|EcommerceBytes-NewsFlash, Number 411 - October 12, 2002 - ISSN 1539-5065 1 of 1|
Vigilante: One who takes or advocates the taking of law enforcement into one's own hands
A new trend has emerged in online auctions: vigilantism. People are banding together to report auction fraud and are coordinating their efforts in contacting law enforcement officials.
Our story begins with Mark, the high bidder on an auction for a Toshiba Protege 2000 laptop computer on eBay. On August 10, 2002, Mark says he sent a cashier's check for $1,485 to eBay seller Tech-Surplus.
By September 1, after corresponding with the seller several times, Mark became concerned that he would never see his computer. He emailed other winning bidders to see if they had received their items from the seller. According to several buyers, it quickly became apparent that something was wrong – no one had yet received their computers.
Karen Christian replied to Mark that evening and volunteered to create a Web site to publish information about the seller, whom they worried was operating in bad faith. Karen had also purchased a laptop computer from Tech-Surplus on August 15 and had not yet received it.
Karen, with Mark's encouragement, set up a site on GeoCities and later moved it to http://www.techsurplusvictim.com. The job of Vigilante was full-time for Karen as she built the site. Another victim, Cory, set up a mailing list on Yahoo Groups so victims could keep in touch with each other. The list quickly grew to 83 members.
To date, no one who came forward to the "TechSurplusVictim" group has received their computer from the seller, according to Karen. She and Cory received refund checks from the seller in what they believe was an effort to get them to stop their cyber-pursuit of him. The tactic did not work: Karen continues to spend about 5-6 hours a day keeping the Web site up to date, contacting law-enforcement officials, and talking to reporters.
Karen's TechSurplusVictim Web site gives voice to the indignation auction fraud victims feel and the need to take control back from auction fraudsters:
"We are a group of honest citizens who really wanted the laptops we bought and paid for and had expected to be delivered. Numerous auctions have been unilaterally cancelled. The total amount owed both of these groups is about $300,000. We're interested in stopping this kind of behavior as quickly as possible, recovering our money and informing others of the issues surrounding these transactions."
The TSV Cyber Team, as they call themselves, claim that eBay seller Tech-Surplus received money from at least 130 buyers between July 12 and September 4, 2002, and never sent product. While doing research and gathering evidence for their own case, they found another group of victims calling themselves ElectroDepotSucks. They had purchased laptops from eBay seller Electro Depot and also claimed that they paid for laptops and never received them. The two groups banded together and shared information, leading them to conclude that Tech-Surplus and Electro Depot may actually be one person operating in New York City.
Electro Depot victims had also reached out to one another and created their own Web site, http://www.electrodepotsucks.com. John Rowles said he won an eBay auction for a Sony laptop computer from Electro Depot on May 7, sent a check, and never received his laptop. Rowles said he was eventually promised a refund from the seller in exchange for taking down the ElectroDepotSucks site and leaving him alone. "Please reply to this email and confirm that upon receipt of your refund, you will immediately take down the site (within 24 hours) in question and take no further actions like these." Rowles said he got his refund, but only promised to take down the site if every victim was refunded. The site is still up.
Both Electro Depot and Tech-Surplus have been NARUed ("Not A Registered User) on eBay. This is eBay's designation for an account that has been suspended for any reason. Neither seller replied when contacted via email and telephone by AuctionBytes.
The TSV Cyber Team and ElectroDepotSucks groups are two of a growing number of victim groups trying to work together and with law enforcement officials to recover their funds and bring perpetrators to justice. Each group seems to take on its own character as they struggle to get information about what they should do.
Karen Christian takes a very proactive approach, and one gets the feeling she won't quit until she has seen justice done. Another victim's group took a different approach. "I don't really know that any one person was in charge," said Victor Montanez, who purchased a Bose DVD-based home entertainment system from "shakes955" on eBay in February. "We really all seemed to just email each other with new information. I think that it was really a joint effort by everyone to help each other."
"Shakes955" was the eBay user ID belonging to Neil Bansal, who was arrested on May 13, 2002, and charged with one count of 2nd degree Grand Larceny and one count of 1st degree Scheme to Defraud. Victor Montanez and other victims got refunds from Bansal after his arrest. They continue to keep in touch with each other, eager to hear what will happen to the man who caused them so much grief.
Victims feel a great frustration in trying to get answers from auction sites and law enforcement officials. It is, for the most part, a one-way dialog as evidence is collected.
Do victims who band together actually help police efforts? Detective Burns of the New York Police Department Public Information Office said if victims are feeding law enforcement officials helpful information, it's "all well and good." But victims should not try to take actions on their own. According to Burns, victims should always contact their local police department when they think they have been defrauded on an online auction site.
Victims commonly feel extreme frustration that eBay does not have a way to warn other members about bad sellers other than the limited feedback method, where members have a mere 80 characters to sum up their complaints. New sites are popping up where victims can complain about trading partners, make their case, and vent their frustrations.
AuctionBlackList.com allows users to add auction fraudsters to a database. Buyers can search the database to see if sellers have a "record." Another site, eBayersThatSuck.com, encourages people to detail their bad experiences with auction trading partners.
Karen Christian continues to work on the TechSurplusVictims project, and she recently created a new site called LaptopScam.com to provide information about both Tech-Surplus and Electro Depot. A mother, an entrepreneur, a computer expert with a Masters degree; what makes Karen so determined to see the Tech-Surplus case to the end?
"I believe that situations present themselves at various points in our lives, and it is up to each of us to respond when our services are needed," Karen said. "If a person has a God-given skill or talent, it should be used for the betterment of mankind. We each have a social and moral responsibility to help one another, much like the heroes of 9/11."
Ina Steiner is Editor of AuctionBytes.com. You can read her three-part series on Online Auction Fraud at http://www.auctionbytes.com/pages/abu/y202/m09/abu0078/s03.
NOTE: Please note that the company known as TechSurplus Ltd, located in the United Kingdom, has NO connection with Tech-Surplus in the U.S. [Note added 10/14/02]
How auction fraud can happen: http://www.electrodepotsucks.com/story.htm
How fraud victim groups commonly react:
1) Setting up a Yahoo Groups Email List
2) Creating a Web site and collecting transaction information from victims
3) Trying to make contacts at police departments and with district attorneys
Lessons Learned from TechSurplusVictims
1) In the case of both Electro Depot and Tech-Surplus, the sellers' addresses in NYC were actually Mail Boxes Etc. locations. Having a Mail Boxes Etc. account is not an indication of intention to defraud, but if you feel okay about sending a large check because you think you have the person's physical address, you may be in for a rude surprise.
2) "No one should ever ask you for money," Karen Christian says of victims groups. "Use all of the tax-payer paid services to try to recover your money." If a member of a victims group asks for money to hire a lawyer or some other reason, run in the opposite direction, she said.
3) Decide beforehand whether members of the group will continue the fight even if some receive refunds but other members of the group do not.
About the author:
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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