Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Buyer Beware: San Jose's V.V. Vogel has been tracking scams on eBay for months.
Identity theft and fraud are rampant on eBay. The company knows it, police know it—but who's going to stop it?
By Najeeb Hasan
LAST YEAR, J.J. Vogel was shopping for a high-performance Alienware notebook computer on the San Jose-based auction giant eBay. Many of the notebook computers—which normally sell for as much as $3,000—were listed for auction on the site, with more than 100 new listings coming every day, at drastically reduced prices. Vogel, looking for a bargain, began bidding.
"I started looking more and more at these ads," recalls Vogel. "They were starting at a dollar, 10 dollars. So I started contacting these people and bidding. And the listing said instead of bidding, you can buy outright—you'd basically get a two- or three-thousand-dollar computer for seven or eight hundred dollars."
There was a catch, however. "Some of them said the 'contact seller' button [required to ensure the transaction goes through eBay] didn't work and to email them at [an alternative] address," says Vogel. "Some of them said 'email me before bidding.' Some of them said wire or Western Union the money and it's yours."
It didn't take long for Vogel to figure out that the Alienwares listed at attractive prices might not be Alienwares at all.
"Basically what it is, is a scam," says Vogel. "They put a thousand of these out—they are fishing. They'll get some dummies who are naive enough to send the money."
But that wasn't the end of it. The more that longtime San Jose resident Vogel investigated the scam, the more he discovered that this wasn't an ordinary eBay scam.
For starters, there were literally thousands of listings, with hundreds more posted everyday. Also, in some cases the scammers were stealing the names and user information of actual eBay sellers. In a week-and-a-half of amateur investigative work, Vogel says, he found more than 100 actual sellers whose identifications had been stolen by the scam artists.
And the scams weren't limited to Alienware computers; as Vogel dug deeper into eBay, he found similarly fraudulent listings for backhoes, X-Boxes, widescreen televisions, high-definition televisions—"anything you can think of that's a big-ticket item," he says, "there are thousands and thousands of them."
One typical scam stole the name "compaq127." On its seller information page, it listed 2.307 items for sale—everything from Alienware computers to a John Deere tractor to a Sony PlayStation to Canon cameras. The starting bid price for all the items was 95 cents. The listing has since been removed by eBay (Vogel saved it), but many similar ones exist. Another listing, a newer one that had not been removed by eBay as of presstime, advertises an Alienware notebook at a starting bid of $13. The scammer has taken the name "digitalcorp," an eBay member since 2001. In the item description, the scammer writes in all-caps, "Email me ... before you bid, or I will cancel in the bid!!!"
Vogel first did what any well-meaning watchdog would do. He tried to bring the problem to eBay's attention. But the online auction giant, which has been regularly criticized for paying more attention to the big fish than the little fish and doesn't provide a customer service number for users, proved hard to reach. He fired off several emails to eBay, only to receive automated replies. He took part on a live chat on eBay's website—he took photographs of his computer screen to save the records—to voice his complaints.
"I really hate typing," he wrote to the eBay host on one chat. "I suggest somebody from eBay calls me right now or I will stop in one of their buildings in San Jose."
Vogel never did receive a call from eBay and only succeeded in having eBay remove the handful of fraudulent postings that he pointed out during the live chat—a solution that, considering the sheer number of postings, and the fact that new ones are added daily, barely scratched the surface of the problem.
"I told them a thing they can do to fix it. They won't do it," he says. "They won't even listen to me."
Vogel's solution, a trick he learned from online dating sites, is fairly simple. Online dating sites don't permit users to list their email addresses on their postings, ensuring that users can only contact each other through the dating site. Listing an email address is critical to the eBay scam, because the perpetrators use email addresses to sidestep official accountability in their transaction. Running a program on the site that prevents email addresses from being posted on listings would seem to be a simple solution.
But eBay officials believe that limiting the posting of email addresses isn't consistent with the company's business model.
"We feel that our marketplace is better served by keeping the environment open," says Catherine England, a spokeswoman for eBay. "We allow dynamic and active script. People like to use borders or backgrounds; a lot of folks like to be able to include pictures, or animated items, maybe they have a refund policy. It's one of those things where we've definitely had folks say 'Why not allow this,' but our sellers do demand to have an open platform where they can market items and list their items the way they prefer, but sometimes they can abuse that well."
People who've been victims of scams on eBay sometimes turn to the police, but it's not easy for them to track or investigate such crimes.
"It's very tough to monitor," acknowledges Bert Valdez, a detective in the San Jose Police Department's high-tech crime unit. Valdez says his unit receives a large number of complaints about eBay fraud. "There's such a variety of scams out there. We're short-staffed and do the best we can with what we have. Even for eBay, it's 'buyer beware.' They take a position where they are not liable; they are just a conduit to putting people together to make a purchase. There are a lot things that occur [that can't be monitored]; if it is proven that crime did occur, we try to investigate the best we can."
After hitting the wall with eBay, Vogel tried taking matters into his own hands—if eBay wouldn't police the site, he'd do it himself. He took his the list of users whose identification had been stolen and began calling them one by one.
"One lady in Kansas, it was 2 in the morning," he says. "I forgot about the time difference. I said, miss, go look at your eBay account. She got on the computer and said, 'Oh my God.' There were more than 2.000 items for sale under her name."
One seller, Mark Eby, appreciated Vogel's policing work. He had opened up an eBay account to occasionally sell extra sports tickets that he would not be able to use and, one day, received a call from Vogel.
"A guy called me from California and said that I had 600 items listed on my account," Eby recalls. "Luckily, I was able to get a hold of eBay within 10 hours of it being done."
Eby would never have even known about the identity theft had Vogel not called him. "They had turned off the notification function of my email address, so I wouldn't get notification of new items being posted."
Vogel also began spending as much free time as he could on the Internet to thwart the scammers. On listed items that he recognized as scams, he would post opening bids of $999,999,999.
But Vogel quickly learned he can't do it all himself, and he's still looking for help from eBay.
"I've sent them emails, gone to their chat room," says Vogel. "I don't know any number, can't find a number to call them. I was thinking of going in to their offices, but I doubt that they'll let me in."
The company, conversely, says that with more than 100 million items listed at any given time and 6 million new items posted a day, it has to rely on users.
"We definitely do ask our community to keep marketplace-safe," says England. "We definitely encourage folks to do that."
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