Stamp Collectors Against Dodgy Sellers
May 31, 2003:
On 9 May, the suspension of Saratoga Ring seller pcheltenham was cause for celebration on the eBay Stamps chat board. By mid-May, however, posting any auction or seller ID on the board was cause for a deleted post and a warning letter from the eBay Moderation Team. Conversations became disjointed and board members felt more and more frustrated when they could not be sure that any post they made, however innocuous, would remain, as those containing any off-eBay links were apparently also fair game for deletion.
Dave Frick, a long-time supporter of those who actively further the cause of exposing fraud on eBay, decided to implement an alternative message board, where discussions that would now be deleted by eBay could be discussed. This StampChat board, which began operation on 20 May, is defined as "Supporting issues important to the online philatelic community".
A growing number of posters has shown that a board that is receptive to the posting of misdescribed items on eBay and other online auction houses has been long overdue in the Stamps community. The Stampchat board also supports both specialist and general postings and questions in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org 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 writes:
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 email@example.com (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