Online auctions have been called the world’s largest
marketplace, with eBay in particular evolving from a hobbyists’
enclave into a venue in which companies transact millions
of dollars in business.
But the online auction world has also been called the digital Wild West, with
rampant fraud taking place. Online auction fraud tripled
last year compared with 2001, according to the FBI,
and now accounts for 46 percent of all Internet fraud.
The largest online auction site by far is eBay, with
an estimated 85 percent of the market. One interesting
response to this fraud is the emergence of eBay vigilantes,
people who break eBay’s rules in trying to thwart
scams in the works when eBay doesn’t act.
Others oppose such tactics, feeling that innocents
can be hurt by the actions of untrained, self-proclaimed
cops, as can happen in the larger offline world. There’s
also the risk that vigilantes themselves can be hurt.
Vigilantes have their reasons. Some may have once been
victims. Others may simply be frustrated at seeing wrongdoing
“I really, really dislike scammers, thieves,
cheats, and con artists, whether they work on a street
corner or on the Internet,” said one eBay vigilante
from northern Florida who asked that her name not be
used. “I loathe those who prey on the less educated
and more naive, and I’m enough of a bleeding-heart
liberal to want to do what I can to stop such behavior,”
she said in an e-mail interview.
The most common tactics used by vigilantes are sending
warning messages to bidders in what they believe is
a scam auction, placing and then retracting a bid so
they can warn others with a message that becomes part
of the auction about why they retracted their bid, and
creating a throw-away account so they can place winning
bids and leave negative feedback without getting hurt
by receiving negative feedback in return.
The selling of pirated and counterfeit items is a big
problem on eBay, particularly computer products, collectibles,
and designer watches, jewelry, purses, and clothing.
Another vigilante, a dealer of Filson wool coats, says
that a competitor of his routinely tries to “fob”
other wool coats as Filsons, and, in response, he routinely
warns people bidding on the competitor’s auctions.
Though he says he gets plenty of thank-yous for his
efforts, the potential of harming an honest competitor
this way is obvious. This is one reason that such actions
are against eBay’s rules. Engaging in these tactics
can also risk your account. eBay can track multiple
accounts created on one computer.
Beyond this are ethical issues. “Breaking the
rules makes you no better than the scammers themselves,”
said Janet Reyes of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, who buys and
sells on eBay.
If you do spot a scam, Reyes recommends that you report
it to eBay. Problem is, eBay typically doesn’t
act in response, merely replying with a form e-mail,
which is the core reason that eBay vigilantism exists.
When eBay does act, it typically warns the person, suspends
the person’s account for 30 days, or cancels the
What eBay doesn’t do is report crimes committed
on its site to law enforcement. It’s all too easy
for scammers to create one new eBay account after another.
eBay isn’t the only venue for online vigilantes.
In response to spammers sending millions of e-mails
touting porn sites, quack health remedies, and illegal
pyramid schemes, vigilantes have launched computer-aided
phone attacks, causing the spammer’s phones to
The most notorious e-mail scams originate from Nigeria.
Named for the section of the Nigerian criminal code
that deals with them, “419 scams” begin
with a heartfelt appeal for help in overcoming bureaucratic
obstacles to get money out of Nigeria. All you need
to do is put up a little money first. Some of the gullible
have cost themselves or their companies big bucks.
In response, vigilantes have tried to scam the scammers.
Reports indicate that in arranging meetings with scammers
abroad, hard-core vigilantes have put themselves in
harm’s way. More commonly, vigilantes receive
threats of physical violence. Be careful out there.
If you’ve become a victim of online auction fraud,
there are other ways to seek redress, and to vent. Along
with filing a complaint with eBay, your local police
department, and the U.S. Postal Inspector, you can put
up a Web page to warn others. eBayersThatSuck.com
is an existing site created for this purpose.
But there’s risk here as well. AuctionBlackList.com,
which let people add auction scammers to a its database,
was recently taken down because of liability issues.
is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight
Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org