Tuesday, January 11, 2005


I've used eBay on and off for the last few years to buy and sell various odd bits of mostly computer-related hardware, and, apart from one buyer who never made contact, have had no real trouble. So I tended to discount the reports of rampant fraud that I occasionally heard from those I condescendingly regarded as less experienced than myself, being the possessor of 14 whole positive feedback points.

Came last week and I commenced an auction of an 02 XDA smartphone, quite a valuable piece of kit, and easily the most expensive item I have ever auctioned. Functioning rather like the bloody chum that shark fishermen throw into the water to lure the sinister beasts, the XDA attracted some very unwelcome attention indeed.

All seemed well at first, there were the usual questions that a careful reading of the item should have rendered unneccessary, some reasonable bids, and then.. (cue sinister music) The Question. A chap in the US (let's call him The Buyer, since it ends up appearing that he is the winner of the auction) emails me to ask if I would mind shipping the item to Australia, seeing as it's his friend's birthday. He seems to be alright, with reasonably good feedback, so I say fine.

He bids, and his bid turns out to be the winning bid. I send the PayPal payment request, adding on a generous amount to cover the extra postage, which I hope there won't be arguments about. The next day, a payment notification arrives from PayPal. All seems to be well: in fact another £15 postage has been paid on top of what I requested, reason being urgent delivery required to meet the birthday deadline. Very nice. Or is it?

The first nagging question to squeeze past the sight of all that money and come knocking on the door of my attention, is this: the person who sent me the money via PayPal (let's call him The Payer) is not The Buyer! Or doesn't seem to be. The PayPal verified name of The Payer is not the name of The Buyer as supplied to me by eBay. The name of The Buyer appears together with an address under the heading Unverified Address in the PayPal advice, but it most certainly does not appear under the heading Verified Sender: that heading has a completely different name.

The second nagging question appears in the Notes section of the PayPal advice, where The Payer has, inter alia, given me the address of his friend in Australia. He has also advised me that he is paying for an eBay item. However, the item number given is not the number of my item, and the description doesn't match either.

Quickly entering this number into eBay brings up a similar item to the one that I believe I have just sold, and sure enough, The Buyer is the high bidder and the auction is completed. And in the question section is a request for the seller to ship the item to a friend in Australia, as it is his birthday....

Further research on eBay reveals that The Buyer has been quite busy recently, buying up a lot of stuff and asking for it to be sent to his friend in Australia, as it's his birthday. (For those items where this is not apparent on eBay itself, I emailed the seller: "Did the buyer ask you to ship the item to Oz as a birthday present?" "Yes, how did you know?")

In the meantime I get several emails from The Payer, begging me to send the item off to Australia with all due haste. I demur, and instead invite him to explain why he is not the person who actually bought the item, and also why he or his alter ego has been buying so many presents for this most fortunate of Antipodeans, his alleged friend. To this I get only more urgent requests to dispossess myself of the item in question.

At this point I phone PayPal. As I hear myself explaining the situation to the young lady on the other end of the line, I realise there isn't the slightest chance that this transaction is on the level. Still, having called her, I ask her what I should do. "PayPal recommends that you only send the goods to a verified address. If you do that our Seller Protection Scheme will protect you." Hmmm, not only is The Payer's address unverified, I'm not even sending it there. "If I send this to Australia, and [The Payer] contacts you and says his friend never got it, what will you do?" "Reverse the payment." Yikes! OK, XDA, put away the sunscreen: you ain't going near Oz, mate.

One more question: why is The Payer's address unverified? PayPal Lady isn't sure: it's not required to have a verified address. Playing around with my PayPal account, I discover I can add any address I want to my account: it's obviously unverified until I link it to a credit card, but it's there and I can use it to make a payment. Hmmm...

OK, so it seems obvious The Payer is gaming PayPal by getting me to send the item out to a completely non-verified address so that he can reverse the transaction (no wonder he was so free with the postage!) But why the difference in the names? Using a magical tool that I have at my disposal (it's called Google) I conjure up a phone number for The Buyer, and call him in Minnesota. He's surprised by my call. No, he hasn't bought anything from me: he hasn't used eBay in over a year, although strangely enough, he tried to use it a few days ago, and couldn't log on: eBay wouldn't accept his password...

The Payer included a telephone number on his payment advice. The number has a Florida area code. I call it. There's no answer, so I leave a message explaining the situation. Someone calls back. No, he never bought anything from me. He thinks someone may have copied his credit card number while he was Christmas shopping. Hmmm...

Shortly thereafter PayPal send me an email. They are placing a temporary hold on my account while they investigate whether a payment I received was unauthorised. Twenty minutes later, another email. The payment has been reversed, as that "was determined to be the appropriate action". Gone, baby. Like it was never there.

Here endeth the Lesson: Shalt though never sendeth an item to an Unverified Address, lest the wrath of PayPal be aroused, and smight thee mightily. Yea, for howsoever thou might hast thoughtest thy buyer be genuine, yet canst thou place thine trust only in the PayPal Seller Protection Scheme. (And cold, hard Cash On Delivery, of course!)


Blogger Gary said...

It's a huge problem. I've just written a feature on it (for Internet and Broadband Advisor) and the various other scams out there, and if anything it's a miracle that more people aren't screwed the second they do anything online :(

9:35 am  

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