Seller beware when listing on eBay

We speak to eBay sellers who have found trading is stacked in favour of the buyer while sellers are left out of pocket

Once, the pre-Christmas ritual of decluttering produced bulging bin liners destined for the local charity shop. Now, thanks to online auction sites, household rejects can raise enough to fund the festivities – and thousands will be flogging unwanted possessions on eBay to do just that.

But if one of these people is you, be cautious. Most savvy cyber-surfers realise the potential pitfalls of buying online from strangers; far fewer seem aware that buyers can also be unscrupulous and that, if they choose to pocket your wares without paying, eBay's system appears weighted in their favour.

I recently addressed the case of a seller who was defrauded of an iPad after the buyer claimed to have received empty packaging. Despite the fact that the weight recorded on the seller's proof of posting showed that the parcel had been filled, and that the buyer refused to cooperate with Royal Mail's investigation, eBay found in the buyer's favour and refunded him. Only after the press office was invoked, did the seller get her money back.

The saga has prompted a slew of letters from sellers, all with a worryingly similar story. Buyers, it seems, can claim never to have received goods posted in good faith, or can get several weeks of use out of them before insisting that they arrived damaged and eBay, in many cases, unquestioningly refunds them.

In the case of one reader, Matt Mawson, the buyer managed to arrange a refund and keep the goods. Mawson sold an amplifer on eBay and dispatched it via a 48-hour courier service. "Within 36 hours of the sale the buyer emailed to say he needed it quickly and, because it hadn't arrived, he intended to claim a refund," Mawson says. "I instructed the courier to return the item to me and said I'd refund him when it was accounted for but, instead, the buyer arranged a forced refund via eBay while also taking delivery of the item – so he now has my amplifier and my money."

Rebecca Barrow started a business selling products on eBay to supplement her hairdressing income. "I began to discover the flaws, as buyers were claiming their item wasn't received even though I had proof of postage. Ebay said I had to refund them as I had not sent them recorded delivery," she says.

"One buyer opened a case with eBay saying she had not received an item. I provided all the evidence, including the parcel tracking number and proof that delivery had been attempted three days after the order. eBay still closed the case in the buyer's favour. The buyer received a refund, then collected the item from the post office and left me negative feedback. When I tried to leave feedback stating a true account of what happened, eBay removed it."

Ebay states that it ruled in favour of the buyer in Mawson's case because he could not provide a postal tracking number, even though the buyer had acknowledged that he had received the goods –and the refund. It blames its ruling against Barrow on "human error" and says that no refund was finally issued to the buyer and that the negative feedback has now been removed. As Barrow found, almost as damaging as the loss, is the effect on the seller's online rating every time a claim is upheld.

Ebay insists that thousands sell successfully each month and that such cases are rare. "They occur where there is a misunderstanding or miscommunication or sometimes something more underhand," says a spokesman. "Where a buyer and seller are in dispute, we have to look at third party information like police reports or delivery records."

By "police reports", eBay means a crime reference number obtained by filing a report to Action Fraud. This can be done by anyone with 20 minutes to spare to fill out an online form and, as the website warns that each report cannot be investigated individually, no one is likely to check that the facts are correct. Action Fraud confirms that the all-important crime reference number, relied on by eBay as evidence in a buyer's favour, is automatically issued as soon as a form is submitted and before any investigation.

It seems that in its efforts to reassure buyers, eBay has stacked the odds against unwary sellers. While buyers can sabotage a seller's listing with a poor review, sellers are no longer permitted to leave negative feedback against a buyer.

A spokesman explained: "We found that when buyers had bad experiences with sellers, they were reluctant to leave negative feedback out of fear the seller would retaliate by leaving negative feedback for them. When buyers did receive unfair negative feedback, they usually decreased their shopping on eBay."

Not only does this prevent sellers from evaluating buyers in the same way, but if a seller's rating is affected by detrimental comments, they are not allowed to know which buyer left these and are therefore unable to contest them. This, says eBay, is so buyers feel "comfortable about leaving feedback".

Instead, sellers can report a misbehaving buyer privately to eBay. "Seller reports are key to identifying bad buyers and ridding them from our marketplace," says eBay. "We use these reports, along with other detection methods, to identify and take action against buyers with patterns of behaviour that indicate they're misusing the system."

So far, so promising – except that sellers are not allowed to know the results of any investigation into their report, and any negative comments left by the buyer will only be removed if eBay receives repeated reports about their behaviour.


Anna Tims

The GuardianTramp

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