Friday, May 9, 2008

It's Now Completely Impossible To Sell A Laptop On Ebay

The cool thing about eBay's support system is it will always answer your question; unfortunately, that answer will always be a form letter on how to reset your password, as Timothy discovered when he tried to figure out how to sell his laptop to someone who wasn't a Nigerian scammer. Timothy has discovered the awful truth behind today's eBay—something many readers here already know—which is that it's become virtually impossible to sell any sort of medium-to-high end electronics there anymore.

Timothy's email went on for about two weeks, so we've tried to edit it for length.

eBay seems now to be essentially broken. What used to be a 'virtual yard-sale' where one could hunt for - and potentially find - a good deal on a broad variety of eclectic items has now turned (in my opinion at least) into a hybrid mass of scammers and shady garage-retailers, clumped together with a straggling, dying breed of people who used to be excited about eBay, but who are now wishing it would return to what it used to be.

Don't get me wrong, I still use eBay, and have for years. My usage has varied over the years, and I'm by no means a 'power seller' on eBay, but it has always been my first stop when I'm looking to acquire an item which I wouldn't mind buying used. But a recent series of events has left a bitter taste in my mouth, making me wish eBay was what it used to be.

My experience started with a laptop which I wanted to sell - simple enough. I've sold on eBay before. "I'll just throw it up on eBay," I told my wife, "and see how much I can get for it." [ha ha ha ha ha -Ed.] It's a fine Toshiba laptop, 15.4" screen, 1.7Ghz processor. I bought it brand-new, and have treated it well since then. There's nothing wrong with it - I was just looking to upgrade to something newer and thought that I could perhaps get a few hundred dollars to offset some of the cost of buying a new laptop. So I listed the item and waited. I chose the 5-day auction option - I don't know if that really makes any difference or not (I've heard arguments both ways on the topic).

After about two days with no bids I decided to find the laptop in the listings and see how it looked compared to other listed laptops - perhaps I had made some glaring mistake which other laptop-sellers were not making. I checked and saw how long the auction had left, and viewed the 'Laptops and Computers' category (sorted by 'Ending Soonest'), and scrolled down to where my laptop ought to have been - about 6 pages in, since it still had a few days left to go. I could not find it. It appeared that my item was not listing correctly, so I contacted the eBay on-line 'Live Chat' (which, incidentally, seemed to be one of only two venues for their customers to reach them - the other being a 'contact us' form on their website [there do exist a couple of 800/888 corporate numbers, but they provide no means of reaching a human being unless you know their name ahead of time]). The Live Chat representative (pronounced "c-h-a-t-b-o-t") informed me that unless my item was listed as a 'Featured Item' (pronounced "e-x-t-r-a-T-w-e-n-t-y-D-o-l-l-a-r-s") my item would only appear after all of the items which had been listed as featured items.

So I returned to the list of items, and found that - sure enough - the 6th page which I had expected to find my item on was actually only the sixth page of featured items. It was not for another several pages that the list of featured items was finally exhausted, and the 'Time Left' column reset from '5 days' to '< 1 minute'. Once again I had to click through several pages of items which were ending before mine, until finally, around page 20, I saw my item in the queue. Great, I thought, what good is an auction if nobody sees it?
The item ultimately did get a bid, however, and I was excitedly looking at new laptops on-line. I was sorely disappointed the next day when I received the following message from eBay:

Account Security Notice: eBay Listing(s) Removed

Dear loneboat (*****@*****.com), The results of the following listing(s) 
have been cancelled due to bidding activity that took place without the 
account owner's authorization:

[Blah blah blah. -Ed.]

eBay Trust & Safety 

Yikes, I thought, some poor sap had his eBay password stolen/cracked/phished. Oh well , looks like they've graciously refunded my money. I'll just re-list it.

So I re-listed the item. This time, I lowered the minimum bid and paid for the 'featured item' option (which I thought was a stupid idea, but the only way to get my auction seen by any appreciable audience). This time, the auction ended without incident. I got an email from the bidder telling me that he was glad to have won the auction, and was excited for me to ship it... To Nigeria.

Let it be known here that though I may not be the smartest person in the world, I'm not stupid. His email went on to explain (in poor English) that he was 'on business trip to the Nigeria,' and that he was willing to pay me $1000 through PayPal for the laptop. Shortly thereafter I received an email from 'PayPal' (who is now apparently sending out their customer service emails from gMail), stating that I had received a payment, but that it would not show up in my account until I emailed them back the tracking number for the parcel. Very clever, but once again, I'm not stupid.

This time I contacted the Live Chat system. I explained the whole drama, and was told to go on the website and contact eBay's security team. I did so, and sent them the following email: [Email described the problem and included the buyer's original email along with two spoof emails from "eBay" and "PayPal". -Ed.]

I received the following response:

Dear eBay member,

If you need help resetting your eBay password, or you think your account 
has been used without your permission, please go to the "Securing Your 
Account and Reporting Account Theft" Help page. Follow the steps on this 
page to secure your account:

For further assistance with account security questions, please contact 
us through Live Help at:

Live Help will open in a new window and connect you to an Account 
Security Live Chat representative.

***Learn More About eBay Safety and Security*** To learn more about 
account security on eBay, or to report a problem with your account, 
please visit our Security & Resolution Center at:

The Security & Resolution Center can help you do the following:

- Learn more about account protection and buying safely. 
- Access resources for rules, policies, protection programs, and 
- See important safety tips and features. 
- Review law enforcement information. 
- Access Security & Resolution Center tools, and more.

Sincerely, Anna 

At this point in writing this article, my emotions regarding this response from eBay are emphatically urging me to pound out several paragraphs worth of rant about how hilariously irrelevant this response is to the message I originally sent - an urge which shall be eternally frustrated, since there is nothing more to say than to simply stare at it aghast and say, 'that has absolutely nothing to do with what I sent to them. Nothing which I mentioned in the original message is even mentioned here.'

So - frustrated - I re-listed the item a third time. I waited. Same story - after waiting a few days the auction was ultimately won, again by somebody who desperately needed it shipped to Nigeria (this time they were sending it to their fiancee who was working for the 'Nigerian Peace Corps.'). 'What's wrong?', I thought, 'how hard is it to sell something on eBay nowadays?'

So I listed the item for a fourth time. This time I added the following disclaimer to the top and bottom of the listing:

Note: I WILL NOT SHIP THIS ITEM TO NIGERIA! This is the fourth time I have 
listed this laptop on eBay. All three of the earlier auctions were 
ultimately won by Nigerian scammers trying to get me to use some phony 
escrow service to ship the item to Nigeria. Each time I got a slew of 
elaborate (but grammatically poor) spoofed emails explaining to me that 
payment had been made to my PayPal account but would not show up until I 
emailed the buyer with a tracking number showing that I had shipped the 
item. I may not be the smartest crayon in the box, but I'm not stupid 
either, so I (thankfully) haven't fallen prey. But each time this 
happens, I lose a few days of selling time, and I really need to get 
this laptop sold because I need the money for something else. I truly 
apologize if you actually ARE on a business trip in Nigeria or need it 
shipped to your cousin or fiancee in Nigeria, but I repeat: I WILL NOT 
SHIP THIS ITEM TO NIGERIA! I'm just a poor guy trying to sell his laptop 
on eBay. If anyone reading this has any ideas as to how to keep people 
in Nigeria from bidding on or winning this item, please send a message 
to me via my eBay profile! Thanks! :-) 

The listing posted, and I waited. A few hours later, I tried to log into my eBay account to check on it, and my username and password would not allow me to log in. I checked my email, and found the following:

Dear [redacted] (*****@*****.com),

Your account was accessed by an unauthorized third party to list items 
without your authorization. At this time we have taken several steps to 
secure your eBay account. Rest assured that your credit card and banking 
information is safe on the eBay site, as this information is kept 
encrypted on a secure server and cannot be viewed by anyone.

To regain control of your account, please complete the following steps:

1. Change the password on your personal email account to verify that it 
is secure and cannot be accessed by anyone other than you.

2. Change the password on your eBay account. Go to the eBay sign-in 
page, click the "Forgot your password" link, and change your password 
using the instructions provided.

3. Verify the contact information on your account is correct. Go to My 
eBay and click the "Personal Information" link under My Account.

To better understand how your account was compromised, please take a 
moment to review the Account Protection tutorial.

We're sorry for the inconvenience, and we thank you for your patience 
and understanding.

Sincerely, eBay Customer Support 

The only thing I can figure as to why eBay locked my account and removed my listing was that my listing mentioned the word 'Nigeria'. I am positive that my eBay password was not stolen, as I have NEVER revealed my eBay password to anyone (not even my wife knows it; I don't want her to know that I buy her birthday presents off of eBay - can you blame me?).

Having nowhere else to turn, and in no real hurry, since I've lost all hope of actually selling my laptop on eBay, I contacted the security team with the following email:

I'm having a very hard time selling my item on eBay. I have listed the 
item four times, and each time something has gone wrong. Here are the 
item numbers, with descriptions of the problems:

[detailed list of everything Timothy's tried up to this point. -Ed.]

After the last two listings, my account was locked because eBay thought 
(for some reason never told to me) that the listings were due to a 
compromised account password - even though the listings were legitimate 
and posted by myself. I have now had to reset my password to something 
new, since eBay would not allow me to reuse the password I have used for 
a long time. :-(

Can you please tell me what I am doing wrong? I'm just trying to sell my 
laptop on eBay. I have used eBay for several years, and have never had a 
single problem before. I am not doing anything differently - so why am I 
having such trouble?

I would very much appreciate a phone call from a real live person who 
can communicate to me why I am having such a hard time. I have called 
customer support (1-800-322-9266 & 1-888-749-3229), but am only greeted 
with a recording which refers me back to the website. I have tried the 
online-chat, but they only refer me to the security team. I have emailed 
the security team, but they just say basically 'sorry, there's nothing 
we can do'.

My phone # is ***-***-**** (US).

Thank you. 

About an hour later, I received the following email in my inbox:

Dear eBay member,

If you need help resetting your eBay password, or you think your account 
has been used without your permission, please go to the "Securing Your 
Account and Reporting Account Theft" Help page. Follow the steps on this 
page to secure your account:

[You know the drill by now. -Ed.]

Sincerely, Anna 

No joke, this is an identical email to the other one which 'Anna' had sent to me a week ago. And once again, I feel compelled to rant about exactly how much and in what ways this has absolutely nothing to do with my initial request, but (once again) I'm left with nothing to say except, 'that has absolutely NOTHING to do with what I sent to them.'
One more note - when I logged in to list my item for the fifth time, my account was once again locked. I think I'm going over to CraigsList.
Comments?? Anyone want to buy a laptop? :-|

Timothy, if you decide to try eBay a fifth time—and honestly, at this point in the company's history we wouldn't recommend it—there's an option to restrict bidding to people in the U.S. only. While this won't prevent scammers who have hijacked U.S. accounts from bidding, it will at least cut down on the number of international bids. But seriously, try CraigsList or a flyer in your neighborhood. EBay is broken.

Original here

Colossal Castle or Humble Home? Same Price – Your Choice

The subprime mortgage crisis has hit. America is homeless, broke, foreclosed, and in the midst of a financial crisis. Similar to when there were rumors of the draft resurfacing, many of us are saying, “I’m moving to Canada.” However, I urge you to look beyond our friendly northern neighbor to a more majestic and—dare I say—regal era. From the rolling green pastures of France, to the sparkling coastline of Mexico, why live in a cramped, rat-infested junior one-bedroom when you can reign high in your very own castle?

South Africa v. San Francisco – $500,000
In South Africa, for half a million dollars, you can purchase a genuine castle complete with armor, high security, and a golf course. Stradford Castle, nestled in South Africa’s most gorgeous lake, is engraved with words of wisdom from ancient dukes and holds precious hand-crafted stained glass.

In San Francisco, for 500K you’ll afford a junior one bedroom with a spacious sleeping alcove. If you crane your neck out the bathroom window, you may even get a “peek-a-boo view” of the Bay Bridge.

France v. Los Angeles $500,000
Half a million dollars in France will get you five-bedrooms, or one quarter, of a nineteenth century chateau. This chateau is encircled with a rushing river, lush landscape, gardens, sauna, and swimming pool.

In the concrete jungle suburb of Los Angeles, Downey, your half a mil will buy this lovely four bedroom two-point-five bathroom home. It is encircled with growing weeds, a dead tree, and your own garden hose.

Ukraine v. New York $1,800,000
In Ukraine, you can buy a Medieval Castle for just $1,800,000. This majestic palace is reminiscent of a luxury hotel and boasts an impressive European patrimony.

If you prefer, you can take your 1.8 million dollars and dump it into a converted two bedroom loft in Chelsea, New York. At least this apartment will provide easy access to the subway.

Dominican Republic v. Boston – $1,150,000
In the Dominican Republic, $1,150,000 will get you a Caribbean mountaintop castle with glittering pastoral views on a fifty-acre lot. Your humble abode will include thirty-three archways, a turret leading to the observation room, a twenty-four foot galleria, two living rooms, and service wing. Don’t forget the 1,500 square foot guest house (a short walk away) and the personal well.

In Boston, the same $1,150,000 will get you three-bedroom, two-point-five bath suburban colonial. This house includes grass, a sprinkler system, and a microwave oven.

Italy v. New York – Just Under $1 Million
In Sabina Hill, Italy, $927,600 will buy you the Castle of Stimigliano. This antique piece of art has been blessed by the Italian society of preservation and bestowed with the name “Belle Arte.” It is restored, yet maintains of the aura of pastimes.

In New York’s West Village, for just $41,400 more, at $969,000 you can purchase a two-bedroom apartment. Not even a house—an apartment—in a building, with other people who live in their own apartment (not in your maid’s quarters).

Mexico v. San Francisco $1.5 Million
In Mexico 1.5 mil will get you an eleven-bedroom hacienda, complete with maids’ quarters and a fruit orchard with orange, tangerine, and lime trees. This castle also includes an expansive swimming pool, a well for water, and of course, a private chapel.

In San Francisco, that same 1.5 mil will get you a two-bedroom home with an attic, dryer, and breakfast nook.

Sweden v. Orange County $830,000
In Motala, Sweden, $830,000 will make you the owner of Castle Sjoskum, a famous white palace, custom-built by an affluent Swedish sea captain and crafted by the hands of renowned British architects. With 6,500 square feet and three stories, this palatial estate will make you sleep like Queen Elizabeth.

In Orange County, California, just $19,000 more, or $849,900 will buy you a three-bedroom, two bath, one-story home. There’s even a spot to park your RV.

It’s a tough call—a palatial estate that could have been Princess Diana’s stomping grounds, or a studio above a Moroccan restaurant in Manhattan? I’m going with the castle.

Original here

Is IKEA the World’s Largest Charity?

ikea2.jpgIf it’s possible to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture without cursing at the top of your lungs, I’ve never seen it happen. There’s always a missing piece of hardware, an unclear spot on the instructions, or an excruciating amount of hex wrenching to be done. The next time you ball your fists mid-assembly and curse all things Swedish, though, try to calm down. After all, IKEA’s just another charity trying to get by.

Wait, what? You read that correctly; IKEA’s technically a charity. But before you write down the umlaut-riddled name of your most recent dresser purchase as a charitable donation on your next tax return, it’s worth exploring this ownership structure, which was brought to light by a 2006 article in The Economist.

IngvarKamprad.jpgIngvar Kamprad founded IKEA in Almhult, Sweden in 1943 when he was just 17 years old. Kamprad originally sold low-priced consumer goods from his home and by mail, but added a furniture line in 1948. As the company began opening its trademark sprawling stores, Kamprad grew fabulously wealthy, although he retained frugal tastes like driving an aging Volvo and always flying economy class. By some debated estimates, Kamprad is the world’s richest man, and even Forbes’ more conservative accounting pegs him as the seventh-richest person in the world with a net worth in the neighborhood of $31 billion.

Why can’t anyone agree on how much Kamprad’s worth? Well, for one he doesn’t technically own IKEA anymore. In 1982, his ownership stake in the company was given to the newly formed Stichting Ingka Foundation, a Dutch charity. The foundation in turn administers the stores through Ingka Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary that operates as a for-profit company.

With an estimated endowment of over $36 billion in 2006, the Stichting Ingka Foundation is arguably the world’s largest charity. The charity’s stated goal is “to promote and support innovation in the field of architectural and interior design,” surely a noble aim, but it’s unclear how generous its support is. It’s been confirmed that the foundation has given 1.7 million Euros a year to Sweden’s Lund Institute of Technology for some time, but even that amount seems fairly tightfisted in light of its gigantic endowment. In other words, if you’re an aspiring architect waiting for some financial support from IKEA, you’re probably better off getting a job as a cashier at one of their stores than hoping for a grant.

So what’s going on here? It would seem that the entire charitable foundation is a clever, if dubious, way for IKEA to avoid paying taxes. In 2004, the company pulled in a 1.4 billion euro profit, but since it’s owned by a tax-exempt charity, it didn’t pay a dime. Moreover, the Byzantine structure of for-profit holding companies nestled within non-profit charities effectively safeguards Kamprad from any sort of outside takeover bids for his housewares behemoth. The five-member board of the foundation, which is headed by Kamprad, is the de facto management for all of the IKEA stores.

IKEA-dresser.jpgAll of this sounds pretty clever, but if the stores are all owned by a charity, how can Kamprad and his family make any cash off of them? Maybe he’s doing all this out of the goodness of his heart after all, right? The company’s been just as clever in that regard, too. If the Stichting Ingka Foundation is really just a giant piggy bank, it’s got a rather sizable hole in it. While the charitable foundation owns the IKEA stores, it doesn’t own the IKEA trademark or concept. These items belong to Inter IKEA Systems, a private, for-profit Dutch company. Inter IKEA Systems collects hefty franchise fees from each IKEA store; according to The Economist, these fees amounted to 631 million euros in 2004. However, thanks to a convoluted multi-national system of ownership here, too, the company ended up paying a scant 19 million euros in taxes on this huge sum.

Who owns Inter IKEA Systems and its maze of parent companies? Nobody knows. Since they’re private companies incorporated in various locations, their ownership is kept secret, and IKEA’s certainly not about to spill the beans. It would seem reasonable to suggest that Kamprad probably owns it.

Should we really be surprised, though? These are the same people who can make a dresser that weighs just ten pounds, fits in a box the size of a deck of cards, and sells for four dollars. Just remember, when you scarf down a two-dollar plate of Swedish meatballs after buying furniture, you shouldn’t feel ashamed for pigging out. Instead, hold your head up high and know that you’ve made your contribution to charity today. (Wait, you have some sauce on your chin. You’ll probably want to wipe that off first.)

Original here