ANNUAL E-BAY OBSERVATION by bill orth
Let me say right up front that I love E-bay. I have my frequent-buyer gold star and I find all kinds of stuff for my vintage motorcycles in the auctions and regularly buy books, tools and other gadgets that interest me. I find great oddball Xmas presents for my friends and remain impressed at how well organized and thought-out the site is. But I’m not likely to buy a car (or anything else very expensive) on it. The old rule about investing also applies here: “Don’t risk money you can’t afford to loose.” I can see that there are many apparently well-described and honestly represented vehicles listed, and many reputable dealers, both franchised and independent, use E-Bay to advertise their cars. However, most never really expect to sell their cars on the actual auction. They very clearly provide their business name, phone numbers and other contact information to encourage serious shoppers to call and deal directly with the dealership. Such transactions are nearly always legitimate and consumer friendly because the seller is a very easily-identified entity that has a license or franchise to protect. The listings I worry about are the ones that anonymously offer a car for sale with absolutely no means by which to contact the seller other than by sending him an e-mail, and especially those sellers with relatively low feedback numbers. I know a few local licensed used car dealers who have found that E-Bay is a great place to sell autos that have, as we say in the business, “some hair on ‘em.” These are cars with mixed brands of tires, worrisome repaint work, that smell like cigars, food or diapers inside, have light hail damage and missing manuals, no spare keys or any semblance of a service history. These dealers have found that many E-Bay shoppers are driven by the lure of a bargain and will ignore all these warning signs. Indeed, these same dealers have tried selling really top-notch cars on the web and can rarely get what a true gem is worth, so they keep those creampuffs on their lot to sell face-to-face with local customers and list the hairy ones on E-Bay.
I am frequently amazed by the sketchy and late responses I often receive when I am asking questions before buying what people are selling. Imagine how responsive such a person is going to be after they have your money and know you have no way to compel them to communicate with you! Yes, I know that the E-Bay feedback system is supposed to punish unscrupulous sellers and chase them off the site. In fact, all it does is keep the honest members who are concerned about their rating and building up an impressive credibility score on their toes. It is very easy for someone to really shake down a few buyers and then, after getting some flaming hot negative postings, just disappear. This person simply dreams up a new E-Bay identity and starts over. It easy: First buy up a bunch of inexpensive popular and easily-resold items under the new identity to create a strongly positive report card of transactions. Buy twenty comic books, immediately resell them and you’ve suddenly got a positive score of 40! Some of these grifters will be simultaneously building up four or five alternative identities for future use while they are also busy fleecing people with much more expensive things under other soon-to-be-sacrificial aliases.
But let’s get back to cars and one particular example that occurred already this year. A young man here in Denver responded to an E-Bay listing for an ‘86 Porsche 944 Turbo. The car was in California and sounded like exactly what he was looking for—black, with fancy wheels and was (you guessed it!) “like new.” He followed the bidding and was the eventual winner at about $12,500. He sent certified funds to the seller, bought insurance and made arrangements to have the car trucked to Colorado. After a few days the title arrived in the mail and before long the car was here and he was all revved up to start enjoying it. First problem: It wouldn’t pass emissions testing, but after spending several hundred dollars that was handled. Next problem: the motor vehicle office rejected the California title and wad of attached documents as being non-negotiable. The papers he had received were not a nice clean title in the seller’s name. Instead, it showed a daisychain of sales and resales (including one from a salvage auction for $500) ending with the name of some individual—not the seller—hand-written in the remaining blank space on the dog-eared old title.
This development sent the increasingly-worried new buyer to a body shop to check for possible accident damage. Oh boy, was there ever! Without even crawling under the car, the shop manager pointed out that the door gaps—the vertical seam where the door joins the body—were a half-inch wider at the top on both sides than they were at the bottom! This poor old car had probably been hit hard from behind while stopped and slammed into the stationary car in front of it, bending the unibody in the middle, where it is the weakest. This also explained the wind whistles around the doors and all the creaks and groans he had been trying to ignore. Someone evidently bought it from an insurance company and fixed it up, even though it never should have been, and jazzed it up with some slick new wheels and shiny paint. It then passed through a couple of hands before winding up on E-Bay, a perfect example of a car that needed to be sold anonymously!
Not surprisingly, the seller failed to respond to any e-mails and when finally tracked down after a lot of effort, basically told the buyer to buzz off. In the meantime, the buyer found out that E-Bay very effectively distances itself from any disputes between buyers and sellers. You cannot get anyone on the phone, the E-Bay complaint site specifically states that while you may leave a complaint, they will NOT enter into any dialogue with you or intercede with the seller. If a series of complaints are received, they may knock the seller off the site, but that’s it. You are encouraged to work out the problem with the seller yourself. Now, in the grand scheme of things, I can understand this. If E-Bay got involved with every buyer who wanted to whine about some minor defect in his $8.00 purchase, they would grind to a halt.
But back to the boomerang-shaped Porsche: Fortuitously, the seller through laziness or ignorance left a couple of problems he will have to account for—if he can be found. First: you cannot sell a car without a negotiable title. No matter how specific his AS-IS disclaimer may have been about the car’s condition, unless he disclosed a bad title up front, he has some real liability. However, making an individual buy the car back and reimburse all the corollary expenses is never easy. Why should he? He’ll just say he doesn’t have the money, change his phone number and move to another apartment. If you or I were in the buyer’s position, we would call our lawyer and be informed about how much it would cost to chase this out-of-state miscreant at $300/hour. Even IF, after spending thousands of dollars and who knows how much time, you got a favorable judgement….you will spend the rest of your life trying to cash it! So most people would sell the car, swallow the loss and tacitly encourage the schmuck in California to do it again. However, BOTH of this young man’s parents are lawyers! They can actually pursue the troublemaker and perhaps get some satisfaction from him simply because they can do it for “free,” but there will still be time and effort costs to absorb.
Are there any morals here? Well, the seller could have made sure no one would have any legitimate action against him if he had simply spent a few dollars to obtain a title in his name instead of illegally passing along the buggered-up one he got with the car. Instead, he is now going to be hounded by these two attorneys to buy this terrible car back. Had the buyer spent a few hundred dollars on a legitimate inspection before his purchase he would have learned all this, but who does this on an E-Bay auction that is closing tomorrow? Or, had he bought a 944 Turbo from someone with a license to defend he would have much better chances of recourse. One of my personal rules—learned the hard way—is to never buy anything from someone that is worth more than they are. If you buy a $100,000 car from a shade-tree used car lot, chances of reimbursement are slim if something goes bad. However, if you buy a $100,000 car from a company that sells a dozen of them every month, is worth millions and has to answer to license boards and manufacturers, chances are a legitimate complaint will be addressed fairly. But if you buy a $12,500 car from someone a thousand miles away that you wouldn’t even recognize on the street, you’re braver than I am.
-- Bill Orth --