Beware of sellers who substitute

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I was recently a victim of an unscrupulous seller in Australia who substituted a cheaper item from his stock for the one I had purchased. I estimate that the seller made around $11:10 profit as a result of the swindle. 

This has made me aware of a kind of scam that appears to be operating on eBay, particularly by so-called "power sellers" or "top-rated sellers" who are using misleading advertising and unscrupulous sales practices. Their scams may be subtle or disguised in such a way that they appear legitimate at first glance. Often it is only the buyers who realize they have been conned following a transaction. But the slippery nature of the con and the con artist can make it very difficult to explain the exact circumstances of the scam to eBay or PayPal.

If a seller offers numerous similar products with different prices as "Buy it Now", this should immediately raise the suspicion of any buyer. An example of this scam is when a seller offers different kinds of paper for sale at different prices, eg. 500 sheets of glossy photo paper for $41 in one ad, 500 sheets of glossy DVD cover paper for $51 in another ad, 500 sheets of premium glossy paper for $61 etc. Then the same ads are repeated several times showing the same items marked at more expensive prices. The buyer may assume that the DVD paper is a superior product to the standard glossy paper or more suitable for making DVD covers. So the buyer looks through all of the ads and pays $51 (the cheapest advertised listing for that item). But the buyer is in all likelihood purchasing the same paper that is being advertised for $41 and $61!

The seller may also advertize the product with FREE POSTAGE, so the customer thinks he is getting a bargain. In reality the seller makes up the postage cost by "substituting" one product for another. The confusing price ranges being offered for esentially similar products by the seller makes it difficult for anyone to argue that they have been ripped off. Moreover it makes it difficult for PayPal or eBay to prove a customer has been ripped off if they investigate a complaint. Also when free postage is offered, the seller will most likely send the item at the cheapest rate possible under very basic cover. So assuming it does not arrive on your doorstep damaged, you open the package to find that the seller has substituted your DVD paper for the standard glossy paper! In other cases the seller may have removed the printed wrappers altogether so that you do not know what kind of paper it actually is! Inside you find an invoice which says on the bottom "We value your 5-star ratings and positive feedback. Please do contact us if we can assist you further and we will try our best to resolve any problems that may arise, to ensure you are completely satisfied."

So you send off an email of complaint to the seller, who instead of apologizing and offering to put things right, simply replies "I do not understand what you are talking about". You try to explain it fully to the seller who still replies "I do not understand what you mean. We will resolve your dispute if you can fully explain the details of the problem." Sellers like this one operate on the principle that it is far more time and cost effective to feign ignorance than to actually rectify a problem. After receiving several replies of this nature, you get fed up with the seller and threaten to leave negative feedback, but you discover that he does not seem to care. Afterall he sells so much junk daily that he still manages to accumulate 99% positive feedback. The few dozen or few hundred people who have been conned annually seem miniscule in proportion and the seller can easily write them off as mere "collateral damage". He can still maintain the illusion that he is a "top-rated seller".

An unscrupulous seller may completely ignore all complaints from a buyer, but more often he will reply to all emails regarding a complaint and continually ask the buyer for more information. By so doing he can argue to PayPal that he tried his hardest to resolve the dispute. But in reality the seller never had any intention to resolve the dispute in your favour. His intention was to create the illusion of helpfulness and to just keep you dangling until you eventually get fed up and go away.

A seller who boasts thousands of sales annually can make a lot of money by conning each customer out of just a few dollars. They may not con every customer, but for the 10% or so that they do, the experience can be very unpleasant and often leaves a long-lasting and very bitter taste in the mouth.

So buyers, please be aware and wary!

It is apparent that such sellers may be exploiting a loophole in eBay policy. Considering that a buyer must wait 7 days before leaving negative or neutral feedback, many become so disillusioned by the experience that they don't bother to leave any feedback at all. They may leave negative feedback disguised as a positive. At least that way the negative comment may show up on the seller's listings and serve as a warning to other buyers who bother to read it. But after the victim has "cooled down" it is often much easier to forget the unpleasant experience altogether and move on. Some buyers may take things further by opening a PayPal dispute, but the seller will still feign complete ignorance and argue that he tried his hardest to rectify the problem but could not understand what the buyer meant. Moreover when you check his recent ads, you find he has raised the price on all of the same items since receiving your complaint! This makes it appear that you actually got a bargain and should be grateful and you are therefore just being a whinger. The seller can claim too that the labelling got mixed up over in China or somewhere, (i.e. "circumstances beyond his control"). In this case he may claim that you actually did receive the correct product afterall, just incorrectly labelled. Yet the fact still remains that he took you down for $11:10. The seller may, if you are lucky, offer to replace the item if you return it, but the return postage is of course at the buyer's expense! In any case the seller will probably just alter the wrappers and send you back the same paper. In reality it probably was all the same paper anyway! So you decide to close the dispute out of sheer frustration.

It is obvious that sellers who deal in this way must be losing many customers. Moreover they are greatly underestimating the power of goodwill and word of mouth and they risk tarnishing their reputation for what are actually minor gains. The potential loss to their long-term profit margins will far outweigh the short-term takings from a swindle. But sadly, many sellers just don't seem to understand the concept of customer satisfaction and the importance of maintaining good relations with customers. Some believe it is their right to continually take customers down whenever possible. They do not fear the consequences because eBay has placed them on a pedestal as "top-rated" or "power" sellers, thus reinforcing the myth that they are beyond reproach. They can therefore afford to be arrogant and dictate terms to customers.

My advice is to do your research before buying. Look at a seller's feedback. If there are lots of unsatisfied customers leaving negative and neutral feedback, which the seller has either ignored or responded to with comments of "self-righteous indignation", then follow your instincts and shop elsewhere. Avoid any seller who leaves replies to negative and neutral feedback, especially if the replies are retaliatory, arrogant, or smug, or if the seller consistently pretends to be the victim of bad or unfair buyers. A good seller should never have to argue the point after the fact or retaliate against negative comments left on his page. He should have resolved the issues long before buyers had been left with no alternative but to resort to negative feedback. Afterall, a buyer cannot leave negative or neutral feedback until 7 days after a transaction. So if a seller's feedback consistently shows that he has not satisfactorily resolved customer complaints within 7 days, then he is obviously making little effort to prevent his own negative feedback! He is probably arrogant, has little time for customer satisfaction, gets his back up easily, and is basically his own worst enemy as a seller. Once a seller starts receiving 40-50 negative and neutral comments in a year, potential buyers should see this as a warning and steer well clear of that seller. The fact that this seller may have thousands of satisifed customers in the same period is immaterial. He may simply be good at hoodwinking people who naively believe they are getting a bargain. For instance, some buyers may feel that the free postage cancels out any problems they found with the product. If a seller's feedback lists 60 negative or neutral buyers, it is a fairly safe bet that a similar number of buyers were not satisfied but did not bother to leave any feedback as a form of "silent protest". They just never return to that seller and probably tell their friends not to shop there either.

In some cases a bad seller may be okay to deal with providing the transaction goes well, but his attitude quickly turns sour if the customer finds a problem with the purchase. Online shopping is risky for both buyers and sellers. For example addresses may get mixed up or items may be damaged in the post. If the seller's feedback suggests he is unable to satisfactorily deal with problems that arise, and most of the complaints are directed towards the products or the seller himself, you have to ask yourself if the product is really worth the additional risk of dealing with this seller.

A bad seller will seldom use his personal name in any correspondence. The invoices will just have a company name, perhaps an ABN number, a PO box number and/or a phone number. If the seller is a faceless entity, this means he potentially has something to hide. He may not care about customer satisfaction, but be more interested in protecting his own identity and interests.

I strongly advise people to email a seller before purchasing an item and ask if he intends to send the actual item that is advertised or if his policy is to supply substitutes if an item becomes "out of stock". Also, when you pay for a product, always include in your PayPal message the words "DO NOT SUBSTITUTE". At least by doing these things you may improve your chances of receiving the actual item as advertised and it may improve your chances of obtaining a satisfactory outcome in the event of a future PayPal dispute. In any case, no legitimate eBay seller would ever advertize a product that he does not have in stock at the time of advertizing. Never bid on or buy any item that the seller states is offshore and has to be "ordered in" at the close of auction. Too many things can go wrong and you may not be protected every step of the way during such a lengthy and complicated transaction. If for some reason an item is out of stock and cannot be supplied, a good seller will always refund the cost and send you an apology. It is very bad form for a seller to substitute a different item without first discussing it with the buyer.

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