Saturday, January 13, 2007

eBay Reputation Is Easy To Manipulate

Some eBay users may not deserve the stellar reputations showcased in their member profile.

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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Kiss Leads To Arrest

WATERBURY, Conn. Jan 12, 2007 (AP)— A criminal defense attorney has been arrested on a disorderly conduct charge involving kissing as a crime.

Ralph Crozier, 55, of Southbury was arrested Thursday for kissing a female judicial marshal at Waterbury Superior Court on Dec. 22.

Crozier said state police investigators told him the marshal did not invite him to kiss her, which was why criminal charges were filed.

"This is the biggest baloney I've ever seen in my life," Crozier said Thursday. "How many tens of thousands of people in Connecticut wished their co-workers and friends `Merry Christmas' the day before Christmas?"

The incident was captured on security video.

Crozier said the video will prove he meant nothing sexual by the kiss, which he described as a peck on the cheek. He says the incident is an example of political correctness run amok.

"It was a Christmas greeting. I had no intention to annoy or harass anybody," Crozier said. "Every one of us knew we were on camera. This was a peck on the cheek. That was the extent. There was nothing here that was weird or sexual."

The arrest warrant affidavit is sealed until Jan. 24, when Crozier is scheduled to be arraigned at the Waterbury courthouse. He is free on a $10,000 bond.

Information from: Republican-American,

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Lonely Skunk Needs A Friend

Canadian wildlife officials are looking for a brave driver prepared for a 3,500-kilometre (2,200 mile) trip to take a stinky stowaway skunk back to her home in California.

But the skunk, who survived a seven-day journey across the United States and into Canada without food and water, after being accidentally locked away in a transport lorry, is having a hard time finding someone to give her a ride home.

"We can never give a no-spray guarantee, of course," said Nathalie Karvonen, executive director at the Toronto Wildlife Centre, which has been caring for the skunk since January 5, referring to the black-and-white striped animal's foul-smelling defence mechanism.

"It would have be somebody who would be prepared for that possibility."

Releasing her into the wild in Canada is out of the question, Karvonen said.

"It's totally and utterly illegal from a provincial and federal standpoint to release a California skunk in Ontario."

As well, "skunks are very territorial animals ... "They won't just readily accept a stranger in their territory, so there will be a big skunk fight."

The skunk likely dozed off in some piping being stored in a yard in California. The cargo was eventually loaded onto a lorry to Mississauga, Ontario, just west of Toronto.

"She was certainly a bit dehydrated and thin when we got her," Karvonen said. "Luckily, at this time of the year, even in California, a skunk would likely have more fat reserves ... so that was probably fortunate for her."

While airlines usually agree to return such "accidental travellers" for free, Karvonen said the response has not been positive in this particular case.

Frankly, she's not surprised.

"I wouldn't want to fly on a plane with a skunk either," she said. "She's not necessarily going to spray, but I'm sure a skunk has never experienced takeoff and landing and those are pretty startling things, and that's usually when they spray."

Skunks can blast their sulphurous spray as far as 3 metres (10 feet) from two anal scent glands, leaving victims with stinging eyes and gasping for air.

Ground transport is the most likely way to get the skunk home, so the Wildlife Centre is looking either for a private driver travelling to California or a willing trucking company with the Pacific Coast state on its route.

"At least if you're in a car, you can stop and roll down the windows," Karvonen said. "If you're on a plane for five hours, you don't have a lot of options there."

She added that, despite the problem of finding transport, putting the animal down was out of the question.

"It is a perfectly healthy animal who's just gotten away from its home territory. Certainly, to euthanise it just because she doesn't have a ride home is not a nice option for us."

Those with an idea on how to get the animal home can contact the Toronto Wildlife Centre at 1-416-631-0662.

Copyright © 2007 Reuters Limited.

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