It´s not my fault.
When I started studying French in Paris in 1992, I asked my professor what phrase was the most common.
Instantly, she replied "C´est pas ma faute." It´s not my fault.
I subsequently lived 15 years in France. Was she right?
Let me put it this way:
Want to make megabucks? Here is a hot idea for a French soap opera: Les Responsables No Responsables.
Log line (synopsis): big shot corporate heads and politicians -- les gros légumes (big vegetables) -- could care less about their businesses or people. Utterly unconscious, they say and do one irresponsible thing after another. Some episodes are hilarious, others tragic.
The program will be a smash hit -- toute la France se sera emballée. The reason: the people are only too familiar with the archi-riche running and ruining their country. If you think the French aristocracy got its head chopped off in the 1789 revolution, you´d better think again: les grands seigneurs sont de retour.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. (À Rome, fais comme les romains.) So relax, fellow Romans, we are not in France. It´s not my fault -- that toss-off phrase so totally acceptable in France -- is totally unacceptable here.
Sorry about that, eBay founder and French-born Pierre Omidyar.
* * *
Pierre, our last post concluded with a devastating Hypothesis 1:
Your operation is run and overrun by con men, bunko artists, flimflammers, scammers, hosers.
eBay is active in over 20 countries. In order for eBay to do what must be done -- a full investigation of its entire operation from India to Italy, South Korea to Switzerland, the U.K. to the U.S.A. -- I will not say in which country or what year my squalid experience with eBay took place. I will say only the con game occurred after eBay went public in 1998. If I reveal where or when it happened, true to the spirit of a Responsable No Responsable, Pierre will reply that the criminal activity exposed here was limited to that one place and time. We fixed it. Case closed, Tom: thanks for your concern. Ciao.
In our cynical age nobody believes there exists final proof of anything. That a theory or evidence is probative is as good as it gets. Readers familiar with the social sciences know what is coming next:
Null hypothesis 1: there are no con men, bunko artists, flimflammers, scammers, hosers at eBay.
Pierre, phrasing the matter in "Mission Impossible" terms, your task, should you decide to accept it, is to prove the null hypothesis. If you fail, our alternative Hypothesis 1 about con men, bunko artists, etc., is not thereby proven to be correct; it is, however, shown to be probative.
Before developing our alternative hypothesis...
I am sure hundreds of people had the idea of starting up an internet auction site. Pierre Omidyar had the computer smarts, business acumen and organizational ability to put the idea into operation, which made him a billionaire at the ripe old age of 31. I have only the greatest respect* for gifted entrepreneurs who create jobs for thousands of people -- 27,770 (2013), to be exact; Pierre is definitely among those entrepreneurs.
That said, men who become rich beyond their -- or anybody else´s -- wildest dreams have an innate tendency to grow fat, dumb and happy. Is that Pierre´s case? Will he read our exposé, proclaim and defame to the stars above it´s not my fault -- that in 1998 he handed over executive control of eBay to Meg Witman and today he owns "only" 9% of the eBay stock? Is he, in brief, a Responsable No Responsable?
Let´s find out.
* * *
If you are not familiar with eBay, click here. It is a highly intuitive site; you can master it in a matter of minutes. That is a major reason for its outstanding success.
Want to sell your kid´s bike for $50? The eBay swindle exposed in this post does not swing into action for such piddling amounts. I sold books on eBay; nothing strange or extraneous happened. Only when I offered something expensive -- let´s say a diamond ring -- for $1,000 did the creepy crowd start tracking.
To understand how the eBay con game works, you need to know three facts:
(1) How does eBay make a profit? How does Pierre put hamburgers on the table?
Answer: eBay charges a 9% commission. There are other charges, especially if you use eBay´s financial service, PayPal.
eBay gives this example:
Paypal charges you 3% ( I rounded it UP) + .30 cents per transaction Ebay charges you 9% of total selling price PLUS shipping charges.
So if you sell an item for 90$
charge $10 shipping
totals $100 income to you
subtract 12% (3% +9 %)
subtract 30 cents paypal transaction fee per item
= $88 profit for you
( not including time, packaging etc etc)
No sale, no commission for eBay. That is reasonable and fair, no?
We will show it is not always true.
(2) How do you know if a buyer or seller is honest?
eBay has a rating system for its buyers and sellers. The ratings are based on feedback from people like you and me who have actually dealt with the buyers/sellers in the past. If an eBay member bids on your kid´s bike, you can instantly look up the would-be buyer´s rating. Reasonable and fair, no?
No. We will show the eBay rating system is so full of holes, a typical teenager can play it like a flute.
(3) What happens if you send merchandise and the buyer doesn´t pay? Click here to see eBay´s procedure. Note this key wording:
If you suspect fraud, report the buyer If you think your buyer bought or tried to buy an item fraudulently, you can report the buyer [to eBay].
We don't provide mediation, collect payment, or force a member to complete a transaction. We will, however, review reports of attempts to purchase items using fraudulent funds and take appropriate action in accordance with our policies.
Fraudulent funds only? We´re talking money laundering. Otherwise, Dear Seller, you are pretty much out to lunch. As for appropriate action in accordance with our policies: what we have here, Dear Reader, is a textbook example of a bureau-pathic pronunciamiento, of Orwellian Newspeak.
Let´s see what the eBay phrase means -- or rather does not mean -- in real life terms of an actual eBay scam.
* * *
Blow by blow, here is what I experienced:
(1) I posted the ring on eBay. Minimum bid required: $1,000.
(2) Presto, somebody made the minimum bid. Hooray! -- I would soon have money in my pocket.
Or would I?
(3) According to eBay, the split second the $1,000-bid was made, my ring was as good as sold. Anybody familiar with auctions knows that policy is standard fare. If the minimum bid is met, the seller MUST relinquish the merchandise. And, of course, I would owe eBay its commission plus any additional charges.
(4) Was the buyer for real?
For obvious reasons, nobody reveals their real name on eBay; buyers and sellers use code names. In honor of Alfred Hitchcock, I´ll call our buyer MacGuffin.
The first thing I did was check out MacGuffin´s eBay ratings. They were as numerous as they were glowing: wonderful, marvelous -- incredible, in fact. What a guy!
So far, so good.
Then, something strange happened...
(5) MacGuffin sent me an e-mail saying the ring was "just what I was looking for," and requested that we leave the eBay site to email each other directly. That request is understandably a no-no in the eBay rule book; eBay loses knowledge of the dialogue and any sale resulting from it. eBay´s commission is gone with the cyberspace wind.
Or is it?
I wanted to see what MacGuffin´s scam was so I agreed to go off-camera.
MacGuffin sent me another email stating that $1,000 was "a lot of money," hence it would be best for both of us to go through an escrow service. MacGuffin attached a link to an escrow service similar to the ones featured here. Much to my surprise, there was a subtle language mistake in the escrow company presentation. Whoever wrote it was not a native English speaker. Close, but no cigar. No diamond ring either...
The escrow idea is solid. Escrow means a third party stands between buyer and seller, and handles the money/merchandise exchange to the security of both parties. To eBay´s credit, it has its own escrow service; unfortunately, not everybody thinks about it, much less knows about it, in time to avoid being ripped off.
The scam: MacGuffin´s escrow service is phony. It doesn´t exist. If you send merchandise to it, MacGuffin grabs your stuff and vanishes into the Internet night.
(6) I don´t remember if it was shortly before or after MacGuffin sent me the second email that I received another email -- from eBay. eBay said in so many words that MacGuffin was untrustworthy, that his bid was not serious.
Huh? With his flock of favorable ratings, MacGuffin was a thief? Wait a second...
(7) Following eBay´s advice, I stopped all communication with MacGuffin. The diamond ring was not sent. No harm done. Everything seemed O.K.
But it wasn´t.
eBay sent me an account statement listing items I had sold, plus commissions/other charges I owed. There it was, bigger than daylight: the ring. I wrote eBay, requesting that the ring be taken off the list. They did not answer; more importantly, they did not remove the ring from their items-sold list. I "owed" them $90+. Pay, pal!
I wrote them saying they KNEW -- by virtue of their own email to me -- that MacGuffin´s bid was meaningless, that no sale took place. Again, I requested they remove the ring from their sales list. In vintage Responsable No Responsable style, they did not answer that or any of my other (numerous) emails. Which is not to say they did not communicate: periodically, eBay mailed me a pro forma account statement claiming I still owed them a sales commission for the nonsale of the ring. Pay, pal!
Bell sounded. End Round One.
Sitting in the corner, this is what I was thinking:
Independent bunko artists around the world see eBay as a gigantic source of "marks" -- people to rip off. Pierre, I can hear you now. You´re right, Tom. We do what we can, but it is impossible to keep all the crooks away. It´s not our fault...
Here is eBay´s policy regarding dubious buyers such as MacGuffin:
eBay has found that buyer violations are often unintentional. Which is why we work with buyers to change their behavior before we suspend them, usually through a reprimand with follow-up buyer education.
In cases where a buyer has made unreasonable demands (including extorting a seller), left inappropriate feedback, is abusing eBay buying protection programs, or misusing eBay returns—and the seller reports it—the Seller Protection team will take stronger measures: we will set limits on what the buyer can do, temporarily suspend them from the site and, if their behavior is bad enough, remove them from eBay.
Sorry, Pierre: given the fact you instantly and automatically record the scammers´ bogus bids as actual sales and refuse to erase them even when no sale took place, Hypothesis 2 is in order:
In search of commissions, eBay abets hoaxers. It does not remove them from eBay membership; it looks the other way. As for culpability, eBay, I hate to tell you this but there´s no such thing as an innocent bystander.
Null hypothesis 2: eBay does not abet hoaxers. O.K., Pierre -- step up to the plate. Show, do not tell, the null hypothesis is true.
What makes us think our Hypothesis 2 is probative?
To test Hypothesis 2, I posted another item, let´s say a necklace, for sale. Minimum bid required: $1,000.
(8) Presto, the minimum bid was offered. The buyer was not MacGuffin -- hypothetically, at any rate. The buyer had a different code name; I will call her "Giggles." True to form, once the minimum bid appeared, eBay recorded the necklace as sold.
(9) Giggles sent me an email saying the necklace was "just what I was looking for," then requested that we go off the eBay site and email each other directly...wait a second -- I swear I saw that email before..., exactly the same wording in fact... gosh...I wanted to see what the scam was so I agreed to go off-camera...Giggles sent me a second email saying $1,000 was "a lot of money," hence it would be best for both of us to go through an escrow service, which was the same one MacGuffin recommended.
You know the rest of the story. True to form, Giggles had a wonderful, incredible eBay rating. Even so, true to form, eBay sent me an email saying Giggles was not be trusted, that her bid was not serious. Finally, true to form, eBay did not remove the necklace from its list of sales in my account; hence -- true to form -- I supposedly owed eBay a commission on the necklace. Pay, pal!!
To test further Hypothesis 2 -- eBay was a passive participant in a fraud -- I performed two operations:
(i) I compared the wonderful, outstanding, incredible eBay ratings of MacGuffin and Giggles. Read ´em all. Conclusion?
They say there are no absolute truths. However, it is absolutely true that the ratings were written by the same person or people. Somebody was gaming the system. Anybody with a computer can perform the test I ran. So, eBay, why didn´t you? I fear we know the answer.
(ii) I reported to eBay what eBay already knew: MacGuffin and Giggles were crooks. Then, I sat back and waited.
A month or so later, I checked in to see if eBay had removed MacGuffin and Giggles from eBay membership. To my amazement, both were still members. I assume they still are to this day.
Pierre, I already know your response. Tom, like I said, it is humanly impossible to control everybody connected to eBay. I am not responsible. MacGuffin and Giggles are independent operators, disgraceful flimflammers...who knows where they are...Romania or Ghana maybe.
Which leads us to Hypothesis 3:
Forget Romania and Ghana. MacGuffin and Giggles are you, eBay.
Null Hypothesis 3: MacGuffin and Giggles are not eBay. eBay, Pierre, you know what to do. Your task, should you decide to accept it, is to prove Null Hypothesis 3.
To be clear: our alternative hypothesis is exactly that -- a hypothesis. Presently, I do not know if MacGuffin and Giggles are in fact you, eBay. I do know that if they are not, given your shabby and inept manner of handing them, they might as well be.**
In either case, Pierre, it is your fault and, by god, you are responsible.
Update: February 19. Pierre´s new news adventure (see our prior post, "Edward Snowden and The Eighth Dwarf"), assuming it actually gets off the ground, will be called First Look Media. Its web site promises fearless reporting, original independent journalism, true stories, strict standards of accuracy and honesty.
O.K., First Look, stand and deliver: reprint this post.
WARNING. Normally, I work without charge; our site accepts no subscription fees or advertising. However, whenever money guys like Pierre approach me, I reserve all rights. Pay, pal -- I know you understand.
Dear Reader: whatever you do, do not hold your breath waiting for Pierre to publish our eBay exposé. However, stay tuned. This morning, our blog received visitors from Honolulu where Pierre lives.
*Finance capitalists are another matter. Hard data show they are becoming increasingly exploitative and oppressive of productive capitalists. A decade before the 2008 economic crisis engulfed America, William Greider observed the rising tide of capital insecurity that was "deeply embedded in corporate balance sheets: U.S. companies had become much more dependent as borrowers….Corporate profits were 34 percent of corporate debt in 1960; by 1990, profits were only 15 percent of debt..." William Greider, One World, Ready or Not, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998, pp. 83, 184.
**Incompetence or corruption? Readers of The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion recognize the socio-economic dynamic in play: incomcruption.
Source analyzed President Jimmy Carter´s historic Malaise Speech of July 15, 1979:
Paralysis and stagnation and drift. President Carter successfully described the malaise. However, he utterly failed to explain it. And to understand where we are going [as a nation], the malaise must be explained.
One of Albert Camus’ basic conclusions was that “the rebel who takes to action is tempted to succumb, if he forgets his origin, to the most absolute conformity.” (The Rebel, Vintage Books, New York, 1956, p. 87). For the past quarter of a century, the obsessive nature of the rush to conform reveals that today rebellion is hidden and headquartered in the extremism of non-rebellion.
The pursuit of absolute conformity has its pinnacle in the ambition of American politicians to be “realistic.” They behave and believe as if realism = competence.
The trick is to recognize that realism and competence are not equivalent -- unlike incompetence and corruption. With each passing day, the latter are transforming themselves from fraternal into identical twins. Shakespeare caught the drift:
We came into the world like brother and brother;
And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.
-- "The Comedy of Errors" Act 5, scene 1 --
As for distinguishing incompetence from corruption, with time that distinction is becoming less and less important -- indeed, possible. Together, hand in hand, they are the germ of the malaise President Carter described. (pp. 366-7)