Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Shipping Cost Fraud and Misrepresentation on Ebay

One of the problems with buying on eBay is that, although there are many legitimate sellers, there are also many sellers who engage in dubious or even fraudulent business practices, and even in cases of unambiguous fraud eBay seems to do nothing to shut down dishonest sellers. (Similar problems seem to be arising on Etsy - it looks like they shut down some obviously fraudulent sales, but the vendor is still going strong.)

One convenience of eBay is that you can search by price, with or without shipping, to sort through the offerings of vendors who are selling the same product at various price points. By including shipping in your sort, you avoid the vendors who try to trick you into buying what seems like a low-priced item, but makes up for it (or more than makes up for it) with excessive shipping fees.

Or, at least, that's the way it should work. eBay's listing policies should ensure that there's no confusion:
When you create a listing, make sure all your text and other information are complete and consistent throughout. For example, you can't say one thing in the title and then describe it differently in the description....

Not Allowed: Inconsistent details throughout your listing (titles, descriptions, product details, shipping, payment information, and so on)
To push misleading shipping costs into the search feature not only necessarily involves hiding additional fees somewhere in your listing other than the area in which shipping costs are to be described, it undermines the integrity of the search feature - the abusive seller can rank above honest sellers who accurately list their shipping costs.

I expect that regular users of eBay are well aware of this type of fraud. It's the less frequent user who is apt to get burned. Shipping cost manipulation has been going on long enough that last year somebody did a study of how hidden shipping charges affect sales. They did not do the experiment on the U.S. eBay site because the U.S. site is designed to "automatically reveal[] shipping charges in its search listings". But that, of course, presupposes an honest vendor.

Let's take a look at how this works. Here's a screen capture of a sale by a vendor named garrys_world_exchange_square (Yee Mei Tam):

Very clearly, shipping to the U.S. is listed as $3. Does that seem low? If so, you probably click on "See details" to see additional terms.

And right there, you find a shipping calculator. Enter your ZIP code and, sure enough, it confirms that shipping to your address is $3.

So you place your order and next thing you know, you're being told that you have to pay an additional shipping charge. "What?", you say, "I made this purchase based upon the flat shipping fee you described in your listing. I confirmed it with your calculator! What gives?" And a vendor like garrys_world_exchange_square will respond, "If you read the description for the product you'll see that I said there's an additional charge for shipping to the United States."

Note that as eBay listings are described, when you click that "See details" link for shipping - you know, to get to the place where any additional details related to shipping are supposed to be described - the description is no longer visible on the page. So unless you click back to the description and scroll way down "below the fold", you are not going to learn about the additional charge. The content is hidden from the "Shipping and payments" view of an eBay sales page.

Again, this seems to be a painfully obvious violation of eBay's rules for listings - you aren't allowed to have inconsistent details in your listing, including inconsistent details pertaining to shipping. But a very useful site called Toolhaus provides a more comprehensive look into a seller's conduct than you can get directly through eBay - particularly given the games and tricks that dishonest sellers use to get negative feedback removed from their profiles.

With this particular seller you learn that he has a long history of misleading consumers about his products (e.g., for movie sales, "Never told in description it is uncut. Already listed the total running time" and "I have never mentioned that it is the remastered version"), has many complaints about misleading shipping prices ("False Advertising - stated shipping 3.00 then wants 30.00 let money to pay ebay"; "If you buy from this seller, scroll all the way down for TRUE shipping charges"; "Ensure DVD region code works in your country +Read fine print on his shipping"), and on top of it all he's obnoxious ("Refused to pay and left me -ve feedback! Are you nuts?"; "I already return your money order, Why do you leave bad feedback? How absurd !!"). I like this one:
Feedback: Dvd did not contain complete movie. No reply to my emails. Got Taken !

Response: You're already left Negative for me, How can I refund payment for you ? Crazy !!
I had no idea that it became impossible to refund a purchase price if the buyer complains that you sent a poor product. You learn something every day.

Seriously, hasn't eBay established a sufficient base of sellers that it can afford to enforce its rules and purge sellers who engage in sales tactics that are fraudulent or intentionally misleading, even to the point of diminishing the quality of its search and rendering its postage calculator useless?

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