YET ANOTHER CAVEAT
by bill orth
Well, it’s springtime and the ebay cars are arriving. Enthusiasts who pined for excitement all winter while snowbound and cabin-feverish have been busy at their keyboards late into the frigid nights looking for smokin’ deals. And some have found them. There are a lot of very reputable, honest and forthcoming individuals and dealers doing business on the web…and quite a few who aren’t. We’ve talked about all this before, but I thought a couple of easily-held misconceptions would be worth a few minutes’ thought. First, eBay certainly isn’t the only online source for buying cars, but it’s a good example of the genre and I’ll use their name just because it’s the most widely followed and is very representative. Also, I have to note that the designers of eBay and its management have done an incredible job of crafting an extremely user-friendly site that does its level best to provide a legitimate marketplace. Unfortunately, it is this very aura of security that—I think—leads some folks into trouble.
Everyone who uses eBay is familiar with their many layers of buyer (and seller) protection. They make it clear that certain merchandise like guns & porno are not allowed; that sellers are obligated to honestly describe their offerings and that buyers are obligated to pay promptly. Every participant has a feedback score with which their behavior is judged and all of this works astonishingly well for the vast majority of users. But when you have a trusting, active bevy of buyers nibbling eagerly at every scrap dropped into their bowl like goldfish, a lot of smart guys figure out how to take advantage of the situation and that’s when the trouble starts. Almost everyone you know has spent their adult lives developing an honest way of doing business, a fact that leaves such good citizens unprepared for those who majored in being crooked. What you see on an on-line listing may be a truthful representation of the item—or an even more carefully worded trap. The Bad Guys are amazing at how well they weave their nets with words & photos to lure you in and utterly ruthless about sucking your blood once you’re snared. Instead of repeating the cautions about buying something expensive from someone you don’t know and have no way to contact other than by e-mail, let’s look at some other traps to avoid:
First, we have to bust a myth: eBay will help you if you are victimized. They would like to, but the reality is that the staggering volume of transactions on the site effectively precludes any real oversight. Yes, there are “dispute” resolution pages on which you can plead your case in hopes of redress, but the very clear message is: Take care of it yourself. You are strongly encouraged to engage the buyer/seller in a constructive dialogue to resolve any real or imagined problem. If this fails, you can still register a Dispute, but it won’t go anywhere. You will be “told” (electronically and with no ability to reply) that your file is under consideration and will be dealt with in a few weeks. After a few days, if you look in your My Ebay folder, the dispute will show up as having been being dismissed. Any efforts on your part to actually speak to a person will fail and you will eventually go back to attending to your life. Again, this is not a slam against ebay—there is no way they could begin to get in the middle of—literally—millions of disagreements about some subjective aspect of a transaction. (He said it had “good” tires; I think they’re worn beyond what I like to use)
If a buyer is truly victimized by being sold a counterfeit item, a car without a title or some other patently illegal issue, eBay does have a “Claim” resolution center that addresses such problems. Again, it is nearly impossible to find, cumbersome to enact and takes forever to reach a conclusion. Even if the site finds in your favor, the miscreant may well have disappeared and will not be making any refunds. eBay has a $200-limit claim reimbursement that can help you for minor purchases, but if it was a car…it’s still $200. If you paid via PayPal, they have another level of fraud protection, but it is limited to $2000. Not much help on a Ferrari. The cold hard truth is if someone was truly trying to run a scam on you, they have thought of all this already; will not have given you any good phone numbers or other contact info and will just disappear—until they activate their new eBay identity(s) in search of new sheep to shear. Let’s look at some popular ways to deceive people and swallow their money!
First, sometimes the point is not how good or bad the item being offered may be—the real question is: Does it actually exist, in the hands of the seller, and is it truly for sale? Any ten-year-old kid knows how to right-click on a photo and swipe it for other uses. Our dealership website can track how often our photos are exported—179 times last month alone! Usually it’s just someone who uses them for his wallpaper or other innocuous applications. However, we have found our cars being listed on foreign websites and our photos being used to illustrate someone else’s cars. Here’s how it works: Swipe a nice photo that has a neutral background, cook up a tasty description and list the car at a give-away price. (Divorce! Must Sell immediately!). Provide a temporary contact to which a panting buyer can send his $10,000 deposit and collect a few of those. Then disappear. See, an honest person thinks the seller is actually selling a car; he’s not—he’s just collecting deposits! I have seen several documented examples in the past month of such mischief, and not limited to desirable cars. Investigators have found a fellow who is listing “pure-bred” puppies at bargain prices, but is just gathering money before re-listing the same pictures on other sites. Similar scams are being employed with any merchandise imaginable. I know a seller who listed a rare & valuable motorcycle gas tank on eBay, but was surprised to find his tank, with his pictures listed elsewhere at a bargain price—where it was “sold” several times!
Another caution is those listings where someone mentions that he’s selling the car for a friend. Sure, that may be a very honest situation—but how much help can you expect when the description turns out to be second-hand and too optimistic or inaccurate? If you are a seller, and someone sends you a cashier’s check for payment, there is a whole rule book of fouls that can be called. You have all heard the one about the check being made out for too much money, and you are asked to send the difference to the “shipper” or some other innocent-sounding entity—but, of course, the check isn’t any good. That same 10 year-old kid can also make some pretty convincing checks with a good color printer, so they’re best avoided under any circumstances. It has been my experience that anyone who flatly refuses to employ safeguarded funding alternatives, like PayPal, is often working a scam or can be a frustrating person to do business with: If they are willing to wait for the mail to deliver their money, how motivated are they to promptly ship your item?
OK, now that we know they’re thorns among all the roses out there, what can you do to guard against getting sucked in? Here are some check points that often turn up in nefarious listings: Is the item too cheap? Does the seller have scant feedback reports? Is his email address Hotmail or Yahoo? (providers that do not require any true identification and are free, so a crook can have dozens of “identities” with them) Does the seller provide plausible contact information or just a drop box at the UPS store? Is the car advertised as being in Ohio, but there are palm trees in the photo background? Are you dealing with a real, legitimate, easily-contacted business or just a private individual? Is the seller prompt about answering questions before the sale? (A lackadaisical communicator will simply go silent after he has your money). Obviously, there could be some very legitimate sellers who could fit in each of these categories, but if several of these warning signs are present, the ice is getting pretty thin and some judgment introspection is warranted. Fortunately, so far this year, the cars brought in for service that came from the internet haven’t been too bad. There has been the usual deferred maintenance—cam belts ‘way past due, oil leaks that have been ignored and various other defects, great and small. But none like the Testarossa a few years ago that turned out to be a Euro version, with no federalizing papers, no emission equipment, in need of huge amounts of expensive service work and with a non-negotiable title! None of which, oddly enough, had been disclosed on the listing!
While internet browsing is certainly fun and can be a source of just what you’re looking for, a good rule to bear in mind is the same one suggested to anyone who wants to do some gambling in Vegas or try day trading the stock market: Don’t risk any more money than you can afford to lose!
-- Bill Orth –