Avoiding an eBay scammer

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Last Monday, I wrote about Six Things I’ve Resold Lately. In that post, I explained my sourcing strategy and shared some recent wins. While reselling has been my main point-accumulation strategy since years ago when I only had a single Capital One Venture card for rewards, it’s not without its pitfalls. This week, we look at someone who tried to scam me over the weekend and how I try to stay ahead.

Ebay/Fleabay

I’ve been buying and selling stuff on eBay since 1998. I’ve bought and sold everything from baseball cards to classic cars. While it can be a great marketplace, it can also be deserving of its other, less flattering moniker “fleabay“. Unfortunately, scammers come out of the woodwork in many forms: there are those who steal credit cards or steal legitimate PayPal/eBay accounts to pay, those who claim they never received an item, those who try to fool you into shipping something to the wrong destination, and those who think of something new tomorrow. This weekend, a scammer tried a new (to me) version of an old scheme.

The buy-and-switch

Over the weekend, we sold an item from my wife’s eBay account. It was a $300 item — not incredibly expensive, but certainly not cheap. She received an eBay message shortly after the buyer paid:

A buyer requesting an item to be shipped to a location other than whatever is loaded into PayPal is a major red flag. eBay and PayPal operate as two separate entities, so you need to be sure you’re within the most constrictive rules for full seller protection. PayPal makes seller protection pretty simple.

On the PayPal transaction details page, you will see the word “confirmed” in green if the address has been confirmed by PayPal (whatever that means). If you hover over the question mark next to “confirmed” for more information, PayPal reminds you of the policy written above:

That’s not very ambiguous. You must ship to the exact address listed on the PayPal payment to be protected. If you ship to a different address and the buyer claims they never received the item, you are likely to lose when they open a “never received” case and you would then be out both the item and the money. That’s not to say that you can’t try to make the argument that the buyer requested you ship it to another address by showing a copy of the eBay message. But the terms of the policy make it clear that you’re not protected in that case.

Of course, PayPal’s protection isn’t quite as good as it sounds. Here’s the “confirmed” address from which I copied the info above:

That’s our buyer who bought the $300 item. Notice that the address includes two different city/state/zip combinations — one in Delaware and one in Wyoming. PayPal says I must ship to that address (goodness knows how they confirmed it) to receive seller protection. In addition to the high probability of the package being lost in the mail if I sent it addressed that way, here is what eBay had to say about printing a shipping label to that address:

And this is where eBay fails the seller. I can definitely see where the casual Ebay seller might not know what to do next. eBay does not provide a clear link to cancel a transaction. The only options shown were to print a label, leave feedback, or contact the buyer. If you didn’t know better, you might think that you can’t cancel and must therefore change the address on eBay and ship to the buyer. It’s a pretty slick move on the scammer’s part — especially picking a smaller seller (my wife) who doesn’t have an extensive eBay history (and who therefore might have fallen for it).

A little homework can save you heartache

Fortunately, I have dealt with this kind of thing (though not exactly this method) before. I immediately noticed the presence of some extra letters and numbers in the address that indicated this order was going to a freight-forwarding company. Overseas buyers sometimes buy an item to be shipped to an address in the US where the item will then be forwarded out of the country to the buyer’s actual address. In and of itself, that isn’t an issue — I’ve shipped many items to freight forwarder addresses without any problem. Sometimes, buyers can just get a better deal in the US and honest buyers know that you’re probably not going to agree to ship it overseas when they contact you directly, so they pay a middle-man. I have also shipped things overseas without issue, both through the eBay Global Shipping Program and individually. An overseas buyer isn’t necessarily a red flag. I like to think that I’m a decent person and that the world has more people like me than unlike me.

But I try to do my homework either when it’s a foreign buyer or a particularly expensive item (selling price of about a thousand dollars or more). I often Google the name and/or address of the buyer and try to see if I can put together a picture of a real human. For example, I sold a high-end watch earlier this year to a buyer in California. I Googled the name and address and came up with information about a real person and public records of donations to political campaigns, etc. I sold a cheaper item (an inexpensive suitcase) to a buyer who asked me to ship it to an address in Latin America. Things checked out — turns out it was a budding teenage pop singer and I was able to cross verify enough information to figure it wasn’t someone trying to scam me on a cheap suitcase. Of course, that stuff can be faked — but if I’m going to lose to a scammer, they are going to have to at least put in some effort to create a fake identity.

In this case, I got this much of the address typed into Google — “308 conn” — before Google auto-filled the rest of the address. That’s probably not a good sign. For those who might assume that Google scraped my email to get it and complete the history, I Googled it from my phone, though we sold it through my wife’s eBay account. Go ahead and Google that much. I think it’ll auto-fill the rest for you and the first Google result will be this reddit thread about the address. That reddit post basically outlined exactly the same thing that happened here — it was clearly a scam.

I stopped my Googling there. Had this been a more expensive item and a less obvious scam, I may have dug deeper, but I didn’t have to in this case.

You have more than three options

Backing up, I said that eBay only showed us three options: print a label, contact the buyer, and leave feedback. This is where I give eBay a big “FAIL” in terms of helping the seller protect himself/herself. Those aren’t your only three options. You can refund the buyer in PayPal. Once you refund the buyer in PayPal, you can view the order details on eBay and un-mark it as “payment received”. Once you’ve done that, you’ll see the option to “resolve a problem” — and from there, you can cancel the sale. In my case, I clicked a box to say that there was a problem with the shipping address as the reason for cancelling the sale and eBay immediately refunded the final value fee and gave me the option to relist it. I included a nice message to the buyer saying that their shipping address was invalid, so I am unfortunately unable to ship the item to them and this I refunded their payment immediately. I like leaving a paper trail electronic trail showing an effort at good customer service should there be any further investigation by eBay in the future.

It’s not always a scam

Remember what I said earlier — I like to believe that  most people are honest. However, earlier this spring, I was dealing with an eBay buyer who seemed questionable to me. The whole story gets confusing, but here’s the short shortened version of it:

  1. I was selling the Segway seen above.
  2. The buyer made an offer.
  3. I sent a message to see if we could arrange for me deliver it in person (side note: not always a good idea as you don’t have proof of delivery and could therefore lose a “not delivered” case on eBay).
  4. Buyer didn’t respond.
  5. I accepted the offer and sent another message looking to coordinate delivery (I wanted to sell it).
  6. Buyer didn’t respond
  7. eBay filed an unpaid item case automatically when buyer didn’t pay.
  8. I received a message in all caps from the buyer saying, “I NEVER AGREED TO PAY $X,XXX BUT I OFFER $Y,YYY AND YOU DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT $X,XXX SO WHICH IS IT.” or something to that effect, where price “X” was my original asking price and “Y” was his offer (which I had accepted). He asked me to call.
  9. Buyer made payment before I called.
  10. I called & left a message.
  11. The next day, he sent another eBay message in all caps wondering why he never heard form me and angrily telling me to call and coordinate delivery.

At that point, I had a bad feeling that only compounded when I spoke with him on the phone and he had no explanation as to why he made an offer and then didn’t respond to any of my messages or pay for days. He couldn’t explain why he didn’t return my call and then sent an eBay message accusing me of not calling. And furthermore, he was pushy and rude. I explained that I wasn’t comfortable proceeding and that I would refund his money in full and cancel the sale (which I later did). He didn’t like the sound of that and went on about how he would file a complaint with eBay and he wouldn’t accept that, didn’t want a refund, etc. It all seemed odd since he hadn’t responded or paid initially and then this item became remarkably important to him suddenly.

To wrap all this up, he eventually called me again and offered to pay me in cash on delivery (with me personally delivering — he was a few hours away). I had Googled him from the get-go and it returned some odd results — a real estate website that didn’t work, a strip mall address, etc. In the end, it turned out he was just a cranky old wealthy man who owned a strip mall and wasn’t very familiar with eBay (apart from buying his Porsche, which he made sure to park out front and mention having bought on eBay a number of times before I left his office). I didn’t have a good feeling about it, and I sure didn’t like him any more in person than I had on the phone, but he turned out to be legit. In the end, he saved a bundle, I made a bundle, and everyone was happy. And while I think I was right to be skeptical given the circumstances, the point is that not every buyer is a scammer.

On the other hand, not everyone is the real deal. I couldn’t actually find my pictures of the Segway in question when I was writing this post, so I googled the model number. I found the picture above on a classified ad website with an Irish domain….but that is me standing on that Segway in my living room. Some scammer in Ireland stole my picture and is using it to try to fool someone else. Caveat emptor.

Bottom line

When you’re selling (or buying) online via a marketplace like eBay, do your due diligence. If you’re doing huge volume on cheap items, you obviously wouldn’t put the time into researching each buyer. However, I prefer to focus on lower volume / higher margin, which means I often sell items that cost me more than I care to lose. Sometimes, five minutes of Googling can save you he headache of a PayPal fight or money down the drain.

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