The Gong Show that is Ebay

In an attempt to further my Master Plan I have been wasting, I mean spending time on Ebay looking for bargains that will fulfill the two camera needs I have. What I’ve found instead is evidence of consistent fraud. I’m an engineer: we’re good at seeing patterns.

The basic pattern is the classic auction fraud adapted to electronic media. Traditionally a crooked auctioneer would ‘accept bids’ from people in the audience who didn’t really exist to raise the bids from the real participants. It was called “bouncing bids off the walls”. The modern equivalent is sock puppet accounts run by the seller which magically step in and bid the item up if it isn’t going for enough money. These may even be automatic, requiring little actual effort from the dishonest vendor.

Without naming names (because basically this would be making an accusation of crime) I’ll tell you about my attempts to acquire a certain camera that would sub for the dying Nikon. The first thing you have to understand is that the initial offering price was very, very low. The second thing is that there were four separate listings for identical cameras all from the same seller at the same time. After that it got interesting.

Legitimate would-be buyers, including Yours Truly, made legitimate offers. The cameras, in sequence, went up to higher prices but still remained quite low cost. Strangely some other bidders appeared and pushed the price up, but still low. The real would-be buyers abandoned hope, and the items sat at one price until near the end when again suddenly the price shot up – and closed – at nearly double what people were willing to pay.

Then the pattern repeated as within a few hours the same seller had duplicate cameras available, again for very low starting prices. We’re not talking about two cameras, but four. Which turned into six. Which turned into eight. And then more. Sort of like they bought their own merchandise back and then offered it up again as a ‘new’ listing over and over. In reality there probably were only four, but since they couldn’t get the money they wanted they listed them again instead of letting each go for the price people were willing to pay.

This is classic “sock puppet account” action. Especially when you check some of the so-called buyers’ profiles and find that their actions have been 100% with the same seller. It’s pathetic, immoral, and probably illegal – but good luck making a complaint, much less getting anything done about it. The most you can hope for is to make a note of the shady vendor and avoid anything they offer. I must point out that since Ebay charges a fee for reserved bid listings (the amount is due whether or not the item sells) they encourage this unethical practice. It’s all about making money. Them making money, that is. If you don’t like it you don’t have to use their service (more on this aspect at a later date).

Incidentally, all ‘fourteen‘ of these cameras (real quantity; probably four) ended up in the $150 range before the auctions ended. In each case it took a few hours before the seller magically had yet another one to offer at a ridiculously low starting price. On Monday the ‘last four’ (in reality the only four) were suddenly at $80+.  By selling time they’d jumped up to the $150 range. I played the game until Tuesday, including watching the same action on some other models the same seller seemed to have an unlimited supply of. By this time I wouldn’t have bought from these people even if they let me have one for $1, shipping included. Frankly it’s not even a clever strategy as the immediately repeated listings not only are a blatant sign of the scam but also indicate even to the naive buyer that there are “plenty more where that came from” giving every indication of a high supply which is the economic basis for a low price.

Oh, Canada.

Now let’s look at an alternate scenario. A different camera from a different seller received no bids by the end of the auction time. It was relisted, but at a lower initial price than before. That is the legitimate way of doing it, instead of running a farcical scam to make people believe there are dozens of potential buyers willing to pay huge prices for whatever you’ve got. You need only to look at the number of offerings for any given camera model and see that there are plenty of them out there, and most of them are old and not worth a sou never mind near or above the price of a new model. (I choked looking at what Nikon P610s are offered at these days.)

(Side note: the camera listing cited above was somewhat crooked too, as it was listed as “untested”. It required 4 penlight batteries. The seller couldn’t be bothered to stick some in and see if it would fire up? Unlikely. Probably he tried it, found it didn’t work, and decided that the “untested” description was more likely to sell than “broken”.)

Another odd thing I encountered, in addition to the “you have been outbid” notice that sometimes rapidly appears immediately after you make a higher-than-listed offering no matter how many times you up your bid (thank automatic bids for that), was that I had been the “winning bidder” at one point for $51 when in fact I had never bid that amount. Would Ebay care to explain that? No, I thought not. The usual excuse is that it must be me that is at fault. It’s never ‘them’. That’s SOP for companies these days, and I can tell you a lot of stories of encountering this phenomenon from many businesses. It’s kind of silly when they try to pull it on an engineer who understands more about how the things work than they do.

As a Canadian I’m at a distinct disadvantage in Internet buying. Not many of the offerings on Ebay Canada are actually from Canada, and the cost involved with buying something from outside tends to make it too expensive to do. For example I watched this past week as our dollar sunk from 77¢ US to 74¢ US. Three cents isn’t much, right? Until you multiply it out over the price of a $300 US camera. That’s roughly the difference between paying $389 CDN and paying $405 CDN. On top of that shipping to/from Canada is obscene (approximately double the cost for sending the same package within either the US or CA), plus our government wants its cut as well. So for a Canadian buyer that $300 US camera ends up at the door costing $482 CDN. A pretty nasty mark-up as your income is in the latter not the former currency.

Oh shipping is another scam area. It should be based on weight and size of package and indeed can be calculated that way. Optionally, some sellers use flat-rate shipping (either of which is legitimate). But some people just pump the price way up to make sure they get enough money from whatever they are selling otherwise cheaply. A large number of items cost more to ship than to buy, even when the seller doesn’t do this. Ebay is not the only site suffering from this phenomenon either: Amazon is rife with sellers listing at ridiculously low prices to attract buyers and then making their profit on “shipping” charges.

Some other recent ‘adventures’ related to my Master Plan:

The local electronics outlet had a really good sale on the Sony a6000 camera with lens. It was tempting, because that is a nice camera. It is even capable of handling some of the tasks I require of my equipment. But not ones which aren’t already covered. Id est it can’t assume the super-zoom duties of the Nikon and it doesn’t have a full-size sensor for better low-light (night) shots (my two main goals now).

Likewise I passed on a deal for an older Olympus micro 4/3 camera. I found the configuration of it intriguing and the price was downright cheap. The fact it was only an 8MP sensor didn’t bother me at all. But once again it is just an interesting piece of equipment and not something that would add to my photography repertoire.

This is also why I didn’t jump on an old Pentax K110D. Nice 6MP camera, that I don’t need for anything. Having to constantly remind myself of this after decades of collecting and using cameras for the sake of the camera rather than the photos is the biggest challenge I face right now.

Even bigger than trying to get an honest Internet deal on equipment that would be useful to me.