eBay Jeebies

Attention, online shoppers! Welcome to eBay, your one-stop shopping headquarters for everything you never knew you needed.

An international flea market to some, a global Dumpster to others, this behavioral-research head-scratcher has produced some of the wackiest human-interest stories of the year. In recent months, Internet shopaholics have vicariously thrilled to the story of the Pennsylvania eBayer who auctioned off an antique pickle jar for which he'd paid $3 to another collector who bid $44,100.

Then there was the 13-year-old New Jersey boy who, during a weekend shopping spree, racked up winning bids (later suspended) of more than $3 million on items including a '71 Corvette and a van Gogh original.

In Florida, a high school senior briefly attempted to auction off his virginity (opening bid: $10) to the right woman or man ("I'm willing to experiment") before eBay monitors jerked his offer off the service.

And if Phoenix hasn't yet given birth to any such eBay legends (like the highly apocryphal report of the couple who were arrested after they allegedly tried to auction off an adopted baby), the Valley collector community is still abuzz with tales of this sky's-the-limit agora that threatens to make Goodwill stores a thing of the past.

Out-of-control spending, secret identities, vindictive auction wars, sneaky bidding practices, even death threats: Thanks to eBay (or, as one local dealer has nicknamed it, "The Swap Meet of the Damned"), the once genteel world of antiquing has suddenly been turned into a marketplace gone mad.

"What's going on with eBay is totally insane," says collectibles dealer Brandy Kvetko, owner of Go Kat Go in Glendale. "People are using it to buy big-ticket things like cars and houses that they've never even actually seen. No wonder it's all anyone talks about anymore."

Shaking the monkey from his back is every addict's dream.

But one Valley eBay junkie who's racked up thousands of dollars bidding on online auctions claims she'd be happy to simply shuck the mouse from hers.

"eBay is addictive, no doubt about it," says Ms. X, a stressed-out cyber shopper who prefers that her real name not be used. Since first logging on to the online auction site earlier this year, X has spent more money than she'd like to think about -- successfully clicking in winning bids on more than a dozen Maxfield Parrish prints and other tony objets d'art.

But very few of those pricey treasures adorn the walls and shelves of her home. For the time being, at least, most are tucked away in her office at work until she can figure out how to smuggle them into the house without her husband finding out.

If all this sounds like a high-tech episode of I Love Lucy, well, Ms. X will be the first to admit it.

"If I weren't spending so much money," she says, "it would be comical." X admits that she was racing home to check the mail on her lunch hour until it occurred to her to have the packages delivered at work. During her peak dependence on eBay, X became such a slave to the site that she monitored auctions from her computer terminal at work throughout the day. At home, she began rising hours earlier than usual and going to bed much later in an ultimately futile effort to wade through an endless morass of merchandise ranging from genuine antiques to a Laverne & Shirley Matchbox car and a slightly mustard-stained Hot Dog on a Stick sweat shirt. And if the TV in the background happened to be tuned to Antiques Roadshow, PBS' flea market appraisal program, so much the better.

"I'm finally getting a little better," says X, who boasts that she hasn't made a "serious" bid in several days. In fact, she's even thinking about auctioning some of her purchases back -- but not to cut her losses. "I just want to have more money," she says, "to spend on other auctions."

A weird wedding of the Internet, home shopping networks, gambling and CB radio, eBay first raised its electronic gavel in 1995 as a nonprofit site for collectors of Pez candy dispensers to swap their wares in cyberspace. Drawing the attention of other hobbyists after it appeared in a number of "hot site" listings, the auction site soon bid adieu to its grassroots origins. The rest is Wall Street history, and at any given time the site lists nearly two million items in 1,600 categories.

On a typical day, the San Jose-based site fields 800,000 bids from auction-happy surfers skimming across oceans of other people's flotsam and jetsam, everything from a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish training video to "reality check, please" items like sight-unseen precious stones. One of the most popular sites on the Net, eBay has spawned a handful of competitors but remains leader of the pack; Fortune recently reported that eBay stock was valued at more than that of Kmart, Toys "R" Us, Nordstrom and Saks -- combined.

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Dewey Webb