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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Ebay - A premonition based on my recent experience

Ebay is a place that most of us buy pretty good stuff sometimes at a very cheap price. This blog is to warn you that you may be lured into fraudulent transactions, as I was, in spite of all the things seemingly working right.

I had been planning to buy a Yamaha MOTIF ES 6 - a top of the line Keyboard / Music workstation. The normal price over the net ranges anywhere from $1400 to $2000. Being a long term investment that is, I wanted only a factory sealed brand new ietm. I found an auction for brand new motif for a price of $1400 and decided to bid on it. I won the auction on Friday 6:30 PM and got an invoice from the seller (patandbigmike). His feedback quotient was 100 % and I was convinced this seller was worthy of trusting. He preferred payment by money order and since it was weekend already I decided to sleep over it till Monday.

On Monday I purchased Western Union money orders for $1400 (3 money orders 500, 500 and 400). I went to the University of South Carolina post office at Russell house and sent it through regular USPS mail around 4 pm - about the time that it closes and returned to my office.

At 6:30 pm I get a mail from ebay saying that the original seller's id had been compromised and that the item has been removed from ebay. A third party was sending mails impersonating the original seller and that I must not pay for the item. I was dumbstruck since I had sent my payment only a couple of hours back! Unlike other forms of paper payment, money orders can be cashed instantly. Hence if the felon receives the money order he may just encash it and disappear. In total unrest, I called various personnel.

(1) Western union- This is the company that I bought money orders of. They told me that I will have to shell out $12 per MO to stop or refund payment. It would also take 30 days for them to process the request in which meanwhile if the MOs are cashed I will not be eligible for refund! But I had hardly three days to recover my money ! Absolutely useless customer service at Western Union - Please note it.

(2) Ebay - I sent a mail to ebay asking how would they allow a transaction to remain in their website for three full days if it were fraudulent ? The very fact that the auction was in their web site for three days after the bidding was over implied to a customer like me that it is approved by Ebay. Please note that ebay does NOT have a contact phone number. You have to deal entirely with either their automated responses or wait until some personnel writes to you with all the "blah blah" which hardly helps your cause. Ebay responded with typically redundant diplomatic and unhelpful mails and I am still contemplating legal action against their lackadaisical, unresponsive and irresponsible behavior.

(3) Police - They were helpful only to the extent that they told me this is not in their jurisdiction (both USC and County). Since USPS was involved, it was a federal problem and that only USPS could handle it.

That left me with the only hope - USPS. If this letter could be stopped from reaching the felon, and sent back to me I could later apply for a refund with Western Union. I reached USPS office in Assembly street early in the morning. Fortunately, the clerk there was extremely understanding. I had taken a copy of all the communications (emails) pertinent to the auction. She got in touch with the postmaster of the receiver's post office at St. Louis. She clearly explained the situation and he assured help.

I got in touch with my friend at St. louis to personally impress upon the postmaster there about the gravity of the situation and was assured that the staff were on high alert. They found my mail and sent me back safely. I heaved a sigh of relief once the mail reached my hands yesterday.

Lessons from this incident

  1. Never buy anything worth more than a couple of hundred dollars over Ebay. And even for those transactions use credit card, personal check or paypal. Never use money orders.
  2. In case of a problem, Ebay does not have a phone number for contact. Your transactions are going to be only through e-mails and they are slow. So, you cannot extract anything useful.
  3. USPS has an option of recalling the mail given the circumstance is unusual and well explained. They have a form for this.
  4. Cyber crimes cannot be dealt with police. They cannot prevent an imprending fraud from happening in spite of knowing it in advance.
  5. Western Union money order are absolute rubbish. If you need to buy money orders use postal money orders. They have better service.
  6. Finally USPS is definitely trustworthy and helpful. I called the personnel up and thanked them personally.
I wanted to share this so that those who buy at ebay may be more cautious in the future.