The Web: Super Highway Robbery?

By Kurt Kuersteiner (©1998 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine


There has been a lot of excitement lately about the internet. From all the hype, the impulsive collector might conclude that they are falling behind unless they buy a computer and go "on line" to continue their hobby.

But take my advice and use caution.

The internet may have incredible potential, but there are plenty of problems that make spending thousands of dollars on becoming a "cyber-collector" a questionable investment. (That money could, after all, be invested in cards.) For those of us who already have a computer, these same problems need to be considered every time we do business on the internet.

To be sure, the internet offers plenty of opportunities. I find it very useful for locating new card singles, and I also sell cards through the net. It's a great place to show full color samples of material and e-mail back and forth questions and answers in a matter of minutes. But the biggest problem with the internet is the ability to manipulate the user's identity. People can hide behind different screen names, and reputations can be created and destroyed using fake feedback.

This is especially common on eBay. For those few who are still unfamiliar with E-bay, it is one of the most popular locations for auctioning non-sports cards. For a small percentage, users can place their items on a bulletin board for a week and various visitors can bid on them. But none of the seller's names are listed in the auction, only their "user names". This name can be changed at any time, so people with bad reputations can keep coming back under different user names.

Now don't get me wrong. Having multiple user names isn't by itself a sign of dishonesty. Sometimes people create a new user name that is easier to remember, or they want to bid without being recognized so as not to call attention to certain items they are bidding on.

But often, names are changed to escape a bad reputation or negative feedback.

The feedback option on e-bay is supposed to work like this: Anytime a buyer or seller conducts business on e-bay, they can leave feedback about the other person and how the deal went. Only space for a couple of sentences is allowed. The user can check off if he is leaving positive, negative, or neutral feedback. E-bay tabulates all this information and keeps the number or remarks inside parenthesis next to the user's name. So when you're bidding on an item, you can see how many positive or negative remarks were made and if that person is a long time user or not. You can also read those remarks at the click of button.

Once a user gets ten or more positive remarks, he earns a yellow star with a red outline by his name. But each negative remark drops his tally a point, so ten positive and one negative remark only equal nine (and no star). He earns a green star for 100 positive remarks, and so on and so forth. But again, this system is subject to manipulation, because most people are afraid to leave any negative feedback out of fear of "slamming" by the other guy. Slamming is when someone leaves horrible remarks about you and you can't get it removed unless you change your user name. Remember, both the buyer and the seller can leave feedback. If the buyer gets screwed and posts something negative about the seller, the seller can retaliate and leave something even more negative about the buyer (or vice-versa).

That's exactly what happened to me with a postcard I bought that arrived creased. When I returned it, the seller didn't want to refund my money. He finally caved in, but threatened to "slam" me if I reported anything negative on his feedback. Being new and idealistic about the internet, I posted a warning to others anyway... and got slammed by him. Now he has a complaint saying he was difficult, and I have a complaint calling me a liar and a nut. So much for civic duty!

Another trick dishonest users utilize is false praise. Anyone can leave praise about you, including yourself! This would be obvious if you utilized the same user name, but you can just a easily use a second, third, fourth (or whatever) user name. No sooner had I left negative feedback for the difficult dealer, than five "sunglass" users posted praise. A "sunglass" user is anyone who creates a new identify for themselves within the last six months, symbolized by a little pair of sunglasses next to their name. For all I know, each one of these "sunglass" users was the same dealer posting praise about himself to dilute my negative remark. This same trick can be used over and over again to create a large number of positive remarks under the same user name, so new bidders will think, "hmmm, this guy looks solid- check out all his praise."

One thing e-bay does to prevent this practice is that each user name counts only once towards praise points or complaints. But there no way to really stop a dealer from creating a dozen or so fake names to give himself a dozen or so (fake) positive feedback remarks. (ebay attempted to solve this problem by recently requiring users to list the item they won before leaving any feedback. But it can still be faked by dishonest dealers bidding on their own auctions with another name, then using that name to leave praise about themselves.)

These same false names can be used to raise auction prices. It's called "shilling", and it's against the e-bay rules. But e-bay is so big that few if anyone prevents this malpractice. That's the biggest problem on e-bay in general. Try to reach a real live person and you can forget it. I tried to reach someone when I had my problem, but all I could find was document after document directing me somewhere else. They had plenty of disclaimers relieving them of any responsibility, but all that did was assure me it was MY problem and not theirs. I never found any contact person I could e-mail or phone number I could call. I mailed in all the documentation with my complaint to their investigation service, and never heard a peep from them. I doubt it was even read.

The sad truth is that the internet is a victim of it's own success. It's so big and vast, that individuals get lost in the crowd. And that's exactly why crooks love to work crowds. If they get caught picking some one's pocket, they just disappear within a sea of faces.

On the plus side, I know many buyers and sellers who have had good experiences on e-bay. I know I have. But like myself, many of these same dealers have had their share of bad experiences, and they feel they have no one to turn to.

Of course, if you lose a lot of money, you can always complain to the post office for mail fraud. You'll have a name and address that you sent the check to, so it's not like you're without any leads. But what kind of response do you expect for a dispute over a $30 set of cards? Especially if the argument is over the condition of the cards?

Now the point of all this isn't to suggest everyone should stick with The Wrapper Magazine and never do any business on the internet. I do both, although I enjoy The Wrapper community much more than I do the anonymous atmosphere of e-bay. Yet I still use e-bay also. But it's kind of like going to New York... I always lock my doors when I'm there and I stay on the lookout for trouble. When there are significant problems in The Wrapper, the owner tosses out the offenders. But I've never seen action or even an investigation conducted by e-bay. I'm sure they do it for the really big abusers, but the small time thieves are more common and just as annoying.

If e-bay really cared, they could at least create a computer program that cross checks multiple names of the same individual and prevents them from being used to manipulate auction prices or feedback. But one wonders if e-bay is really motivated to crack down on such abuses. They get their cut regardless of if the deal goes sour or not. Getting rid of the bad seeds would not only cost e-bay time and effort, it would cost them some business. But if this problem continues to grow, it will eventually cost them clients. Because most customers will only be abused so many times before they leave in disgust.

Everyone has to decide to what extent they will use electronic services for themselves, but like they say page after page on e-bay, caveat emptor... Let the buyer beware!

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