Caveat eBay Emptor

You may be one of the millions of people who regularly shop on eBay. I’ve done it on occasion, and never had any trouble. Until recently. As a result of that experience, I learned a few lessons that can help you deal with two of the potential problems you might encounter.

Here’s the story…

One of the things on my brother’s birthday wish list was a pair of jeans. He’s hard to fit, but there is a brand/style he’s been wearing for years. Unfortunately, that style has been discontinued. So I thought I’d try my luck to see if I could find it online.

A few clicks of the mouse, and Eureka! A vendor on eBay had not one but three pair of the exact jeans I was looking for. I bought all three, paid for them via PayPal with a MasterCard, and patted myself on the back for being such a smart shopper (and thoughtful sister).

The jeans arrived promptly, and I immediately gave the seller “positive feedback” on the eBay website.

I should have waited. My brother was thrilled with the jeans… but one pair didn’t fit. They were enormous. Clearly the wrong size, but mismarked on the label.

Here’s where the first caveat comes in: Not all eBay vendors are established, professionally operated businesses. Some are just folks who get their hands on some merchandise and make a few extra bucks by selling it. There’s nothing wrong with that – except most of them don’t really have a policy in place for handling customer service complaints. And when a problem arises, the customer is not automatically “always right.”

Had I bought the jeans from a major online retailer, there would have been no question. I could have returned them for a refund or exchange, even if they hadn’t been mismarked. But the small-potatoes vendor I bought them from refused to do that, saying “I do not accept returns unless I made a mistake, which I did not.” She had bought the jeans “on a final closeout sale from a specialty shop that went out of business.” She couldn’t return them, but that shouldn’t have been my problem. Unfortunately, it was.

I had already blown my first recourse by prematurely giving her positive feedback on eBay. So I took the only other avenue open to me and filed a dispute with PayPal. But I didn’t stop there. I filed a dispute with my credit card company, too.

That’s the second caveat: PayPal does an excellent job of resolving disputes, but don’t rely solely on them. Things can happen that are outside of PayPal’s control. So wear a belt and suspenders. In addition to working with Pay Pal, you can – and should – contact your credit card company directly about any charge to your account that you disagree with. Had I not done that, I would have been out $60.

Briefly, here’s what happened: PayPal investigated, and the seller agreed to issue a refund upon receiving the merchandise. I sent it off via certified mail, return receipt requested, and waited. And waited. And waited. For some reason, it took almost a month to reach its destination. (That’s an example of what I meant when I said “Things can happen that are outside of PayPal’s control.”) When it arrived, the seller refused delivery, presumably taking advantage of the fact that the time limit PayPal had given me for returning the merchandise had expired. Meanwhile, as far as PayPal was concerned, my case was closed.

But as far as MasterCard was concerned, the case was still open. They had issued a conditional credit as soon as I reported the problem. And finally, finally, finally – four months later – I received this from them in the mail: “Great News! Our investigation is now complete and we are pleased to inform you that the conditional credit you received for $60 is now permanent.”

The belt broke, but the suspenders held.

[Ed. Note: Have you ever had a customer service “issue” with an eBay vendor? How did you resolve it? In hindsight, is there any way you could have avoided the problem? Share your experience – and advice – with your fellow ETR readers here.]