My fight with the fraudsters

Are we winning our fight with the fraudsters?

My recent experience of eBay raises some serious questions about the future of the web. For many years we have been fighting a war with spammers and fraudsters – a war with many “front-lines”; the email inbox, websites, blogs, social networks and even e-commerce sites like Amazon and eBay. Based on my most recent experience, the question and to an extent the worry I have is, “are we winning this fight”?

EBay and me

I have used eBay on and off since 2003 to sell various items. When I decided recently to sell my old iPhone, I didn’t hesitate in considering eBay as my shop window. Not only does it generate in my opinion the best possible price but I have always found the process efficient, with a strong sense of buyer and seller security and trust noticeable. More than this, it is fun. It is exciting to buy and sell, particularly in the last few seconds of any deal.

eBay as you probably know is in part successful because the buyers and sellers that transact, also take part in a review process. The buyer and seller in every transaction are asked to rate their experience; it is your rating as a seller and a buyer that tells others what they can ‘likely’ expect from a transaction with you. In essence, you trade on your track record.

With all of this in mind I listed my old iPhone last week, setting a reserve price which I felt was fair and using the BuyItNow tool in the hope for a quick sale. What I didn’t expect was just how quick that sale would be. within 5 minutes of listing, the item had gone and for a great price. When the buyer subsequently asked the condition of the item (a little late I thought), I answered that it was good and offered my email to contact me directly. I then sent off my paypal details and began the wait for payment.

Gone Phishing

The next day I received an email from PayPal and a separate email from my buyer. The paypal email told me the funds had gone into my account and it requested a tracking code (the proof of delivery paypal needs before it sends payment). The buyer also told me he had a change of delivery address, no big deal said he. He had provided me an extra £40 postage and packing to re-route the package.

I’m sure some people would have simply followed the instructions, particularly if they were on the move as I was. Fortunately, I decided not to do anything. It might have been mention of the Nigerian delivery address or a nagging “too good to be true feeling” I had from the beginning but I was suspicious.

My investigations concluded quite quickly that the buyer was a fraudster. I reported them to eBay who to their credit removed the individual immediately and refunded my final value fee (the % paid of any sold item to eBay).

Within 20 minutes I relisted but this time I put in place a few of the buyer blocks available from eBay e.g. I suggested that next time the buyer should have a paypal account. I also stipulated a UK only delivery address.

I relisted the item and once again the iPhone sold within a few minutes. This time to an individual with a UK-sounding name (and address) but with a canadian email address and no previous history. Almost immediately my buyer sent a question and tried to strike up a conversation.

With suspicions alerted, I contacted eBay and after some investigation they removed this individual and made me another refund. They also suggested that by removing Buyitnow I could ensure that even my spammer’s had to bid. They suggested I could have more control over the process. These refinements sounded good.

Bidding my time

Although I was becoming increasingly frustrated with my experience I felt for sure that my third time would be lucky and I would get my sale. I relisted once more. I had to wait four or more days this time for a first bid but with a few hours to go the bids were stacking up. The iPhone had already reached the reserve with a few minutes to go and with a few seconds left a decent bid was in, counting down now…30, 20, 10…finally my sale and a winning bid of..£640(??). Almost four times the previous bid.

As you’ve guessed the winner had a canadian email address, was a recent eBay member and surprise surprise had no transaction history. I had waited nearly five days to have my auction ruined by this fraudster. I now contacted eBay for the third time, with the same result, the bidder was removed. I now had a choice, I could make an offer to a lower bidder or leave alone. I did the former but my prospect had moved on to another iPhone I suspect. The sale was gone.

And Finally

My experience leaves the question in my mind, “how can we win against the spammers and the fraudsters”? Although they work the odds, only having to fool some of the people some of the time, by goodness they still manage to disrupt, annoy, frustrate and infuriate everyone else.

What I really wanted to do (and what eBay didn’t want me to do) was to sell to someone with an eBay transaction history. For commercial reasons eBay cannot allow this to happen. This is the weakness that the fraudsters exploit. Perhaps if not this weakness they would find another though.

Let me know your views on this:

  • Does anyone have a similar experience?
  • Is spam and online fraud an increasing fact of life?
  • Is there hope for the “good” online majority?
  • What can we do practically to combat these nefarious web users?

I didn’t enjoy my experience but I did learn a few things. If you’re worried at all about a buyer (or seller), you might do some of the following:

  • Check your buyer’s credentials – my buyers had only just joined eBay and had no transaction history
  • Check your buyer’s email address – my buyers had .ca addresses but I had specified a UK delivery only – why were they even interested
  • Check the delivery address – one of my buyers asked for a delivery to Nigeria the other to Canada
  • Check the story – one buyer cited the reason for a re-routed delivery “to a cousin that works for Unesco”
  • Check every email you receive – the initial paypal email wasn’t right; the address was a mask for another
  • Check your paypal account – before sending on are the funds in your real paypal account P.S. don’t trust paypal emails

There is lots more advice in eBay such as keep all communications and transactions within eBay (a lesson I learnt with my phishing email from paypal) and let eBay know if there is anything suspicious going on.

I should say I found eBay staff to be first rate with dealing with my issues – if ultimately helpless to really do anything about this.

Sad to say I have not managed to sell my item and with that I’m off to Gumtree for another experience – will keep you posted.



About Alan Stevenson

Over the last fifteen years I have split my time almost equally between Developing Digital strategies for public and private sector clients and helping organisations visualise, specify, plan and optimise technology-based solutions within their organisation.
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6 Responses to My fight with the fraudsters

  1. Hari says:

    Hi Alan,

    This does raise so many questions. Talking of Gumtree, a lot of my friends and I nearly got fooled into deals that seemed too good to be true. Prior to leaving India, to do my Masters here in Glasgow, I was on the lookout for accommodation. I tried Gumtree and found a few deals which seemed just too tempting (250 a month for a double bed ensuite flat in the city centre). I started to correspond with the person who had posted this advert and after exchanging a couple of emails he said he needed proof that I had money to pay him when I got to Glasgow. He then asked me to transfer some money (about 500 quid) to any UK account and then just give him the transaction number to confirm. This sounded fishy and I stopped responding to emails. Later after a fortnight I found that photos of the same ‘flat’ (which was non existent) were being advertised on various sites with different addresses. Most of these addresses couldn’t be found too.

    I don’t think there can be a foolproof way of blocking such fraudsters as there are people who will find their way around every law. For now at least I guess we have to just rely on our instincts to detect any such fraudulent activities.

    • Alan Stevenson says:

      Thanks Hari. Great comment. Jim’s son had a similar experience to yours. Sounds like some of these scams are more prevalent than I thought. Could our law enforcement agencies be doing more?


      • Hari says:

        The web has become so convenient for everyone so that includes the fraudsters I suppose. I think its so easy to do such things. I think law enforcement could actually do a lot of “acting” but I doubt they can do any “preventing”!! Another problem is a lot of us (including me) don’t report these things even when we know its a fraud. Actually thanks for this post Alan, as I am beginning to think that we must report such events. That’s probably the only way we can stop these things. Just out of curiosity though, do you have an idea of whether such people are finally brought to justice? If so is there any statistic which might tell us what percentage of cyber fraud is reported?

  2. Alan Stevenson says:

    I’ve finally found the answer!

    Ok, so it’s Friday afternoon…


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