EBay has been accused of failing to protect users from scams and dodging responsibility for the number of fake listings it allows to be posted on its website. Shopping scams of all kinds are rife online.
More than 42,000 reports were made to Action Fraud, Britain’s fraud reporting service, last year. The average loss was £1,349.
Yet a protective legal framework introduced almost 20 years ago and its own terms and conditions allow eBay, the multi-billion-pound online marketplace, to distance itself from the problem.
The e-Commerce Directive 2000 states that as long as the “service provider has no knowledge or control over the information that is transmitted” it is not liable for the accuracy of the listings. But sites must “act expeditiously” when “removing or disabling access to information on obtaining actual knowledge”.
Sarah Miles, a partner at Nockolds, the law firm, said eBay “obviously relies” on this part of the directive as a “get-out clause” when accused of failing to combat fraud. EBay’s own terms and conditions also allow it to shrug off responsibility.
It said that although it used “techniques” that aim to verify users, it was a “difficult” task. Therefore the company says it is “not responsible” for ensuring “the accuracy or truthfulness” of users or the information they provide.
Thousands of individuals have joined Facebook groups, such as eBay Vehicle Scam Alerts, which has more than 5,000 members, or forums to warn others.
They publicise suspicious email addresses used by criminals on eBay and to report scam listings, often featuring high-value items such as vehicles, before others are conned out of thousands of pounds.
‘An eBay fraudster stole £1,500 and they’d been reported before’
After Colin Labouchere lost £1,500 trying to buy an organ on eBay, he discovered that the fraudster’s email address had been reported online months earlier.
Mr Labouchere, 79, spotted a Roland C‑330 Classic organ listed on the site at the start of April.
Within the listing was an email address, which is against eBay’s rules. This is to ensure that deals are not taken “off platform”.
But the fraudster had managed to bypass the marketplace’s systems by including the information in an image.
Criminals will try to get buyers to contact them directly so that eBay cannot intervene and they avoid detection.
The listing disappeared but Mr Labouchere emailed the seller and they agreed on £1,500, which the seller insisted was paid “through eBay”.
Mr Labouchere, who said he was a regular user of eBay, received what appeared to be an invoice from eBay. He said he hadn’t seen one before but believed it was genuine, and protected, so went ahead and paid by bank transfer.
The seller said he would arrange for a delivery the next week. But when the organ didn’t arrive as expected, and the fraudster stopped responding to emails, Mr Labouchere knew he’d been conned.
He reported the crime to his bank, Action Fraud and eBay and found that someone had posted a list of email addresses used by eBay scammers on the Facebook page of Action Fraud in December last year, including the one he had corresponded with.
Mr Labouchere said: “If eBay had taken due care it would have picked up that the email address had been associated with another scam before.”
‘The website can’t seem to stop scam listings’
Peter Barrett spotted a number of suspicious listings for around 20 classic cars on eBay last October, all with a starting price of 99p.
The seller explained in the post he would offer a reasonable quick-sale price. Those interested were to contact the user directly over email.
Mr Barrett, 62, said the messages were almost identical and contained the same email address. He suspected a scam and contacted eBay. Eventually the ads got removed, he said, but they would soon reappear.
He said: “This has been going on since at least October last year. It’s clearly a problem but eBay doesn’t seem to be able to stop it.”
Mr Barrett, who teaches computing at a junior school, said eBay “didn’t seem to be that bothered” but he was concerned for new users of the service.
Is eBay doing enough to protect users from fraudsters?
Chris Underhill, chief technical officer at Equiniti Cyber Security, said there was a “massive fraud team” at eBay, which should be “keeping on top of this”.
He said it wouldn’t be unreasonable for eBay to install software that detected text, such as email addresses, in images.
“You can hide all sorts of information in pictures but the technology that detects it is not that advanced,” Mr Underhill added.
“It’s not difficult for eBay to implement this software.”
Telegraph Money reported how fraudsters used pictures to hide text on eBay in 2016 – yet fraudsters are still able to get away with it.
Ms Miles said until eBay was forced to take responsibility for the scams, which would “hit it in its pocket”, the onus would be on users to keep themselves safe.
How to protect yourself against eBay scams
Be suspicious of items with unrealistically low prices.
If you are buying a car arrange to see it before paying. Walk away if the seller refuses.
Don’t email the seller directly, even if they offer you an “off platform” price. Use eBay’s messaging service.
Be wary if the descriptive text is in a picture or screenshot. This is to stop buyers copying and pasting the text into a search engine to see if it has appeared elsewhere.
Google the email address to see if it’s been associated with a scam and report it to eBay if so.
Don’t pay by bank transfer, as the bank won’t refund you if things go wrong; neither will eBay. PayPal is safer. Vehicles are not covered by eBay’s money back guarantee.
If you’ve been tricked into making a bank transfer, on eBay or otherwise, read our guide which explains in detail what you should do.
The firm said it continually invested in new technology and “works hard to protect customers from criminals who attempt to attack the entire industry”.
It claimed to use a “combination of online and human detection methods” but said criminals “continue to actively try to engage in online fraud” and on “very rare occasions make it beyond listing”. An eBay spokesman said the site had “redoubled” efforts to help users protect themselves.