eBay: One collector's opinion.
by Les Hughes
© 2000 by author
eBay has had a significant impact on the hobby of insignia collecting: it has literally opened the world to collectors and dealers, and in the process it has become a venue that some individuals love and hate in equal measure.
eBay has changed considerably since I became a member in 1998. In the early days, surfing its offerings was like walking through a flea market: I never knew what I might encounter, there were bargains to be had, and I got the feeling that all sellers had day jobs. Today, eBay is a huge business, and surfing it feels a lot like walking through a shopping mall. eBay still exerts an attraction, and I still surf it, though not as often and with less anticipation than I once did .
It is true, in my opinion, that eBay has become a dumping ground for reproduction insignia. And in a disturbing number of instances it appears not to be simply a matter of a seller mistakenly offering the occasional reproduction: Some sellers appear to be profiting handsomely from an endless supply of reproductions, which they routinely represent, implicitly or explicitly, as original items. The reality is that you will find a similar state of affairs in all venues - other auctions, gun and militaria shows, direct sales from dealers. eBay is not the worst of venues, it is simply the most visible, and so, too, are its flaws.
Protect yourself - eBay will not
Many who complain about the reproductions, fakes and misrepresentations that appear on eBay wonder aloud why eBay does not better police the items offered. The reality of the matter is that proving, in a courtroom sense, that an item is a reproduction or a fake can be very difficult, and it can be expensive because it requires the services of experts (and, no doubt, the services of lawyers, given the litigiousness of the public). Whether they wish to admit it or not, collectors want to have it both ways in these matters: They want venues to add the expert staff necessary to screen a wide (huge, in the case of eBay) variety of artifacts, but they do not want the added cost of maintaining that staff passed along in the form of increased fees.
This is not to say that I am completely pleased with eBay's policing of its venue: I am not. I have been ripped-off twice (out of about 300 transactions) by a seller in Britain who took my money (via Paypal) and then simply ceased responding to my email. It was a modest amount, $20, but I was angry, and I set out to obtain whatever satisfaction I could get. I spent hours going through all of the seller's feedback and checking every transaction she'd ever been involved in. I also emailed other of her customers who had yet to post feedback, and I learned they were beginning to suspect that they had been had. My research convinced me that this seller had operated under four different eBay IDs, and in doing so she had purchased from her own accounts and posted feedback for the transactions. I sent eBay all of my evidence, but eBay said it was not conclusive enough to justify action. Finally, I compared Paypal receipts with one of the seller's other victims who had paid to an account other than the one she used for me, and we found that Paypal had remitted payment to the same email address, the address of a third eBay account of the seller, even though different names were used to set up the three eBay accounts. At this point, eBay suspended the account of this seller that she had used to rip-off me but allowed her to keep active her other account, which was piling up negative feedback from victims. Go figure.
Even though I had gotten her suspended, I wasn't totally satisfied. It seemed obvious to me that she was making her living, or a good portion of it, from eBay and that she would not walk away from such a lucrative venue. So, about a month later, I began surfing eBay looking for signs she might have returned. She sold a variety of items, including the memorabilia of two obscure British rock stars, and she had an idiosyncratic way of expressing herself. To my surprise, I found a seller that fit this woman to a "T", including being located in the same city. When I checked to see when this seller had joined eBay, I found it was on the same day that eBay had suspended the woman by whom I had been ripped-off. I sent eBay a note pointing out why I believed this seller to be the one they had suspended earlier, and to my surprise eBay agreed and promptly suspended her again.
I learned three things from this experience. First, eBay will suspend members for violating its procedural rules (e.g., holding multiple accounts and using one to bid on another) but not for taking one's money and then failing to deliver the goods - feedback, eBay believes, will take care of this problem (I disagree - see below). Second, I learned that I, the victim, had to do all of the detective work: had I not, this seller would still be ripping off bidders (in fact, were I a betting man, I would wager she's back on eBay today under a new name and is at it again). Third, I learned how misleading positive feedback can be.
Feedback: Not worthless - not exactly
As I pointed out above, eBay places great faith in its feedback system as a means of protecting its users, both buyers and sellers. I find this faith naive and self-serving. It is self-serving because it relieves eBay of having to deal with the problems it purports the feedback system to address. It is naive because while the feedback system may work well to alert bidders and sellers to individuals who renege on bids or on delivery of winnings, it fails miserably in those cases where copies and fakes are misrepresented as genuine.
The reason it fails where copies and fakes are misrepresented as genuine is that winning bidders who receive an item they believe was misrepresented will rarely post negative feedback if the seller allows them to return the item for a refund. Winners who are not astute enough to recognize a reproduction either post positive feedback or no feedback at all. This is why there are eBay sellers who, in my opinion, routinely misrepresent the items they sell whose feedback fails utterly to reflect this fact. This is why negative feedback I take seriously, but positive feedback I take with a grain of salt.
Since I first wrote this section, another practice that undermines the feedback system has become widespread: retaliatory negative feedback. What happens here is that the seller withholds feedback for a transaction until the buyer has posted feedback. If the buyer's feedback is negative, then the seller responds in kind. Negative feedback often has a more adverse effect on the buyer than on the seller because the typical seller has engaged in many more transactions. (One negative in 1,000 transactions will drop one's feedback 0.1%; one negative in 40 will drop it 2.5%.) The fear of retaliatory feedback suppresses negative feedback by bidders.
What constitutes a good feedback rating?
The obvious answer is, 100% positive feedback. Such a rating does not guarantee that the all seller's wares are as advertised, but it does suggest that the seller settles complaints to his buyers' satisfaction.
What constitutes a poor feedback rating?
There is not, in my opinion, a hard and fast figure that can be used. When contemplating dealing with a seller whose feedback is less than 100% positive, I examine his feedback in detail. First, I see how many transactions the seller has been involved in. A single negative can have a significant impact on the feedback of someone who is fairly new to eBay, while 20 can have little impact for a seller with thousands of transactions. Second, I scroll through the seller's feedback and read as many of the negatives as I can find. The fact is that there are jerks on eBay on both sides of the fence, and some buyers post negative feedback without having attempted to resolve the problem with the seller or because the seller rejected an unreasonable demand. Reading negatives will give you an idea of both the nature of the problem and the personality of the person posting it. Feedback that is private should raise a red flag, as should little or no feedback.
Sellers with little or no feedback
Should this be a source of concern? After all, every member of eBay started with zero feedback. Personally, I am concerned when I see a seller with few (especially zero) feedback, and for a couple of reasons. First, although the feedback system is flawed, it is better than nothing, and in these cases, nothing is about what you have. Second, many scam artists who use eBay scam as many buyers as they can as quickly as they can, a modus operandi typically characterized by few feedback initially, then negatives, then suspension. I am especially wary when a low-feedback seller is offering a high-dollar item or when he is located outside the United States.
Beware of email from eBay (or PayPal)
Scammers have long targeted members of eBay (and now PayPal, too) using a variety of ruses. Most of these take the form of email that appear to have come from eBay and that request, for one reason or another, that the recipient use an embedded link to update his account. If you receive such an email, forward it to email@example.com (or to firstname.lastname@example.org), and await their response. Do not use the embedded link. (If you place your cursor over the embedded link, many browsers will display the actual address of the link, and to the Internet savvy it will be apparent that the link is not to eBay or to PayPal.)
Stopping an Auction Early
Although it is against eBay's rules, it is common for members to contact a seller, extend an offer for the item, and ask him to end the auction early and sell directly, off-eBay. And it is common for sellers to accept. One would think that eBay would wise up and examine the messages sent to sellers who end auctions early, but apparently it does not. As a seller, I received a number of such requests, but as a matter of principle, I let all of my auctions run to completion. Perhaps there was more than just principle involved. I always asked myself, why, if this member thinks his offer is so good, is he afraid to bid it and win outright? In fact, in every case, the realized price of my items exceeded, and usually by far, the offer I'd received to stop the auction. If you see an item of interest suddenly disappear, chances are someone talked the seller into stopping the auction and selling directly. And though he likely will never realize it, the seller lost money by doing so.
On the positive side
There is much about eBay I like. eBay buyer’s pay no fee, whereas other auction houses may charge buyers significant fees. (Judging from the fakes and reproductions that make their way into such auctions, the buyer's fees, some 15-20% of the realized price, are not always spent to retain expert staff.) One can interact (via email) with sellers on eBay, and ask what questions one may have. One can follow the bidding in real time, and one can see that the proxy system is, in fact, applied. Other on-line or mail auctions protect the seller's identity, and one must take it on faith that the proxy system is applied. The feedback system, for all its failings, is available, and one can examine a seller's past offerings and judge his expertise and honesty. And eBay's offering is large and diverse.
Many bidders, it seems, are compelled to bid on an item as soon as they find it, regardless of how much time remains until the end of bidding. This is a compulsion that baffles me, because bidding early usually drives up the final price (see footnote). Indeed, one used to find the occasional seller who warned bidders that he reserved the right to end his auction early to prevent "sniping" (last-minute bidding). Obviously, a seller would never make such a threat if "sniping" were to his advantage. It is only because "sniping" works to the advantage of the bidder, often resulting in lower realized prices, that sellers make such threats. Waiting until the last-minute to bid has the added advantage of allowing you the time to research the item and the seller. eBay points out that there are risks associated with waiting until the last minute to bid and suggests that bidders bid the maximum amount they wish to pay and then let the auction run its course. While this works for some bidders (and for eBay, whose commissions are tied to the realized price), I find it foolish. My approach is to bid the maximum I am willing to pay but to do so at the last second through a third-party bidding service (I use eSnipe). Remember, auctions are like a horse race: all that matters is who is in the lead at the finish, not who was in the lead at the quarter or halfway mark.
Do your homework before bidding. Know the item for which you are bidding. I suspect that I am typical of many eBay members in that there have been numerous occasions when I have stumbled upon an intriguing item, one that caught my fancy but that was outside my expertise. Often I have queried the seller about the item, and his response seemed entirely satisfactory, even knowledgeable. Then I have turned to the network of contacts that I have developed during twenty years of collecting insignia and related artifacts, and I have sought an expert's opinion. It is amazing, and frightening, how many times I have learned that what I found so attractive was misrepresented, a reproduction, or over-priced. What I have learned time and time again is that one is at risk when one ventures beyond one's expertise.
Learn what is a reasonable value for the item. Whenever I see a book on eBay that interests me, I go to one of the web sites for used booksellers (see the Links section), and I check the book's availability and prevailing price. I recall once having seen on eBay a book sell for more than $90, a copy of which I found - same edition in equivalent condition - offered by a used bookseller for $20. Increasingly, dealers of all sorts of merchandise are using eBay to move their wares, and they tend to structure their auctions (through reserves or the minimum bid) so that they realize at least what they would have in an over-the-counter transaction, and often the realized prices are even higher, meaning that the bidder could have done better elsewhere. (I cannot count the number of times I have seen DVDs sell on eBay for more, with shipping, than they would have paid had they purchased from Amazon.com.)
There are so many items on eBay that I rely almost exclusively on key-word searches to find those of potential interest to me. Be aware of the syntax of key-word searches. If you click on SEARCH at the top of the eBay page, on the Find Items page that opens, click on "tips" next to the SEARCH button for an explanation of key-word syntax. You might also anticipate abbreviations that sellers might use, and even misspellings, that will defeat a key-word search. For example, one of my interests is the Camel Corps. I have learned the hard way to include Camel Corp in my searches. Similarly, I have learned to search on Jedburg as well as on its correct spelling, Jedburgh.
In the past, I noted the usernames of individuals who were bidding on the items that interested me, and I would search on their username as bidder - in effect, using them to find items of interest to me. Today that is difficult, but not impossible, to do. The reason is that eBay no longer displays the usernames of bidders during an auction: bidders are now shown simply as Bidder1, Bidder2, etc. This change in policy was driven by bogus second-chance offers. In the event the winning bidder reneged on his bid, eBay provides a mechanism - the second-chance offer - by which a seller can offer the item to the runner-up bidder. Scammers followed auctions, especially those where the bidding was extensive and the realized price significant, and at their conclusion sent the runner-up bidders, and even bidders farther back in the pack, a bogus second-chance offer, patterned exactly on eBay's. The bogus email contained a link through which the bidder could pay, and those who did soon found that they had been duped and their money was gone. Despite this change in policy, eBay still identifies the winner at the close of bidding. If you note an individual winning items in which you have an interest, you can search on his bidding in the future.
If you find a seller who is offering an item that interests you, contact the seller and ask if he has other similar items he intends to offer. I know buyers who have followed up in this manner and in doing so have stumbled upon to some very nice items.
Know the seller. Examine his feedback. If there is negative or neutral feedback, contact the person who posted it and ask for details. Look also at the way such feedback is expressed: sellers and bidders who are jerks tend to advertise the fact. Do not interpret feedback that is all positive as a clean bill of health! Pull up the seller's offerings for the past 30 days and go through them one by one (if there are too many to do that easily, look at items that fall within your expertise). By examining what he sells, you will get a feel for the quality of his offerings and, often, for his honesty. Look at his return policy. If there is none, beware. If the return policy is vague, contact the seller and ask for a clear statement of it. If aspects of the item are not clear in the description or the image, pin down the specifics by email before bidding. Save your email exchanges for a reasonable time. If you are high bidder, print a copy of the item's eBay page file it.
The bottom line
On eBay as in life in general, if you do not know what you are doing, someone will make you pay for it.
Why bid late?
Why does bidding early in an auction of fixed duration drive up the price? I'd have thought the answer to this is obvious, but having watched a zillion times as bidders battled back and forth with days remaining in the auction, the obvious may require explaining. Consider a situation where there are only two bidders interested in an item: bidders A and B. Bidder A bids the minimum, $20. Bidder B bids his maximum, $100, and (under the proxy system) takes the lead at $21. Bidder A sees his bid topped by only $1, the competitive juices begin to flow, and he bids $25. But B, having bid $100, is still high bidder at $26. Bidder A repeats this process until the bidding reaches $41, and then he drops out. Bidder B wins for $41. If, however, bidder B had "sniped" and placed his $100 bid at the last minute, he could have won for $21. The scenario of bidders locked in battle with days remaining in the auction is played out thousands of times a week on eBay. If you are a seller, or if you are eBay, you love to see it happen, because it means money in your pocket. I, as a bidder, groan aloud when dueling bidders lock on to an item that interests me, because I know they're going to cost me money. But not as much as they would have cost me if I had jumped in and dueled with them.
A professor of marketing who studied bidding behavior on eBay observed a different phenomenon by which bidding early serves to drive up the price. Comparing bidding on similar items that experts judged to be of essentially equivalent value, the professor found evidence that a herd instinct is operative among bidders. That is, bidding activity attracts bidders, and, conversely, a lack of interest deters bidding. (I have experienced this myself when I have found an item that looked interesting but I was suspicious because no one had bid on it, or when I saw an item for which 15 bids had been placed and I thought, this must be some item - how can so many people be wrong?)