eBay Jeebies

Valley bidders go berserk on Internet's biggest auction house.

While this all looks good on paper (the more feedback a seller receives, the more business he's likely to attract), some dealers complain that unethical eBayers abuse the system, threatening to use negative feedback to ruin their businesses.

"The feedback thing is the living swamp of eBay," says one user who, shortly after posting a negative report about a deadbeat dealer who took four months to deliver some merchandise, received threatening crank phone calls and an e-mailed computer virus.

"I had another guy badgering me with email, just begging for positive feedback," continues the dealer, who wishes to remain anonymous. "He made such a big deal about it that I finally looked at my records just to see what it was he'd bought from me. Well, guess what? He'd never bought anything from me at all! He was just counting on the fact that I'd give him a positive rating without even checking. Some of these idiots live and die for feedback."

eBay watch: Online auction features 2.5 million items daily.
eBay watch: Online auction features 2.5 million items daily.

eBay user Blake Shira, a vintage paperback dealer who operates Lost Dutchman Comics in Phoenix, has even had some customers use the threat of negative feedback as extortion. Citing minor flaws on books for which they placed the winning bid (one customer complained that a staple had a rust spot), several users have demanded cash kickbacks or additional merchandise in return for keeping Shira's slate clean.

"This is the part of eBay that I hate," says Shira. "Some people have become so depersonalized by computers and the Internet that they're firing off truly hateful e-mail. Hey, someone has a problem with something I sold them? Fine, let's work it out. But don't be sending me threatening letters saying stuff you'd never say to my face."

But in recent months, walk-in customers at one east Phoenix collectibles emporium have had no qualms about telling the owner exactly how they feel.

"Practically everybody who comes in these days tells me how eBay is going to put shops like this out of business," says Doug Patterson, owner of Do Wah Diddy on East Thomas. "Well, no, I don't think so. But we may all have to adapt a little as shop owners."

According to Patterson, one of the biggest banes of the eBay boom is that suddenly, "everyone's a dealer." Like similar businesses, Patterson has always relied heavily on "pickers" -- freelance flea market scavengers -- to keep the shelves of his store stocked for the past 20 years.

"It's getting harder to find good stuff to resell everywhere," says Patterson, explaining that part of the joy of his business is digging through dusty attics and backwater junk shops. "Well, now even people in small towns where you used to be able to find all sorts of wonderful things know about eBay. It's really getting tough."

Patterson also bemoans the "thrill of the hunt," a sentiment echoed by recreational eBay user Shari Miller, co-owner of the Vintage Modern Gallery on Central. While most of the items in her store -- midcentury furniture and designer artifacts -- are too large to fit into the eBay mail-order milieu, Miller doubts that the cyber marketplace will ever replace the physical shopping experience.

"I love touching, smelling, sitting in -- the three-dimensionality of the object," she says. "On eBay, you're just looking at pictures. I think that eBay is going to ebb and flow; people who are used to going to big shows are going to miss the tactility of this thing we do."

Stung by sour deals, even gung-ho eBayers admit that worldwide window shopping is still far from perfect.

"Trade safely!" trumpets eBay literature, warning buyers to deal with sellers with established track records. That said, eBay assumes no responsibility for any transaction and recommends that users employ the services of a third-party escrow house whenever making a large purchase.

But what do you do when that's not financially feasible (escrow houses charge each party a minimum of $5 per transaction), as is usually the case in the majority of low-dollar eBay auctions?

As they say, you pays your money and you takes your chances. While eBay boasts that it receives a mere 27 fraud complaints for every million transactions, that figure doesn't take into account what's arguably untold thousands of disputes that never reach eBay headquarters.

On three different occasions, a local record collector paid top dollar for rare discs billed as "factory-sealed." What he received were actually used records that had been sloppily re-shrink-wrapped. "I don't know whether they were trying to pull a fast one or maybe they honestly thought these records were factory-sealed," says the buyer. "I finally got refunds on two, but dealing with the third person was so much trouble I just gave up and kept it."

Shari Miller of the Vintage Modern Gallery hadn't had any online troubles until she received a vase with a four-inch crack running down the back. When she complained, the seller insisted that it wasn't his fault and must have happened in transit. "Uh-uh," countered Miller, who finally received a refund -- four months later.

Of course, many botched deals can simply be chalked up to the confusion that's to be expected when an experienced collector deals with someone who's trying to turn spring cleaning into a college fund. So the owners of Go Kat Go discovered when they placed the winning bid on a vintage model car kit described as "in mint condition."

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