Thought for the day: Nothing is what it appears to be

What you see is what you'll get isn't always the case when buying from an online auction site, so how can we ensure that users...

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What you see is what you'll get isn't always the case when buying from an online auction site, so how can we ensure that users don't get stung, asks Simon Moores.




I’m a victim of e-crime, or at least I think I am.  Perhaps e-sting or e-fraud might be a better description, but then I suppose it’s my own fault for not asking one very simple question when bidding on an eBay auction, “Is the photo of the item on sale, the item that I will actually receive?”

In this example, the seller - we’ll call him "Newcastle Boy" - had gone to some trouble to paint an attractive description of an “authentic” timepiece, with three photos, a front, rear and side view.

The only problem was that when it finally arrived, it became immediately clear that an original manufacturer’s library image had been used for the display photograph.

This raises a broader question about auction sites and exchanges on the internet that I’m finding hard to resolve, even though eBay has been most helpful and tell me it has issued Newcastle Boy with a "procedural warning".

But how, in practice, do you deal with the problem of auction fraud, alleged or otherwise on the internet?

I’m still struggling with this problem today, three weeks after the sale. The police tell me that if deliberate deception can be proved, then it represents grounds for a complaint. eBay, caught in the middle, tells me it is simply acting as a broker, an exchange, and suggest that misrepresentation is a Trading Standards issue.

In fact, eBay appears reluctant to express an opinion and I wonder whether it would be prepared to regard auctioning an authentic "Dell Computer" and, instead, delivering a “Dill Computer”, as dodgy behaviour, beyond pointing to the terms and conditions on its website.

“Aside from taking possible disciplinary action to a user's account, which we do according to established protocol, eBay cannot initiate contact for a user or initiate formal proceedings against a user.  From a legal standpoint we can only suggest options that you may take action on,” says eBay.

“As a venue for buyers and sellers to meet, eBay has limited legal powers to become involved in a buyer and seller dispute. eBay will only take action on our site as described in the third section of our user agreement.”

So, how do I get my money back if the other party insists that he’s done nothing wrong? eBay suggested mediation through its Square Trade service at a cost of $20, or wait 30 days and make a claim under its buyer protection scheme.

One difficulty is that if a transaction isn’t completed using Pay Pal, then any compensation is much reduced.

It’s surprising how many sellers still want payment by personal cheques, refuse to use PayPal, eBay’s escrow service or even internet bank transfers.

On any purchase involving a significant sum of money, this should immediately sound a note of caution; after all, you’re sending a personal cheque to someone you’ve never seen on the strength of an advertisement, and a photograph that may be completely untrue.

In fact, you’re very unlikely to part with any money without looking at the seller’s rating on eBay. The company points to its buyer and seller feedback system as a useful system of scoring which allows both parties to rate each other, and which should, in principle, act as a guide to honesty and reliability over time and multiple transactions - an idea I would like to see extended to any company website anywhere.  

This, however, appears to fall apart if the seller has a history showing a 100% approval rating and then decides to risk trashing his record with a cleverly crafted "sting", as in my own example.

What can I do then, other than annoying eBay by asking a stream of difficult questions concerning its policies and procedures? Not a great deal it seems.

It’s not a police matter, and it’s really a question of tracking down Newcastle trading standards and making a complaint.

Even if your e-mail dialogue with a seller suggests that an item is authentic, there’s no guarantee that it really is and, equally, no guarantee of full compensation if it goes horribly wrong.

With more and more people using online auction sites, I wonder if we need much tighter regulations to deal with problems involving individuals and not simply businesses selling and mis-selling over the internet.

If the evidence clearly shows an attempt to deceive or misrepresent an item in an online auction, companies such as eBay should, at the very least, “switch off” the offending seller until such a time as the complaint has been investigated and properly resolved.

Until then, where dealing with Newcastle Boy is concerned, it’s strictly Caveat Emptor.

What do you think?

What measure do you take to ensure you don't get stung when buying from an auction website? Tell us in an e-mail >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the website. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.

Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies and specialises in the areas of eGovernment and information security.

For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services visit

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