Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2009 Issue

eBay Seller Ratings Dispute Leads to Lawsuit

Coins

These two cheap coins sold on eBay have led to a $1,500 lawsuit.


By Michael Stillman

What nightmares has eBay wrought with its new seller rating system? With a system that affords sellers little defense against unhappy buyers, the ugly L-word - lawsuit - has begun to rear its ghastly head. Ironically enough, this threatens to throw the balance of intimidation from one extreme to the other, from buyer to seller. Ebay really needs to step in, though there is no indication the auction monopoly has any inclination to do so. They appear more content to let buyers and sellers slug it out, treating the situation as if they have no responsibility to play the role of referee.

As most of you who trade on eBay are aware, last year the auction site adjusted its feedback program, and skewed it to assist buyers. In the past, buyers could post negative feedback to sellers if they were unhappy with the transaction. If a seller felt the negative feedback was unfair, they could respond by giving the buyer negative feedback. Depending on your point of view, this could be considered retaliation, or a fair opportunity to present the other side of the story. Of course, this responsive feedback, like the initial feedback, could scare others from doing business with the person.

Evidently, eBay felt that the sellers' responsive feedback was more often retaliatory, or that it was intimidating victimized buyers from reporting unethical sellers. So, eBay set about protecting buyers. They announced that sellers would no longer be able to post feedback about buyers. Buyers were now free to post whatever they chose about a seller without fear of retaliation. Ebay also announced that sellers whose ratings dropped below a certain threshold (too many negative feedbacks) would be suspended from selling on eBay. The result was that sellers now found themselves at the mercy of their customers, particularly threatening to the large number of sellers who now make their livelihood on eBay. They could be put out of business by their customers. Of course, this is not a bad thing if the feedback is fair, and they are unethical or otherwise not suitable sellers. However, what if the negative feedback is dishonest, incorrect, unfair, or posted by a competitor? It doesn't matter. They still could be put out of business.

This brings us to the current case. Though filed a few months ago, the story became more widely known last month after a posting on the eBay message boards by the buyer/defendant, who had recently been served with papers from the court. We hereby caution that we cannot vouch for the accuracy of everything, or for that matter, anything, posted on message boards. So, while we cannot guarantee the accuracy of the particulars of this case, it does provide an illustration of what can happen in the new world of eBay feedback.

Apparently, a California buyer placed an order for a couple of cheap commemorative medals offered by an Illinois Powerseller and established auction house. The buyer had actually seen the items go by unpurchased earlier, and then wrote the seller asking they be reposted. According to the buyer, it took many months, requests and promises before the medals were again offered on eBay. In October, the medals were put up again, the Californian was the only bidder, and they sold for the unremarkable price of $4.99. Shipping was listed as $8.49 and it was stated that "the gold colored medal also features a case."

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.

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