E-posses patrol for auction fraud

Carter Daniels once got scammed in an online auction to the tune of US$240. Now he's working to help others avoid the same fate--a task he says is necessary because Yahoo Auctions isn't doing enough.

Daniels, a retired Air Force veteran who lives in Kensington, Maryland, answers questions from frustrated users as an expert in Yahoo Auction's Community section. He's also an active member of a fraud-related message board at the site, and has posted information about auctions and sellers he thinks might be fraudulent.

Online auction visitors are becoming more skilled at spotting an obvious fraud, says Delores Thompson, an attorney in the bureau of consumer protection for the Federal Trade Commission. Some are vocal about pointing them out to the auction service and to fellow buyers.

"Consumers are doing a lot. We have these e-posses out there protecting each other and themselves," she says.

Thompson sees the phenomenon as largely positive. "Consumers help us and the auction folks to figure out where the gaps are," she says. It was a concerned individual who alerted a PC World editor that somebody had usurped her EBay identity to place bids.

However, Thompson notes that virtual vigilantes must tread lightly. "You don't want to accuse a seller of anything without proof," she cautions.

Broken system?

Daniels admits he worries about the vigilante vibe that sometimes infiltrates the fraud message board. He says he doesn't want to finger the wrong person, but he also doesn't want innocent buyers falling victim to crooks.

"If the auction sites were run better, it wouldn't be necessary," he says.

Rich Godwin, senior brand manager for Yahoo Auctions, while declining to comment on the fraud message board itself, disagrees with Daniel's assertion. Yahoo works hard to run its site well, and takes its responsibilities seriously, he says.

He notes, however, that persons who want to contact Yahoo about problems need to use the right tools--such as its Neighborhood Watch feature--because the company doesn't monitor the message boards for fraud information.

"I think that if people are communicating with us in the right ways--and we've made those channels easy to find--we are responding," says Godwin.

Double-edged sword

While encouraging users to act through official channels, people helping people is an EBay trademark, says Kevin Pursglove, EBay spokesperson.

"It's part of the heart and soul of EBay to allow a community of buyers and sellers to come together, to buy and sell, and to share information," he explains. However, when it comes to possible fraud, they need to contact the company.

"I know there are some users that suggest after a point--after a certain level of frustration--they feel they need to act," he says. "But they should always include EBay because we can assist them."

When people take matters into their own hands, sometimes an innocent can get hurt, he cautions. Whether it's an e-mailed warning about a seller or a message board posting, it's possible to damage an honest seller's reputation, he says. "We have had a number of cases where individual users with the best intentions go after the wrong person."

Then, EBay must discipline somebody who was well-meaning but misguided, he says. "We've had to suspend a fair number of users over this."

That said, Pursglove says he doesn't want to stop the community spirit behind the acts. "I don't want to discourage people from helping others out--but I don't want people to jump the gun," he says.

Balancing act

Caution makes sense, but what's a Good Samaritan to do? Obviously right-minded auction citizens don't mean to overreact, says Yahoo Auctions guru Daniels.

"In the forum we have recently discussed the element of vigilantism," he says. "It's a very fine line we have to try to walk, and we are, I hope, learning how to do it."

Daniels says checks and balances are already in place to make sure overzealous do-gooders don't go too far. For example, it's entirely Yahoo's call whether to close an auction. But he believes Yahoo Auctions could do more. He suggests a moderated message thread on each auction page, where users can post concerns and comments much more easily.

Also, Yahoo could force new sellers to raise their sales volume slowly, Daniels says. He finds it suspicious if a brand-new seller, lacking feedback, offers dozens of items. Daniels suggests new sales be limited until a seller builds up feedback.

Yahoo's Godwin says neither option is viable. The ratings page handles feedback, he says. In addition, he's concerned a message thread could be abused. The company has considered limiting sales, but legitimate sellers disliked the plan. Yahoo finds most fraudulent sellers don't post multiple items anyway, he says.

Jamming auctions

While the site owner may be the only party that can legitimately stop an auction, e-posses can drive off unwary bidders in other ways, says John Mares, an architect and EBay bidder in Santa Monica, California.

An increasing number of "kamikaze vigilantes" bid up scam auctions, he says. For example, when recently perusing auctions on high-end digital cameras, Mares became suspicious of a deal that looked too good to be true. When he contacted some of the other bidders, he found some had already pegged the deal as a scam and had actually set up fake bidder identities, "jamming" the auction with high bids.

"It's so easy to set up a fake ID on EBay," says Mares, noting that he's never faked an ID or a bid. "Then, all you have to do is keep bidding against a scam auction, either driving the price way out of sight (you need two jammers to do this) or protecting innocents by always having a higher bid in place."

Yahoo's Godwin says "jamming" an auction clearly violates his company's terms of service.

"Shill bidding is obviously not allowed--it's not the proper means," he says. "We can't allow that to happen."

Obviously, online auction sites can't sanction such vigilante actions. While EBay's Pursglove says he understands why people get impatient, he asks customers to remember that sometimes things take time.

"The reality of this is, the perpetrators are getting better at this," he says. "Sometimes we can wrap it up in a week; sometimes it takes months."

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Tom Mainelli

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