Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Caveat Emptor and Pirates

Everyone knows: if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

I myself have given that advice to plenty of people under plenty of circumstances — once, famously, when Mom received an unsolicited check from an unnamed company that asked that she cash her “winnings” and pay the taxes on it directly to them. It was too good to be true, and that was confirmed later that very day at the bank.

I regret to inform you, however, that my Winning Streak of Skepticism came to an end this year. I’m not sure if it’s just because the “bad guys” looked too much like us good guys or if my judgment was clouded by rock-bottom prices.

First, let me say I’ve had a long relationship with and eBay, and for years have purchased many products through the sites and received exactly what I ordered.

I didn’t do anything differently than I had in the past. My friend Vicky had found a great price online for the DVD box set of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Chosen Collection." I wanted that, too, so I shopped. had some vendors offering the collection for a really low price, so I placed my order and waited for my product to arrive.

And waited.

And waited.

I really wanted this particular item, so I noticed when my mailbox was empty even one day beyond the promised date. So I contacted the seller — who no longer had an account with That’s when I realized my seller also had no feedback registered by other purchasers on This was a new seller, and I didn’t notice.

Thankfully, has a buyer protection program, so I started the company's reimbursement process — and took a gander at eBay, of which is a part.

Now, I paid closer attention to my chosen seller on eBay. The seller, who would be shipping from the American Northwest, had multiple copies sent out over a two-week period. Probably shipping overstocks, I figured. Multiple copies, American company, “Satisfaction guaranteed, refunds provided upon request” — looked pretty solid. So, rather than waiting until I received my refund from, I decided I’d sink about the same amount of money into eBay. I’d get it back when my refund came through, so no harm, no foul.

Alas, no. When the eBay item arrived, it was from China. And there was lots of Chinese writing on the labels. The box was shaped differently than what was being sold by retailers and the collection was one (bonus) disc short. Oh, and about the discs: the artwork was just this side of blurry with improper color registration, and inappropriate selection of images. There was no list of episodes in the entire collection, let alone what episodes were on each disc.

I realized I had been shanghaied by pirates.

I e-mailed the seller for the promised refund, and I got nothing but yawning silence. Seems they weren’t actually based in the American Northwest, after all.

Have you ever tried to contact eBay? Well, I’m here to tell you it can’t be done. I pored over the Web site, opened every page as I tried to report the suspected piracy. There was nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

My next e-mail was to PayPal, the company through which I purchased the pirated collection. The company showed no interest in the illegal nature of the product, but went straight to dollars and cents: my refund would be considered only after I shipped the product (at my own expense) back to the seller. I nearly choked. It would cost me about half the purchase price to return the discs to their illegal creator.

There is a happy ending — of sorts. After three months, refunded me the full purchase price. So did PayPal, after four months, and the sweetness of that victory was tempered by my outlay for international shipping. Both companies were backlogged with an "unusual volume" of refund requests and customer service complaints. I wonder if that tidal wave was caused by pirates.

I learned a few lessons, the most important of which was caveat emptor. It was as much my fault as anything. I know that, in the long run, customers of low-ballers pay — and yet I allowed myself to get sucked in. Twice. I hang my head in shame.

Now, I think differently about online purchases from unknown vendors. I used to think of and eBay as a kind of Big Lots, or a national farmers market with lots of people just like me selling a few extra things crowding their bookshelves. Even if that still is the case, I don’t really believe it anymore.

I also pay closer attention now to “About Us” and “Contact Us” on Web sites where I plan to purchase something. If I’m not satisfied with the information provided before a purchase goes awry, I certainly won’t be so afterward. If there’s no way to contact someone, somehow, somewhere with a complaint or a return, I’m not interested.

This little lesson cost me a lot more than the cost of shipping to Shanghai and a few months of frustration. It cost me faith: faith in the Little Guys Online, who will suffer because of two bad apples; faith in the Big Guys Online, who didn’t register a blip when Pirates were marauding the aisles of their Web sites; faith in my judgment, because I rationalized my Inner Skeptic into silence.

I’ll dive back into the World of Online Shopping, but first I’ll make sure my water wings are fully inflated and the lifeguard on duty is watching.


Daniel said...

As one of my favorite Presidents said, "trust but verify". That and working for eBay for 6 months always makes me a little more paranoid over online purchases. That and I now have professional paranoia given all the material I see because of my job.

Chris said...

Hey, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're NOT out to get you....