Judith's Laws of Online Auction Commerce - how not to get burned.

by Judith Katz-Schwartz

Dateline: 1/01/99

Now that the Internet is firmly established as a venue for commerce of every type, everyone from television commentators to newpaper columnists is addressing the issue of online larceny. There's no question about it: when you are not dealing face-to-face, the opportunity for fraud increases. But, is doing cyber-business any riskier than, say, ordering from a mail-order catalogue? Let's examine the online auctions, and how to minimize your chances of getting burned.

The first thing we all must do is accept that the auction houses are not going to protect us from anyone, including ourselves. This is because it's really not their job. Certainly, they all want their buyers and sellers to operate in a safe environment. It's better for business that way. But they are in no way obligated to take any action to make things right when a private party is unhappy with a transaction. Therefore, it's every person's job to protect him/herself. There are some simple guidelines that, while they won't eliminate fraud, will make it a little tougher to perpetrate it upon us. So, here are Judith's Unofficial Laws Of Online Auction Commerce:

It Is Against Judith's Law To Not Read The Description.
Now, don't shout, "Duh!" at me. This might seem obtusely obvious, but there's reading, and then there's reading. We all tend to envision things as we would like them to be, instead of what they may, in reality, be. Divest yourself of those glasses (the ones with the rose-colored lenses), steel yourself, and banish the Wishful Thinking Gremlin from your psyche. Evaluate what you are reading. Cast a suspicious eye (or, at least, a dubious one) on general statements about condition, because they are subjective. The phrase "very good condition" may mean "almost perfect" in your mind, but the seller could mean "at least it's not a total loss". Any flaws in the piece should be part of the description, as should the age, size and dimensions of the item, the materials of which it is made, and any marks or signatures it may have. If any of this information is missing, you must write to the seller and ask very specific questions. If you get anything other than specific and very clear answers, head for the hills.

It Is Against Judith's Law To Buy It If You Can't See It.
This is a sacrosanct law for me. Never, ever, ever, bid on an item for which no photo appears in the listing. It doesn't matter if the item is the Krupnik Diamond and you have the matching Krupnik right there on your left ring finger -- if you can't see a nice clear photo of it, don't bid on it. Email the seller and say "Show me the Krupnik!". The seller should reply with a crystal clear picture of the item. Remember, no matter how wonderful the item may sound, no photo, no buy-o.

Feedback: It's Not Just For Decorative Purposes
I read tons of mail every day from people who think the feedback system doesn't work, because buyers are too afraid of retaliatory feedback to post negative feedback. That's just not true. Many brave shoppers (myself included) have posted negatives and received retaliatory comments for our trouble. It's easy to cross-check feedback and figure out what's going on. The only negative feedback I've ever received came, in retaliation for a negative feedback left by me, from someone who has several negatives. All were about the same complaint, and the seller has left retaliatory negative comments for every one of them (Yes, it's true. I broke my own Law. Take me away, Officer, before anyone in the street recognizes me and I bring shame upon my family). So, I knew when I left the complaint, the seller would be lobbing one right back at me. I simply posted a neutral comment to my own list, suggesting that people compare our records.

And, feedback numbers are significant when you must decide whether to place your trust in a stranger. A seller (or buyer, for that matter) with a rating of 800 is worth the risk. A person who's amassed such a high rating has been doing it for a while, and will not disappear tomorrow. This doesn't mean you should boycott those with ratings of "0" (everyone has to start somewhere), but I'd think twice before buying a $1,000 item from one. You lessen your risk with a stranger when you stick to lower-priced merchandise.

It's important to pay attention to those negative ratings, especially if there are more than one or two. Write to the previous customers of a seller you don't know. Most will be happy to discuss their experience, whether it was a hit or a flop. I know of no other retail venue where the prospective buyer can access such a large, thorough instant reference system. We all do business every day with plumbers, shoe repairman and grocers, none of whose customers we've ever been able to consult. The difference is, of course, that we can march down to Main Street and visit them in their stores if there's a problem. But online merchants who are reputable businesspersons have established good reputations through honesty and tireless work, and therefore they deserve the same trust you'd give the owner of the little dress shop on the corner.

It Is Against Judith's Law To Bid Without Asking Detailed Questions Regarding The Return Policy
This is where I went wrong with the seller who posted negative feedback for me. She apparently has a "no return" policy--except she neglects to include this in her descriptions. You need to write and ask. Save the seller's response to this question, as well as the answers to any others you may have asked. This will provide you with a record of all promises the seller has made. The return policy is probably the most hotly contested element of the online auction process. Remember, the auction site is just a site. The owners do not establish or enforce return policy or mediate disputes between the parties. Each seller is an independent operator, so no assumptions about return policies can be made.

I recently read a description that said if the item was misrepresented it could be returned, but that the buyer would have to pay for the return shipping, and that there would be a ten percent "re-stocking fee". I couldn't imagine any sane person bidding in that auction, so I contacted the seller and asked her for clarification. She wrote back that the policy assured her that bidders would "stand behind their bids". I never followed up to see who, if anyone, bid on her items, but I'm betting someone came away unhappy. And 10% isn't even the highest re-stocking fee I've seen. Some people charge 25%! The message conveyed here is "We don't take returns. You are stuck with this item, even if it doesn't remotely resemble what we're describing to you". It Is Absolutely Against Judith's Law To Bid In One Of These Auctions.

Judith's Law Requires That You Also Know The Shipping, Insurance and "Handling" Costs In Advance
They may sound exorbitant (and sometimes they are), but each seller has the right to establish his/her own terms of the sale. If the shipping method and costs aren't included in the listing, write to the seller and ask. If they seem too high to you, and it's an issue for you, don't bid.

It's Against Judith's Law To Be So Incredibly Lazy That You Won't Do Anything About Second-Rate Merchandise
Sure. It's easier sometimes to just accept what you get instead of bothering to write to the seller, maybe engaging in an argument, sending back your item, and waiting for your money to come back. But, if you don't force yourself to do it, sellers will not be held to any standards of responsibility, and the whole community will suffer, including you. But how you do it is very important. Write to the seller. Be polite. Don't criticize or insult the dealer or his stuff. Just state the problem simply and unemotionally, and say you'd like to return the item for a full refund. By now you've asked the seller about the return policy (sure you have!), so you know you'll get a complete refund, including the shipping costs. Thank the seller in advance. When he/she responds, save the reply. Pack the item carefully, no, lovingly. Ship it back in the manner specified by the seller (preferably in a manner that will require a signature on the receving end) and wait for the check to arrive.

It Is Against Judith's Law To Expect To Return Anything As A Result Of "Buyer's Remorse"
Or any other reason, aside from the one about it not being as it was described, or if it has been damaged in transit. If the item arrives and you are disappointed with it, re-read the description and the correspondence between yourself and the seller. If everything matches the item in your possession (not the one in your mind's eye), you are not only obligated to keep it, but you also must leave a positive feedback rating for the dealer. He/she is not responsible for your imagination!

It Is A Requirement Of Judith's Law That You Use The Feedback Rating System
This is very important. Feedback, positive, negative or neutral, must be left after every transaction. If you don't participate in the feedback program, you have no right to complain when you get burned. Even if you return an item because it didn't fit the description, a dealer who issues you a full refund deserves a positive rating for having stood behind his merchandise. Professional and ethical business practitioners should not only be rewarded, their good reputations should be spread around, for these are the people you'd like to hear about yourself, from others with whom they've dealt. They're merchants who will still be here tomorrow, and who care about the satisfaction of their customers. Also, if we don't leave feedback information for the edification of other prospective buyers, we simply enable the con artists to continue to operate.

To those who sell at online auctions, we know you get burned too:

It Is Against Judith's Law To Sweat The Small Stuff
Sellers are regularly hurt in an online auction by buyers who never send the payment. Since I'm assuming (I like to live dangerously) that we're all intelligent enough not to ship an item until the buyer's check clears, the loss here is the auction fee the seller has to pay the auction house. The initial listing fee is usually non-refundable, but it's low. The other fees will be refunded by most online auctions if you file a request. So, it's annoying, but the expense is low enough so that you can write it off as part of the cost of doing business. Nothing worth getting upset about.

Judith's Law Also Requires You To Use The Feedback Rating System Religiously
The customer is obligated to pay you promptly. If the buyer answers emails and sends payment when expected, he/she has done his/her part and deserves a positive rating. It is nonsense to wait until the buyer notifies you that the package has been received before you leave him/her a positive rating. All packages should be sent insured, something you should be stating in every auction listing. Insured packages require a signature upon delivery, which is all the proof you need. However, Judith's Law requires that you not be afraid to leave a negative or neutral rating for someone who needs to be prompted several times to send payment, or who never sends payment at all. Other sellers need to hear about these people.

Marshall Yourselves, Good Citizens, And Help To Bring Down The Perpetrators Of This New Scam
I'm hearing from sellers about a new group of buyers out to rob unsuspecting dealers, and we all need to help nip their activities in the bud. Here's how it works: the buyer pays for the item (no problem there!) and, when it arrives, writes to the seller, claiming the item is inferior to the description. The buyer demands to return the item for a full refund. When the object in question is received by the seller, it is not the original item sent at all, but some inferior item, or a similar item, but in much worse condition. Apparently, there are people upgrading their collections in this way. To combat this, photographs of all lots should be saved before the item is shipped. Correspondence between you and anyone asking to return an item should include a warning from you that these photographs are being saved, to prevent any switching of items. You should also state that no refunds will be made unless the item is the exact one you sent, and in exactly the same condition it was in when it left your possession. You must then be prepared to leave negative feedback for anyone who pulls the old switcheroo (yes, the buyer can retaliate but, after he/she tries to pull the same trick on a few other people, other sellers will catch on and begin to cancel his/her bids; also, you can always post an explanation to your own feedback file). You must also be prepared to file mail fraud charges against the buyer.

If you have sent an item in excellent condition and the buyer tells you it's in poor condition, it sometimes helps to let the buyer know the consequences of switching items. I don't know about you, but if I felt some larceny creeping into my heart and someone told me I'd be forced to deal with an onslaught from the USPS, I'd mend my ways in a hurry. I find my local postal clerks to be a pretty scary bunch. Maybe if just one of them had managed a smile any time during the past twelve years....

A suggestion from my friend, Deborah, is to attach a self-destructing sticker to the item. It can be removed without damaging the item, but the sticker itself is shredded in the process. Another dealer told me about recording the serial numbers of cameras he shipped out, and comparing them to the numbers on cameras being returned. Still another one told me he etches numbers in some inconspicuous place on his items. Make sure you tell the customer that a self-destructing sticker must be intact on any article returned for refund. And remember, it's much easier for a buyer to pull off this kind of scam if your auction description doesn't include a photo of your item.

Online auctions are supposed to be fun, and usually they are. They have grown into mega-enterprises because there are no fees to buyers, unlike most live auctions; because they open up to all of us a global market the scope of which has been previously unknown; and because they provide instant gratification. And you can't get more modern than that. Unheard of numbers of customers jumping into the marketplace attract crowds of sellers with more merchandise, which attracts even more buyers. But, as in any other facet of our society that involves the exchange of large sums of money (Ebay did $100 million dollars worth of business in the first quarter of 1998), online auctions attract criminals like carrion attracts hyenas. If we all stay alert, communicate with each other, and work together we can make it much tougher for the bad guys.

Your comments, as always, are welcome. If you have something to say, write to me.
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1999 Judith Katz-Schwartz. All rights reserved.