It is only 9am but Pablo has already been at his desk for two hours, scrutinising eBay adverts for everything from books and DVDs to wallets and handbags.
There’s a $24.85 Dooney & Bourke vintage wallet, a €7.99 copy of Michael Wolff’s controversial book Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House and a host of blockbuster hits such as Spider-Man and Despicable Me going for a couple of pounds each.
They are a bargain-hunter’s dream. But Pablo’s not buying. Instead, he’s hunting down criminals who are trying to use the online marketplace to sell fake goods to unsuspecting members of the public. And these adverts have been identified as likely counterfeits.
Pablo, who works in eBay’s Dublin office, is one of thousands of the company’s employees around the world who are dedicated to catching criminals in action.
There are 1.1 billion eBay listings live at any one time, the company’s counterfeit team in Dublin works hard to root out the rip-offs and fakes
Around 24 million buyers and sellers in the UK use eBay every month. With 1.1 billion listings live at any one time, it is an enormous — and expensive — undertaking.
And investigators have to be quick. Pablo, who works in the counterfeit team, deals with anything from 80 to 100 cases every day.
There is also a team that combats fraud and another for tackling the sale of prohibited items.
eBay’s investigators work closely with law enforcement and regulatory bodies across the globe, and on more than one occasion their evidence has helped put criminals in jail.
But what are the secret signs of fraud that they use to spot dodgy listings? And how can you use them to stay safe online?
COMPUTER SAYS NO — TO CROOKS
EBay relies heavily on its computer system to root out suspect listings. It is programmed to block any suspicious activity based on what listings are called, their description, the images used and information about the seller.
It means that many of the most dodgy listings often never even make it on to the website.
Some are blocked automatically. For example, if a seller includes an email address or phone number in the description of an item it is usually rejected.
A message should pop up, warning that repeated attempts at including contact details in listings could lead to your account being restricted. The main reason for blocking listings with contact details is because it is a common sign of a scam.
Major brands have their own teams dedicated to finding counterfeit items on online marketplaces such as eBay
Crooks want to entice you away from eBay’s own messaging system where details are kept on record, to an alternative one where no one can monitor what they are saying to you.
There, they hope to trick you into sending money via a bank transfer that can’t be traced.
eBay would also miss out on its fee if you pay a seller direct instead of through its website.
The online marketplace takes 10 per cent of the total sale price, including postage (fees are lower for professional traders).
The system also refers hundreds of listings each week to be reviewed by a member of staff. This occurs when something has been flagged as suspicious but isn’t a black-and-white breach of the rules.
It gives eBay a chance to carry out extra checks, such as calling the seller or requesting more documentation before the listing is made visible to customers.
However, fraudsters are always finding new ways around eBay’s system. For example, they might try to include contact details by using the letter ‘l’ instead of the number one in a telephone number or an ampersand — ‘&’ — instead of an @ sign in an email address.
The system is regularly tweaked to counter the new tactics being used by crooks. But some listings sneak past eBay’s checks.
Every week, hundreds of customers spot items they think look suspicious and inform eBay by clicking the ‘report’ button on the page. It is then referred to a staff member to review.
The computer system prioritises which items staff should look at first based on how many complaints the item receives and the severity of the accusation. For example, a complaint about a dangerous item that could cause harm will always be prioritised over a seller breaching copyright.
SELLERS FLOGGING FAKE HANDBAGS
This is where Pablo comes in. Back in the Dublin office, he pulls up that $24.85 Dooney & Bourke vintage wallet listing on his computer.
It’s been flagged by the system for using the word ‘replica’ in the description. It is illegal in the UK to sell counterfeit items, even if the seller acknowledges it’s a fake.
Pablo can see from the seller’s account history that this is their first offence. So they will just be sent an email warning them not to do it again. If they commit the offence again, their account will likely be suspended and eventually blocked if they continue to flout the rules.
Some sellers try to get round the system by not mentioning the specific brand their item is imitating, Pablo says. They instead describe it as having a ‘fashion logo’ and list it as unbranded.
Major brands have their own teams dedicated to finding counterfeit items on online marketplaces such as eBay. Some send their own experts to help train eBay staff on how to spot fakes. This might include the exact position of a brand’s logo on an item or whether a zip is engraved, for example.
I’m led around the eBay office in Dublin, its largest customer service centre in Europe, by the firm’s leading counterfeit, fraud and prohibited items experts who share inside information with me that they’ve gleaned from their work.
eBay has never opened its doors to the Press before — and some of the tips strike me as being incredibly useful for anyone who shops online.
Many of us treat a suspiciously cheap price as a big giveaway that something is a fake; eBay uses the same rule of thumb. Customers also shouldn’t rely on the fact that the item comes with a dust bag or box, as this is not always a reliable indication that something is genuine.
The eBay experts pay particular attention to new sellers on the website who start flogging pricey, designer goods. The same goes if a seller who has previously sold only cheap T-shirts suddenly lists a dozen iPhones or expensive watches.
This information is easy to find. Click on ‘Seller information’ on the right of the screen and you’ll see how long they have been a member of the website, what other items they are selling and any feedback and reviews from previous customers.
KEEP PHOTOS OF EVERYTHING YOU BUY AND SELL
When you shop on eBay, you are protected under the firm’s Money Back Guarantee policy.
This means that if an item doesn’t arrive or isn’t as described, eBay will refund you the cost of the purchase plus any delivery charges. To be covered you must have paid via PayPal.
There are some exceptions. You are not protected when buying a car, for example.
Some sellers try to abuse the system. They know the customer will get their money back from eBay so they try to get away with not sending items. Some buyers are no better. They will buy an item, claim it is faulty and demand a refund.
Then, instead of sending back the original item to the seller, they post off an empty box so that if they need to prove they returned something, they can.
I’m told one buyer sent back a cheap, old pair of headphones instead of the new pair.
If the seller complains they’ve been the victim of this so-called brick-in-a-box scam, it is up to eBay to step in and help resolve the disagreement.
It will use any information it has on record to do so, such as ratings from other users, how long they’ve been on the site and if their account is linked to others known to be suspicious.
As a seller, make sure you take detailed pictures of all your items so you can prove they weren’t damaged when you sent them.
It is then up to eBay as to whether it will swallow the loss, report the case to the police or pursue the case using a collection agency.
Fewer than 0.1 per cent of transactions are affected by fraud or counterfeit issues, and just 1 per cent of those are escalated to law enforcement as serious cases.
Be cautious in dealing with sellers who score less than 99 per cent positive in reviews and look for ‘trusted dealer’, ‘premium service’ or ‘top‑rated seller’ badges.
eBay controls the part of the website where seller information appears and assigns these logos so they cannot be faked. And while sellers can ask eBay to remove comments, they can’t change their star ratings.
Some sellers use stock images — which can be found on more official-looking websites — and these can be a red flag. Instead, rely on photos actually taken by the seller, preferably from different angles. Ask for more pictures if you’re concerned.
Pablo’s next job is to deal with an alert from a trade body representing major film companies that claims a seller has listed several unauthorised copies of DVDs.
He pulls up the seller’s account and can see that they have already been sent an email warning about pirated goods. They now face a 30‑day ban from the website. If they repeat the offence, the ban will be permanent.
Tricks of the trade when DVD shopping are to watch out for writing in an unusual font, poor spelling and low image quality. Another giveaway is an item being sold before its official release date.
WATCH OUT FOR CHEAP CARS
My next stop is the fraud team. Stefano, who specialises in spotting vehicle fraud, shows me an example of a fake car advert on his laptop.
Money Mail hears more about car scams on eBay than any other type of fraud. But I’m told this is not because they happen more often, but because the losses are large and buyers don’t get their money back.
Stefano explains how he knew this 2012 Volkswagen Passat with 59,000 miles on the clock was a fake. It’s listed at £5,750. ‘To me, it feels too cheap,’ he says.
He shows me another car for sale with a reputable dealer on eBay. It is exactly the same model and year but with a slightly higher mileage and it’s going for £8,795 — 53 per cent more.
Next Stefano points out how easy it is to get in touch with the registered dealer.
Too good to be true: Money Mail hears more about car scams on eBay than any other type of fraud
eBay allows you to include contact details in car listings because they are classified ads. For the reputable dealer, there are two phone numbers and an email address; on the fraudulent advert, there is just an email address.
‘Email is a scammer’s favourite channel of communication.
‘When you hear someone’s voice you can judge their behaviour better, so they prefer to distance themselves,’ Stefano explains.
Next, he searches Google for the car and the seller’s details. The same advertisement pops up in four or five places, including a newspaper advertisement and a website in New Zealand.
Professional dealers tend to use only one or two online marketplaces to advertise a car.
If you respond to a fraudulent advert, the scammer will try to take the conversation away from eBay’s official messaging system so they can’t be traced.
They might do this by saying that they are listing the car for their girlfriend, for example, then ask for your contact details to pass on.
A fraudster will also try to justify why the car is so cheap, often by playing on the victim’s sympathy.
Stefano shows me real messages from fraudsters who have been caught. One seller says he is desperate to do a quick deal because ‘I’m admitted to hospital for a medical diagnosis’; another claims her husband has recently died. Both are written poorly and littered with spelling mistakes.
The reputable car dealer says in its advert that potential buyers should call to set up a test drive.
Scammers will usually give excuses as to why you can’t see the car before you buy. Stefano shows me a message from a fraudster who claims they live on an oil rig so will, instead, arrange to ship the car free of charge.
Many fraudsters will also try to convince the buyer that they will be covered by eBay vehicle protection should anything go wrong. (In reality, only buyers in the U.S. benefit from this.)
Fraudsters may even send emails that state this from fake addresses that sound official, such as [email protected]back-guarantee.co.uk.
A new trend is to ask that buyers make an initial £1 payment via PayPal to verify their identity.
This is thought to be to check you are not a scambuster on the hunt for fraudsters’ account details to hand to the banks.
Once you’ve paid, many fraudsters send victims a fake tracking number in a bid to keep them quiet until they can move the money out of the account.
Never pay a penny via bank transfer. There is little your bank can do to get your money back.
If you receive any scam emails from eBay, forward them to [email protected] as they may contain vital information that could help investigators.