eBay 'Feedback Farms' Planted with One-Cent eBooks
By Ina Steiner
Many eBay users are familiar with sellers who use a low-price/high-shipping strategy to manipulate eBay search results. But less well known is the technique of listing 1-cent eBooks with zero shipping charges. In fact, it would appear at first glance to be a money-losing strategy, since eBay charges a minimum 5-cent listing fee for Stores (and 20 cents for core listings). But sellers employing the strategy offer multiple quantities of the items in each listing.
While sellers legitimately sell digital content on eBay, many of the 1-cent eBook, no-shipping Store listings AuctionBytes examined looked suspect, including the possibility that sellers are in effect creating "feedback farms" - creating multiple User IDs that bid on these listings to quickly build up positive feedback ratings.
One such listing posted on September 20 netted the seller close to 1,000 feedback points in a 4-day period. The item for sale was a 1-cent/no shipping eBook that promised in the headline to make sellers $100/day by selling on eBay. By the evening of September 24, there were 9012 of these eBooks still available for sale through this one listing. (The listing contained photos of scantily clad women for no obvious reason.)
One UK website owner is apparently well aware of the penny eBook strategy and created a page to help users quickly overcome the restrictions eBay places on new accounts. "I know what it's like when you have just opened your ebay account and have restrictions in place such as not being able to list "buy it now" auctions. To help with this problem I put together this short helper page which will get you 10 positive feedbacks within 100 seconds" (http://www.tradedemon.net/10EbayFeedbacks.php). The page includes links to active penny listings on eBay with instructions to buy 10 1-penny eBooks and leave positive feedback for the seller. "By the time you finish all 10, your feedback should be on 10."
AuctionBytes contacted eBay about the 1-cent eBooks on September 25, giving an example of one such listing. eBay spokesperson Catherine England replied in an email on September 28, writing, "The policy team confirmed that this listing is considered to be a violation of our Feedback Manipulation policy. We encourage members to report any listing that may be suspicious to us via the "report this item link" located at the bottom of every listing." eBay suspended the seller of that particular listing, but appeared to leave most of the seller's trading partners' accounts untouched.
When we checked on October 1, we found more listings similar to the one England had said violated the Feedback Manipulation policy. Part of the descriptive text for one such live listing stated, "You wont regret getting this eBook, it will really show you how I make a ton of money on eBay without even trying! Interested? It only costs a cent ($0.01 cent) to find out what I am talking about. Go ahead, give it a shot. This eBook is absolutely the best kept secret in the eBay auction market!"
Ironically, the seller states, "Check our feedbacks!!!" to assure potential buyers it's safe to bid.
And in a ploy no doubt designed to give the listing more credibility, it contained a photo of the cover of a print book by ChannelAdvisor CEO Scot Wingo entitled "eBay Strategies," published by Prentice Hall with a list price of $19.99, despite the fact the listing headline advertised recipes ("POWERSELLER eBOOK $0.01 eBOOK 1 CENT RECIPES FREE S&H!!"). Sixty-one purchases had been made in the 3-and-a-half days since it had been listed, and 920 copies remained with 27 days left before the listing was set to expire.
One seller has advanced beyond selling individual eBooks, and listed his eBook business: "BUY MY EBAY BIZ!!!-Authentic Ebook Biz-Make 4K Month$," the listing read. However, he made 60 quantities of his business available.
The eBay user who brought the eBook listings to AuctionBytes' attention speculated on the purpose of the selling strategy. "Scammers may be building accounts with high feedback to appear more trustworthy. Or some may be building accounts to sell, and scammers would be interested in this too." She went on to write, "For buyers, considering the numerous types of fraud, it's like playing Russian Roulette."
The ease with which sellers may be able to gain large numbers of positive ratings in a short period was also of concern to her. "Use of this program lessens the value of feedback, to say the least. It makes feedback for hundreds, if not thousands of shady ebay sellers fraudulent and totally unreliable and throws a shadow on decent sellers." She also raised concern over the effect of penny listings on eBay metrics. "It manipulates some of ebay's numbers... registered members, active members, sell-thru stats, etc.," she wrote.
Even for penny listings that seemed as though they might be legitimate, many violated eBay's Digital Items policy (http://pages.ebay.com/help/sell/selling-digital-items.html). For instance, one listing for the digital download of a recipe contained at least two violations: it was an auction format, not Buy It Now; and the seller was accepting cash payment (also a violation of eBay's Accepted Payments policy).
In a positive move, eBay announced on October 2 that it would ban private-feedback users from listing items for sale (http://auctionbytes.com/cab/abn/y06/m10/i03/s01). While that is likely to hamper some fraudsters, it does not address the problem of the penny eBook feedback farms.
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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