Stamp Collectors Against Dodgy Sellers
March 9 , 2006:
If you see a questionable item on eBay and you want it investigated by the Stamps Community Watch group (SCW), follow these simple steps to maximize the chances of your report getting through to them.
August 28, 2004:
An eBay workshop on the Stamps Community Watch program held on August 23 received basically zero attendance from a normally alert and active eBay collecting community.
The workshop was provided by Stamps and Coins category manager Andrew Lee in response to requests for improved communications between eBay and the stamps community. Earlier this month at APS Stampshow 2004 at Sacramento, eBay Stamps chat board members attended a talk on eBay given by Andrew, after which he informed them of the upcoming workshop and spent over an hour providing detailed answers to their questions.
Ironically, despite this advance notification, chat board members failed to find mention of it in eBay's events calendar and so missed out on an opportunity to receive more information and feedback on the SCW program. They have asked if another workshop can be scheduled, hopefully with better publicity.
Andrew Lee is moving from Stamps and Coins to the Movies Category in the coming week. Meanwhile, the list of commonly asked questions Andrew has provided as the basis of the current workshop gives eBay's perspective on the background of the Stamps Community Watch program and how it works. The coins community is taking advantage of that in preparations for its own Coins Community Watch (CCW) workshop scheduled for Monday August 30.
August 11, 2004:
Since May 2004, an increasing number of third-party reports of questionable non-US philatelic items have been referred from eBay Customer Support to the SCW group, prompting both eBay and the APS to expand their respective review committees to address the number of non-US items reviewed.
This has not been obvious on the chat boards, however. Collectors reporting questionable non-US items saw no evidence that their reports were being acted on by eBay Customer Support, the SCW or the APS. At the end of July, board members contacted new eBay.com Stamps category manager Andrew Lee, who responded that he would check to see that there are no bottlenecks in the reporting process.
Collectors are encouraged to use the Report link at the bottom of the Selling Stamps page, as reports from this link only can be monitored.
Chat board members reporting items through this link have seen some progress. German sellers "heftfisch" and "herma07", who regularly listed German and Swiss forgeries offered as genuine but "without obligation", have had listings cancelled. Lots offered in other areas have also been cancelled after being reported.
July 24, 2004:
In its efforts to encourage sellers to provide better descriptions in their auctions and reduce the number of questionable items reported, eBay has added the following checklist for sellers when listing:
Be sure to include in your description: origin, catalog number, date of issue, condition, expertizing service certificate, clear scanned image, and any alteration for each item.
July 18, 2004:
eBay and APS, by working together, have managed to uncover and eliminate major sellers of fraudulent stamps. In the year since July 2003, the partnership has resulted in 18 suspensions from eBay. According to a SCADS SCW member:
The worst offenders in the US classics, early 20th century and 'back of the book' categories have now been expelled from eBay. Lots containing many of the most commonly misrepresented, misidentified and/or fraudulent US classics issues have declined significantly since the birth of the SCW. Apparently sellers are learning someone is watching them.
Robert Lamb, Executive Director of the APS, stated that about 50 items per week are forwarded from the SCW to APS for vetting. The APS asks sellers about approximately 60% of the material referred to it, and he believes 60%-70% of that is removed from sale voluntarily by the sellers.
For more information, see the July 2004 issue of the American Philatelist and the minutes of the APS Board of Directors meeting held on January 29.
December 2, 2003:
APS executive director Bob Lamb was the host at yesterday's "Selling Stamps on eBay" workshop. Assisted by eBay Stamps category manager Dan Neary, Bob fielded numerous questions from Stamps chat board members and other eBay users. Topics discussed included the marking of fakes and forgeries, the reporting of questionable auctions, and the workings and scope of the Stamp Community Watch (SCW) group. A summary of Stamps chat board members' questions, with accompanying discussion and responses, can be found here.
September 15, 2003:
eBay's new stamps selling policy
Sellers who list stamps on eBay are now directed to a page detailing a new policy on selling stamps. It is now against eBay policy to sell fraudulent or improperly described stamps, and all alterations and information about the authenticity of the stamp, including all known or suspected alterations, must be included in the description.
APS code of conduct for selling stamps on eBay
The page refers sellers to a code of conduct developed by eBay and which is modelled on the rules that the APS applies to sellers in sales circuits and on its online Stampstore site. Sellers who fail to abide by the code may have their listings cancelled, and those whose listings are "problematic" may even be suspended.
A notable inclusion in the code pertains to forgeries, fakes, facsimiles and reproductions. They can be sold only if described as such; they must be marked as such on the front or back, and an image of the marking must be shown.
The use of terms such as "as is" is permitted only to describe condition. Using these terms in regards to authenticity or to excuse misdescribed items is no longer acceptable.
Collectors who see listings inconsistent with the code are encouraged to report them to eBay using the Report link at the bottom of the Selling Stamps page.
APS reviews questionable listings
APS has been working with eBay to reduce the amount of fraudulent listings viewable on its site by reviewing listings passed to it from the Stamp Community Watch (SCW) group, as the "Voices of eBay" committee is now known.
At least two of the eight SCW members must agree that items are questionable before they are passed onto the APS, where two delegated staff members review them. If they conclude that there is a high probability that items are not what they are supposed to be, the APS advises the sellers to remove the items. The sellers are given 24 hours to remove lots, and if they do not appeal or the lots are not taken down in 24 hours, they are referred to eBay and eBay removes the lots itself.
At present only US items are vetted, but the APS sees the need for expansion of the program.
June 6, 2003:
George Kopecky's discussions with eBay Trust and Safetthey Vice President Rob Chesnut appear to have borne fruit. Firstly, the Saratoga Ring seller pcheltenham was suspended in early May (see here for the full story of this US stamps alteration group). More recently, selected chat board members were among those approached to join a "Voices of eBay" committee, which is to be trialled to vet reported auctions of questionable material. If it is successful, other collectible categories may consider this option in attacking fraud issues.
eBay stated that the identities of Voices committee members will not be made public. However, it indicated that the committee will be comprised of knowledgeable buyers and sellers in the eBay community (including members of SCADS) as well as APS (American Philatelic Society), ASDA (American Stamp Dealers Association) and PSE (Professional Stamp Experts) representatives. All those who choose to take part are to sign a nondisclosure agreement with eBay and abide by its community guidelines.
May 2, 2003:
After an increasing blitz of deleting posts on the eBay Stamps chat board by the "Moderation" team , board members are at a loss to know what can and can't be posted, especially when, at the top of the board, the following lines appear:
"eBay encourages open communication between members of the eBay community........
This board is not connected in any way with the company, and any messages are solely the opinion and responsibility of the person posting the message."
Just over a month ago, the chat boards were contracted out to independent company LiveWorld Inc, and a "Report" button added to every post. Gone are the days when auctions of out-of the ordinary items could be safely posted on the board and their merits or otherwise discussed by board members, as this now appears to be regarded as a violation of the eBay board usage policy clause "Posting auction reports or member violations".
Posts on the most egregious fraud of all, that of the Saratoga Ring's stamp alteration operation (documented here) are deleted as well as those discussing other auctions, but apparently only when sellers' names or individual auction item numbers are explicitly mentioned, and then noticed by "snitchers".
Exposure of the Saratoga Ring and its operation on eBay's chat and discussion boards caused an upheaval in the eBay stamps community in mid-2002, when eBay chose to ignore the many complaints on the grounds that it was only a venue.
SCADS Gold Circle member George Kopecky has followed and documented the Saratoga Ring's alterations since early 2002. After his factual post summarising the history of the alteration scam was deleted almost instantly, he copied eBay Trust and Safety Vice President Rob Chesnut into his reply. Chesnut's prompt and positive response is encouraging for board members, who have watched eBay close off avenue after avenue of recourse for concerned collectors whilst the Powersellers receive more and more privileges.
The exchange of emails to date between George Kopecky and Rob Chesnut is presented below in its entirety, and hopefully signals the beginning of the end for the Saratoga Ring on eBay.
Date: Thu, 01 May 2003 15:12:46 -0400
Subject: Re: A MASSIVE Fraud on eBay
While it was nice to hear that you intend to look at this, I do not intend to it be buried away in some warehouse in a crate next to the Ark of the Covenant (with apologies to S. Spielberg.)
I have spent hundreds of hours investigating this case, and have had my sense of honor too deeply offended by this, to simply walk away now and hope something happens. I would like to be involved in your "internal investigation". It will not cost you anything, and could be of great benefit.
My knowledge base is extremely deep on this case, and we (scads) have photos of signatures on checks and envelopes. We have names and addresses that may or may not coincide with your records. We have knowledge of forensics that could be used to physically prove alteration.
I don't believe I have found all the buying ID's, and there may even be other selling ID's. I have some ideas on how to find them.
I am a CPA, and have spent my entire career in large corporations where I have uncovered a number of frauds. I understand the intricacies of extracting, analyzing and summarizing large amounts of information from huge databases. These skills were useful in this case already, and could prove useful to you also in your investigation.
Without me to explain my methodologies and at least show your investigator the signs to look for to see the alterations, he will have to slowly re-invent those wheels.
If I am not involved in this case, I will feel duty-bound to continue to make LOTS of noise about it EVERYWHERE I can. If you read any of the articles on the sites I sent you to, you will note that we have already been featured on the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour on PBS and the MSNBC website regarding this very case. We have had a number of articles about it published at increasingly higher levels in the philatelic press. It is only a matter of time before we can generate major media coverage.
I do not think this would be in eBay's best interest.
I repeat, I do NOT intend to let this fade away. I will hold your feet to the fire.
In the meantime, there are several concrete steps you can take to help and gain the trust of the eBay philatelic community:
- NARU these individuals if you feel there is merit to my case. They will soon be putting up another batch of fraud and almost every one grosses over $10,000. (If they do, I will copy you on the matches I find.)
- Ban the use of "private auctions" in the Stamp Category IMMEDIATELY. This is the ruse they have hidden behind for nearly a year. There is NO legitimate reason to run private auctions in the sale of stamps - period.
- Allow reporting of fraud by third parties. I have spotted most of these alterations while the AUCTIONS WERE STILL IN PROGRESS. It is a very frustrating experience to watch a crime take place in front of you and be powerless to stop it - over and over and over again, too.
- Permit open and frank discussion of this and similar cases on the chat
board. The recent near cyber-riot on the board was sparked by the heavy-handed
use of the delete button by your "Moderation" team. I described an auction
(still in progress) where the seller had purchased from
these crooks and was now re-offering the items using the same sort of misrepresentation to sell the same badly damaged, altered stamps as sound. The post was pulled almost as soon as it went up, so I copied you in my response and, well, here we are.
Lastly, why are you only contacting the Post Office? This fraudulent activity could also be of interest to the state Attorneys General and the FTC (who just jointly announced a major prosecution over similar on-line activities), as well as other law enforcement agencies.
I applaud your quick response (so far.) I am sorry for appearing skeptical, but in all honesty, you have lost the trust of the philatelic community here and will have to work to get it back.
I look forward to hearing from you (or your representative) again VERY SOON.
In a message dated 5/1/2003 10:45:26 AM Eastern Standard Time,
Great, thanks George. I'll get this information to some friends we have in Postal, and strongly encourage them to look into this...we'll assign an investigator to this internally and strongly support any investigation that Postal decides to open. Rob
Sent: Wednesday, April 30, 2003 7:05 PM
To: Chesnut, Rob
Subject: RE: A MASSIVE Fraud on eBay
Well, I'll be danged...you DO exist, AND you're responsive, too.
I have been tracking a couple selling ID's and related buying ID's for over a year now. I have over 500 (yes that's right, FIVE HUNDRED) examples of stamps purchased on eBay and then resold, generally in less than 30 days, after alterations of every kind imaginable, including LOTS of cancel removals, a clear violation of Federal postal law, carrying PRISON TERMS for violations.
I have nearly 300 of them posted on a website devoted to this case:
I show the stamp when it was purchased on eBay, side-by-side with the way it looked when they resold it, also on eBay, all with the pictures used on the eBay lots themselves. Rob, you do NOT need to be an expert in anything other than common sense to see these are the same stamps being altered. Some of the identifying features are so obvious that you can see them in Braille.
Please take a look at some of them yourself; I state on each what has been done to them.
I have had some reviewed by the ORIGINAL SELLERS, who confirmed that it was their stamp and that is was altered. Every one of my matches gets reviewed by people with decades of experience in this field, and I have not yet had one rejected. Richard Frajola, an acknowledged expert whom I believe you received a petition from last year, has seen them and agrees.
I have tried to communicate this to eBay on a number of occasions, writing emails last summer to someone named Kobe, who basically told me to take a hike, because you were just a "venue", had no experts, and since I was not a world reknowned expert, eBay didn't have to believe me anyway. (Now your "Moderation" team is deleting any posts on the chat board which refer to this case faster than we can write them; you are also facing a near revolution there too.)
This con artist has been in business on Bay since at least 1999, altered and sold TENS OF THOUSANDS of stamps, and grossed upwards of 7 figures doing it. He has caused irreparable harm to this hobby; the ripple effects will be felt for generations.
Since they sold their "wares" to unsophisticated collectors for prices which would not warrant the cost of expertization, NEARLY ALL THE BUYERS DO NOT EVEN REALIZE THEY HAVE BEEN DEFRAUDED. When they do find out, I guarantee you, they will be P*SSED.
If you really do want to help, all my records will be available to you, both hard copy and online. There are a number of other extensive articles on the scads.com website which discuss the legal aspects, give the timelines and relationships of the ID's, etc. Look under the "Alterations" header.
These crooks deserve some hard time for what they have done.
Thank you for your rapid and positive response. I look forward to hearing from you after you have examined my evidence.
In a message dated 4/30/2003 7:43:52 PM Eastern Standard Time, email@example.com writes:
Hey George, if someone really is perpetrating this kind of fraud on eBay,
I won't tolerate it. We've got some pretty extensive law enforcement contacts
and can refer the case to someone who will take it seriously...if your allegations
are true, I think we'll get action. Our problem is that we aren't stamp experts,
and we have no way of knowing whether you're right or wrong here.
Do me a favor. Send me everything you have on this, either by email or regular mail. I'll look at it myself, and get it to the right law enforcement official and ask them to look at it.
Sent: Wednesday, April 30, 2003 4:33 PM
Cc: Chesnut, Rob
Subject: A MASSIVE Fraud on eBay
I have about had it with eBay.
You have aided and abetted a massive fraud in the stamps category for several years now. How about actually READING what I wrote?
I have filed this complaint with the FTC because you won't do anything to stop this criminal activity. Now I will do EVERYTHING I can to get eBay slapped REAL HARD by the FTC and whatever law enforcement agencies I can interest in this.
Instead of just blindly censoring my posts, why don't you actually inquire as to whether there is a real problem that you should be worried about?
I am copying Rob Chesnut on this also. Maybe HE'LL be a little concerned about what is going on.
In a message dated 4/30/2003 5:46:16 PM Eastern Standard Time, ModerationTeam@ebay.com
Recently we became aware that your eBay registered account was involved in the following activity:
Posting auction reports or member violations. To report suspected violations, please use our online forms: http://pages.ebay.com/help/community/investigates.html#how_to_report
which is not permitted at eBay.
This is a copy of your post:
Posted by firstname.lastname@example.org (176) on Apr-30-03 at 14:59:57 PDT Auctions
Better read this in a hurry before it gets zapped. I just submitted this complaint to the FTC:
For over a year I have been gathering evidence of a massive fraud in the selling of rare stamps on eBay. One seller has been buying poor quality common stamps there and reselling them after altering them to make them look better or look like rare stamps. Because they are very good at this and target less sophisticated buyers, most victims are not aware they have been defrauded.
I have 500 specific before-and-after comparisons which have been vetted by many others with extensive experience; most are on this website, along with a narrative of the crime:
This is only a small portion of what this person alters. I estimate many hundreds of thousands of $ has been grossed through this fraudulent activity in the last several years, and continues to this day. eBay will not even look at my evidence and protects the seller.
At least one of the techniques they use violates Federal law; they remove cancellations from stamps to make them appear unused. See http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/1720.html.
I will be happy to share all my hard copy and online data with you. The buying and selling ID's are listed on the website; I have names and addresses of suspects but I have no proof as to exactly who is behind this. eBay would have all that information.
Our work on this case has received coverage on PBS and MSNBC, and many other articles we have written are on this website as well: http://scads.org/alterations/schuylerac.htm
It has taken hundred of hours to gather this evidence; and I believe the case is pretty conclusive. Please look into this and help us stop this before it goes any further.
We realize that you may not have been aware there was a rule against this activity. Therefore, we would like to take this opportunity to invite you to review our site policies, which can be found at:
Please understand our goal is to help you understand our policies to ensure successful experiences at eBay. Therefore, we respectfully request that you refrain from this activity in the future to avoid the possibility of a suspension of your eBay registration.
Thank you for your cooperation in this important matter.
eBay Moderation Team