eBay Reputation Is Easy To Manipulate
A new study from UC Berkeley shows that hundreds of the Web site's users have artificially inflated their ratings by buying and selling good feedback.
The practice allows sellers to appear more reliable and therefore garner higher prices for their products. In some cases, sellers may be using the positive feedback as a ruse to lure and defraud unsuspecting customers.
"It's potentially a really big problem, especially for high-end items," said John Morgan, a business and economics professor who co-authored the study with Jennifer Brown, a graduate student.
EBay has policies against users manipulating or padding their feedback. The problem, in different permutations, has existed almost since the auction Web site was founded more than 10 years ago.
Catherine England, a spokeswoman for eBay, in San Jose, said the company takes the problem seriously and has a large staff deployed to fight against it. She also emphasized that the Web site has 105 million items posted at any one time, suggesting that the number of suspect items for sale that were identified by the UC Berkeley study was relatively small.
"Is any system 100 percent effective? No," England said. "But after 10 years, eBay has seen most of the ideas out there, and we have automated tools that keep our site safe."
Feedback is a considered a cornerstone of eBay's success. Trust is important because users usually make transactions with strangers, often for thousands of dollars.
Users have three choices of feedback to leave: positive, neutral and negative. They can also write a brief note, describing their buying or selling experience.
The data, including a feedback score (the higher the better), is made public on the Web site. Previous studies at other universities have shown that sellers garner more money for their products as their feedback scores increase.
The UC researchers found that there is a large market on eBay for low-priced or seemingly valueless items, whose sale appears designed solely to manipulate feedback ratings. Buyers and sellers who complete a sale -- even if for only 1 cent -- can leave feedback for each other.
In many cases, sellers expressly spelled out in their listings that the buyer should leave a positive feedback for the seller, according to Morgan. In return, the sellers said they would leave one for the buyer.
According to the study, over six months in 2005, 526 sellers posted 6,526 suspect items. Of those, 5,127 resulted in a sale.
The vast majority of items, 80 percent, were sold at a fixed price: 1 cent. Such sales don't make economic sense because they automatically result in the seller losing 29 cents in fees.
A follow-up study, over five days in 2006, showed that the feedback market was still active. In this case, they found 398 suspect listings, of which 88 percent resulted in sales.
The study's authors tested their hand in the feedback underworld by buying a "positive feedback e-book" from three different sellers. In return, they received a three-page file entitled "100 feedbacks in only 7 days," which advised them to buy 100 different items on eBay that cost almost nothing in order to "get your feedback score up to 100 in just a few days."
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