck.

Most pictures on eBay are miserably poor.  Those "iPix" pictures are way over-compressed, which makes them blurry, and they are also too small.  Furthermore, most sellers don't know how to take good pictures.  It may be difficult to pass up a desirable item that has a poor picture, but keep in mind that very few items are unique, and you are likely to see a similar item in the future.

How to Protect Yourself

1.  Do not buy expensive items on eBay.  When the time comes that you are scammed and you will be if you keep buying you want to get scammed for a small amount, not a large amount.  (You'll have to decide what is expensive and what isn't.  Personally, I wouldn't buy anything worth more than a hundred dollars.  I certainly wouldn't buy a computer, camcorder, or other expensive item.)

2.  Do not buy from sellers who have more than a very small amount of negative feedback, or feedback of a worrisome nature ("never received the item", etc.).  A seller's negative feedback should not exceed about 1%, and preferably should be much less.  (The seller's negative feedback as a buyer is less important.)

3.  E-mail some of the buyers who left negative feedback and ask if their complaints were resolved to their satisfaction.

4.  Look not only at the seller's feedback, but at the feedback the seller has left others.  If the seller sounds crude and makes outlandish allegations, it is likely that the seller is posting lies about other eBayers.

5.  E-mail the seller with questions if the description of the item isn't good, or if the picture isn't clear, or if the seller hasn't said how much the "handling" fee will be, or if the item is small and you want First Class shipping instead of Priority.  One seller wanted to charge me $7.15 to ship a tiny $5 ashtray that ultimately cost $3.30 to ship by First Class mail.  If the seller wants too much for shipping, that's a clear indication the seller is dishonest or lazy (lazy because they have not tried to find the cheapest shipping method).

6.  Don't buy from sellers who have a long list of conditions and restrictions in their auctions, or who sound officious.  Such people are touchy and reactionary and are more likely to fight with you.

7.  Don't buy from sellers who don't answer your e-mails, or who answer curtly.  A person who sounds friendly in e-mail is more likely to be honest (usually, but not always).

8.  Be extra cautious when the picture is poor.

9.  Ask for a shipment method that provides proof of mailing.  That includes postal insurance ($1.30 and up), delivery confirmation (55 for first class or 45 for priority), proof of mailing (90), Express Mail, UPS and Federal Express.  If you don't ask for a shipment method that provides some kind of proof, the seller can claim the item was lost in the mail.  (Note:  the amounts in this paragraph have not been updated to reflect the postal increase in January, 2006.)

10. Pay with a credit card or PayPal.  Paying with a credit card will allow you to reverse the payment if the item never arrives.  Using a credit card is probably the best defense you can give yourself.  Using PayPal also gives you an extra line of defense.  If your goods never arrive, you can initiate a "buyer complaint".  PayPal will investigate the matter and possibly give you a refund.

11. Do not use Western Union's BidPay service.  I have not investigated it myself, but I have been told by a volunteer who works in eBay's Safe Harbor program that BidPay offers no buyer protections whatsoever, and is even less safe than sending a money order that you purchase yourself.

There is another site on the internet which has a great deal of useful information about avoiding auction fraud:  The editor of that site is more forgiving of sellers than I am, but the site nonetheless has a great deal of useful information, including contact information not given here.

About PayPal

PayPal offers buyers a certain amount of protection because you can (in many but not all instances) get your payment reversed if the item doesn't arrive, but PayPal has its dangers.  PayPal functions like a bank but isn't a bank, so the banking laws that protect consumers don't apply.  PayPal can, and does, make up its own rules.  I have read that they will freeze your account in response to any number of security or terms-of-use violations.  If there are funds in your account, getting your money back can be difficult.  Astonishingly, they may block you from removing funds from the account but they won't block new deposits.  Thus, if you are a seller, your customers can continue to send money to your PayPal account but you can't withdraw those funds.

My advice is to keep as little money in your PayPal account as possible.  If a balance builds up, transfer it to your checking account.  That won't give you complete protection, however.  If PayPal believes you owe them money, they can transfer money out of your checking account at will.  Keeping your PayPal balance low will give you some protection from fraudulent debit-card charges if you have a PayPal debit card.  That's because PayPal will simply decline any charges which exceed your available funds.  You should be very careful about where you use your PayPal debit card.  If a criminal accesses your PayPal account and withdraws money, you may never get it back.  Any dishonest store clerk can use or sell your debit card number, so you should never assume it is secure.  Of course, it goes without saying that you should never give anyone your PayPal password or debit card information via e-mail.

(Note:  Since writing the above paragraphs, my opinion of PayPal has improved.  I now use PayPal Payments Pro as my only credit-card processor.  I will revise this article soon.)

One Final Note

This article originally ended with a short list of known dishonest eBay sellers, including the seller who left me my only negative feedback.  eBay told me to remove it or lose my account.  As I said above, eBay protects dishonest members because they make money from them.  eBay is making billions of dollars every year (yes, billions).  You would think they would be willing to forgo a small amount of profit in order to clean their service of these dishonest members, but they apparently aren't.