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.

Amazon, explain

It’s a shame the world’s largest online retailer doesn’t have a department for answering questions about their operation, but you can understand why they don’t. They’d need to employ about a million people to handle e-mails and phone calls asking why they are so stupid in their dealings with customers. It would definitely eat into the profits, and Amazon is all about profits. But sometimes you have to wonder if they’ve thought everything through as thoroughly as they should.

For example, while I’m waiting for the temperature around here to get up to something close to zero Fahrenheit (-18 Celsius) I spend some of the time idly perusing their offerings to see what deals might be had. It’s how I found the Lumix I’m waiting for. It’s also how I found a most curious phenomenon has occurred, one which leaves me baffled. Their unhelpful help department of FAQs doesn’t cover it. Not anywhere. To wit it is this:

Screenshot from 2020-01-12 17:48:20

An item I ordered 2 years ago almost to the day now “requires special handling and cannot be shipped to your selected location”. That’s odd; are these photo frames now nuclear powered or something? Why cannot something I once bought and had shipped here be shipped here? So far as I know none of the area roads have been removed or bombed out. Okay, they are occasionally blocked by landslides and such, but not always.

Odder yet is the large number of other items which can’t be shipped here, which cover quite a range of description and seemingly have nothing in common other than coming from Amazon. (That’s the company, not the place in South America.) The only time I had encountered this before was when I attempted to order some replacement lithium batteries. Now in that instance I can understand why someone might be reluctant to send the merchandise through the mail as the batteries are considered hazardous material. But really I have purchased devices with such batteries via ‘mail order’ before, including through Amazon.

I have yet a fairly good analytical mind, and tried to determine the common denominator behind all the items I came across which they would no longer have shipped here. I failed. It wasn’t size, nor weight, nor material, nor point of origin, nor price. Really no one common factor seemed to cross the multitude of restricted merchandise.

Until for a lark I tried looking at the forbidden items via my wife’s account instead. Suddenly we could have anything we wanted just for the asking (and paying). How could this be, when the accounts are literally identical in every way except for the name?

Oh there is one other difference:

She has Prime.

So is the whole “you can’t buy that” limitation about tricking me into plumping for Prime?

Probably.

But we’ll never know, because Amazon refuses to hire millions of customer reps to deal with all the irate consumers they frustrate with their stupidly run organization.

In the meantime I say “fine: they don’t want to sell to me, I don’t have to buy from them.”

Addendum: if you are wondering why my wife and I have separate accounts using the same card, well it’s just one of those things that happens. We can buy each other presents without a tip-off for one thing (the photo frame is an example in fact), and we don’t clutter up each other’s browsing with items we’re not specifically interested in. Why does she have Prime? I’d say it’s because she buys too much, but that would be a terribly “husband-like” remark.

The Ghost of Aunt Ada

My Aunt Ada was a very interesting woman. Quite a character in fact, although that didn’t make her unusual in our family. I thought of her this week when I was watching prices on things go up inexplicably. Why? Because she used to go to the local flea market and haggle, and yes I would go too and complain about what people were asking. One time she volunteered to walk up and down the rows banging a pan and shouting “People your prices are all too high!” She didn’t actually do it, but it was a close thing.

A couple of posts ago I mentioned two items I’d found that I was interested in buying but felt they were both a tad expensive yet. One of them sold before I’d finished writing that missive, and now the other one has gone up in price by $40. What’s more, a certain new lens I’ve been watching since before Christmas has gone from “$149” to “$129” to “$179” to “$177”, up and down bouncing between the numbers with no rhyme or reason.

It gets worse. I looked at some used laptops and found that people seem to want as much if not more as you can buy comparable units for new. Did they not get the memo? The moment you buy that latest tech its value drops by half and it’s already superseded by a new model. What you paid for it isn’t relative to its worth, which is why you still have it for sale.

Looking on local and national sales sites (E-Bay Canada is just E-Bay USA with extra charges for shipping, exchange rate, import fees, and taxes) for anything you care to mention and you see it’s all nutso pricing. In addition to the previous mentioned products we have people trying to sell $2 Matchbox cars for $20 (or sometimes a lot more), clothing you can get out of you-know-where being priced on-line for 3X retail, and dollar store goods offered as though they are from Harrod’s. Are people really so foolish as to not shop around?

There are those who say I’m the fool for not grabbing those items when I could because when they’re gone they’re gone. I say “so what?” I’ve seen things “go” for more than half a century and know not only is there another opportunity coming, but you didn’t cease to exist just because you didn’t get that whatsit that you managed to live without before you saw it. So I’ll continue to follow the Zen and wait for the planets to align, or whatever, before making my purchases.

But what we really need is the ghost of Aunt Ada walking up and down the metaphorical aisles of on-line selling banging her pan and shouting “People, you have got to lower your prices!”

Speaking of ghosts, here’s ghost cat (a preliminary experimental photo):

ghostcat

Amazon isn’t Amazing

You probably use them. Lots of people do. But have you ever subjected your usage to critical analysis? You should. You’ll probably be surprised, but not amazed. And if you have a firm grasp of reality you’ll be disappointed.

Amazon sells a lot of things. Moreover, they offer things for sale by other companies and individuals. This ‘business model’ has proven so successful that other on-line retailers try to imitate it. The degree of success varies; just because it looks like Amazon doesn’t mean it works like Amazon. Not that Amazon works all that well either.

The first failure is with those third party businesses. Amazon doesn’t have much control over them, although they will settle issues on sales negotiated through them and even drop retailers that garner too many complaints. Up to that point there’s a pretty wide range of buying experiences available.

What triggered my writing this missive is this morning’s notification that something I’d ordered had been shipped. Nice. And after only two weeks too. Other recent experiences have been similar, with one item taking nearly a month to show up. Now when we’re talking about buying from someone other than Amazon this isn’t something that can be laid on them. However a couple of my recent orders were “sold and shipped by Amazon”, and they still haven’t arrived either. It’s not like this is the heavy Christmas shipping season.

Now you’re probably going to suggest I go for Amazon Prime, with its promise of no fee two day shipping on most items. Well guess what, I did. It was one thing when they were obviously playing silly buggers and delaying sending over $35 orders with free shipping as a means to entice people to try Prime. I understand that sort of gimmick. Yet some of the items I’ve ordered under those circumstances showed up sooner than expected.

But here there was one item I wanted quickly without handing over nearly as much in shipping as the item itself cost (watch out for those low-price deals which then have massive shipping charges) so I tried Prime on the free trial. Normally that would be incentive for the business to go out of its way and really hustle, to make you think it is worth continuing the service for an extra $80 per year. Well, it obviously isn’t.

The order, “fulfilled by Amazon” and qualifying for Prime, sat for a week before they even figured out when they could ship it. Another order “sold and shipped by Amazon” is presented as “expected to arrive” in a week. And now I note even the “expected arrival time” before ordering is at least a week on anything I look at. That’s not really “free two-day shipping” is it? When it comes to waiting a couple of weeks for something, I’ll go with the free shipping on minimum order of $35. At least there are no false expectations with that.

Now when it comes to making up such orders you have to be careful. Amazon plays silly buggers with prices all the time, as they raise and lower them to see where they can get you to ‘bite’ on an item you’ve shown interest in. They’ll play pennies at this too. You have to be smart enough to say “no” when you see the price go up; delete it from your viewing and let the AI engine start over on analyzing your desires.

Speaking of which, it’s incredibly bad at suggestions isn’t it? This is due to three factors: the brainless simplicity of artificial intelligence, the limited categorization of items (a DVD is a DVD is a DVD), and third party sellers entering their items in as many categories as possible for maximum (albeit at times entirely incorrect) exposure. You just have to laugh. Or pity anyone who falls for it.

Can we take a moment to talk about the more absurd third party sellers? There are some that are quite straight-forward businesses who know their stuff and you can deal with them. There are some that seem to have a massive language, or perhaps intelligence, barrier problem and can’t make a sensible description/price (those are the ones who list their products under every category too). Then there are the ‘scalpers’ or possibly just plain morons who ask quite absurd sums for items without bothering to do any market research as to what others are asking (this is mainly used goods). I’ve seen some brand new items at 20X what I can buy them in a local store for, and some used things which apparently have become instant collectibles sought the world over by fabulously wealthy individuals looking to furnish their mansions. Although why they want a plastic camera for $9,876.32 to sit on the shelf next to the antique Lalique crystal I don’t know. But we have to laugh at something. One of the worst areas for absurd pricing is clothing. Just don’t go there. Never mind the fact you can not tell fit and quality from an on-line catalog and that returns are a major hassle if the item doesn’t work out. With some things it’s best to see before you buy. Most things. Almost everything in fact. Okay, literally everything.

And now back to Prime. There are other ‘bonuses’ included in the Prime package, and some people may even be able to take advantage of them. For me personally they are of no use, starting with my limited Internet service making streaming an expensive adventure in digital hell to offering of things I just plain don’t give a damn about. I wanted it for the shipping advantage, and evaluated for that I’m not sure it’s worth the extra money given how little I buy in a year even if it did work (which it doesn’t). Better to pony up some extra cash on the rare occasion I might want something faster.

But that’s me. Your situation will no doubt be different. Nevertheless you should take a critical look at your Amazon habits and see if you are using it to best advantage, or it is using you. Here’s a hint: if the Prime free shipping is really worth the money per year to you, maybe you have a consumerism problem and are just plain buying too much stuff.

Anyway, step back and take a critical look at it. After all, it’s a jungle out there.