Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sitting on the Dock of the 'Bay

In the writing of Franz Kafka, particularly The Trial (Der Process) and more so The Castle (Das Schloss), we find works which have been described, accurately I would say, as dark and at times surreal. The focus is largely on individual alienation, incomprehensible and oppressive bureaucracy, the seemingly endless frustrations of man's attempts to stand against the system, and the futile and hopeless pursuit of an unobtainable goal. The term 'kafkaesque' has since come into our language to mean something which is characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities in Kafka's work. If the current geopolitical scene isn't depressing enough for you these days, I suggest a wade through The Trail at least.

Franz:


Recently I have been through a process with Ebay which is probably most accurately described as kafkaesque. I entered a maze which seemed like it would be straightforward enough at first, but then turned in a different direction.

A little background: I joined Ebay in 1999, and have completed hundreds of transactions there, both as buyer and seller. I have a 100% feedback rating, and am 'Above Average' as a seller, whatever that means. The Feedback system was initially something I found attractive about Ebay, that buyers and sellers would be generally seeking to preserve their good reputations and that unscrupulous sellers and deadbeat buyers would be exposed though the folly of their actions. Sounds good in theory, as they say.

That system seemed to work pretty well, however around February of 2008 Ebay changed their policy regarding Feedbacks. In a bid to clamp down on the practice of tit-for-tat feedback, eBay began preventing sellers from leaving negative feedback on buyers. While some measures were also added to the benefit of seller, in general this move was one which I would tend to characterize as pro-buyer rather than pro-seller. Why I have come to believe that I'll get to soon enough.

Over the years, I've have made several hundred transactions -a minor league seller by most standards on Ebay - and 99% of these transactions have gone smoothly. In recent years I have listed for sale various essays and monographs from The Art of Japanese Carpentry Drawing (TAJCD) series on Ebay. There, I mark the prices of each essay up several dollars in order to cover Ebay's listing and selling fees. Direct mention is made in my sales listings, and in a follow up message I send after a sale: buyers can save money if they contact me directly to purchase. Most buyers of my TAJCD material have been direct, through this blog, however there is the odd sale happening on Ebay once in a while.

The essays themselves are described in the Ebay listings as "... in .pdf format" - those words in bold and a larger font size for emphasis - and since they are in .pdf format, shipping is  of course free. Thus I am quite willing to sell this material worldwide and that indeed is how my listings are set up. There have been past sales of TAJCD material to most places on the globe, save for Africa.

Nowhere in my Ebay listing is it suggested that I am selling a book, either in softcover or hardcover, and nowhere in the ad is a physical book pictured, as you see with most any sales listing of an actual physical book for sale. Most buyers well understand that I am selling .pdfs, however once in while someone misunderstands, or doesn't read the listing in adequate detail, and thinks that they are buying a physical object.

I would like to offer hardcover editions at some point, but it remains a costly proposition given the modest scale of the print run and large format book size required/desired.

I had a buyer  on Ebay recently who thought he was buying books, and when they didn't arrive in his mailbox asked my why, and I told him they had already been sent to him via email, and that I had emailed him on the day of the sale and told him about the transmittal of the download links. I told him that there were no physical books on offer and such is clearly stated in my ad(s). Unfortunately, he then got somewhat belligerent about it, demanding a refund and doing some grunting and saber-rattling. Yawn. He hadn't downloaded anything, so I gave him the refund after cancelling the download links which had been sent previously. The less time I spend dealing with people like that in my life, the better.

I have had a couple of buyers in the past who thought they were purchasing physical books and when nothing showed up in their mailbox after a while - in some cases a month, in other cases many months - they have filed a claim against my seller's account with Ebay.

Note that when one looks to file such a claim on Ebay, the first thing the site tells you is to make contact with the seller and see if you can resolve whatever conflict there is on hand. Reasonable enough, isn't it? For some reason, some folks don't do that step, and go right to the 'nuclear option' and file a claim against me. That's an interesting thing in and of itself.

When I have sold an item and shipped it, I send an email to the buyer, on the 'My Ebay' messaging system, thanking them for the purchase and letting them know that the essay has been sent to the email associated to their Paypal account by way of 'Transfer Big Files', which is a large file transfer service that I employ. Then I leave the buyer feedback on Ebay, and, at some point later, the file service sends me a notification by email when the download has taken place. Transaction complete, smooth and easy.

When an essay is purchased and sent out, the message sent to the buyer on Ebay, and I see that the file service download notification does not come, I have learned to take notice. While there have been TAJCD buyers in the past who have purchased an essay set and then only downloaded some of the material, for whatever reason, the person who purchases several essays and then downloads nothing is a signal to me that something is amiss in the transaction. I have learned to send a follow up email to check in with them. In some cases buyers have signed up to Paypal with an email address which they no longer use, or have closed out, and they don't receive the download links. A situation readily resolved with an email.

A couple of years back I had a buyer from Quebec who purchased the essays, then downloaded the links, asked me when he was going to get the books, and hearing that no books exist then filed a claim with Ebay. That situation was solved relatively quickly. I phoned up Ebay customer service and explained the situation, and the agent I dealt sorted it out right away, denying the buyers claim against me. Just took one phone call, and the agent both grasped the situation and was able to take immediate action on the matter. This set an expectation on my part I guess as to how quickly such a situation could be resolved.

In March of this year I sat down to check my email in the morning and saw that 5 essays had been sold to a fellow in Spain - I'll call him Luis. Paypal for the 5 essays had been received and I immediately sent the file links to the buyer, along with a note to him in 'My Messages' on Ebay. Then nothing happened. No downloads and no response on Ebay to my message either. Hmm....

I sent a follow up email the the buyer's address associated to their Paypal account, to no response again.

Nearly 2 months pass. On May 11th of this year I sat down to check my email in the morning and saw that Luis had filed claims against me for the 5 TAJCD essays, along with a note asking when he will receive the essays.

Okay. When a claim is filed against a seller on Ebay, something happens concurrently: Ebay makes a claim for the full amount against your Paypal. If you had $100 in your account, say, and there was a claim against you for $150, then you would find your Paypal account $50 in the red. Essentially the seller is presumed guilty and then has to prove his innocence in order to recover the money seized by Ebay on their Paypal account. Then a process unfolds, shall we say, as the claim is processed by Ebay. A month is allotted for this process.

In the past, the few times I have had to deal with a claim against my seller account, I was able to enter evidence into the proceedings by uploading attachments to the case, such a screen shots from the 'Transfer Big Files' site, shipping receipts, and relevant emails. Now though, that function is gone from Ebay's 'Resolution Center' (and I use that term loosely). You can't upload or email anything, not to the case itself or to an agent at Ebay. This effectively eliminates the entry of useful evidence into a claim where there are two parties at odds. Why they do that now is anybody's guess.

In this case I awoke to find both the 5 claims files as well as my Paypal account $170 or so in the red. I was not what you would call stoked. I clicked on the link to the first claim, for the Volume I essay, and the next page I was taken to was in... Spanish. The buyer, who has a feedback of '0' on Ebay - he just joined recently I guess - had evidently filed his claim with Spanish Ebay.

I can't read Spanish however, and the translation Google provides is hardly perfect. Nevertheless I worked my way along the pages, as they were decipherable, and filed my response to the buyer, letting him know that the download links had been sent to him shortly after purchase and that they went to the email associated to his Paypal account. I would much prefer to let him know in my response which email it was sent, typing it out explicitly, however Ebay won't let you enter email addresses into your Messages. They are trying to prevent buyers and sellers for making purchase arrangements outside the purview of Ebay, and that makes sense they would want to do that, but in certain cases this blocking of email addresses can thwart effective communication.

After I filed my response to the first case, I decided to call Ebay customer service to see if the situation couldn't be resolved immediately, as it had in the past.

I call the general number, and of course one starts off with the robot. A few button pushes later, and insistent calls for 'agent!', and I get to talk to my first customer service representative. This person spoke in an accent and used certain expressions which suggested to me that English was not their native tongue. A plowed onward. I explained to the agent the situation: that the buyer apparently did not read my ads in detail and has thought he bought books not .pdfs, and has filed a claim against my account despite my efforts to be communicative with them previously. This first agent can only handle things so far however. Eventually I get bumped up to the supervisor on the floor. They tell me that Ebay Spain controls the claims in this case and that I will have to wait until the wheels turn there. I am also told that I do not need to file a reply for each of the 5 essays, as they are all pretty much the same thing and that the reply I made on Volume I would be fine.  Okay, I said I would sit tight and see what happened. Total elapsed time for that phone call was nearly 1 hour.

About 10 days later a reply finally came from the buyer on 'my Messages':
Dear Chris;
I don´t know exactly why I have to download linkks for the 5 essays. You said it is in my email address but I can´t fibd it, nor in the spam. What I need to know is when are the five essays going to arrive . I paid for the five books last 29th March and I haven´t received any.
I would be very grateful if you make clear what the problem is .
Looking forward for your response.
Okay! This looked like something resolvable. Obviously the buyer was thinking he had purchased physical books, as I suspected. I wrote back to him in 'My' Messages" and clarified the situation further.

The next day, May 23rd, came the reply:
Good evening,Certainly there was a misunderstanding and I am a little bit disappointed.Anyway I want to inform you that in my e-mail address I only have the pdf file for volume V and I have already downloaded this one. Please, If you could send me the other ones I would be very grateful.
Looking forward to your response.
To which I replied:

No problem. I see you downloaded Volume V, and will re-send the links to the other Volumes you purchased in a moment. You will receive one download link per essay. I ask you to stop the claim against my account, as it has frozen my Paypal and this is inconvenient for me.

I resent him the 4 download links he was apparently missing, and on May 24th, he sent me another message:
Everything is ok now. Thank you.
I already knew that he had downloaded the essays, so it seemed like the whole hassle was about to be over. How wrong I was - everything was not okay.

On May 25th, the very next day, I received the following message from Ebay Spain:


Well, I guess Luis had simply gone on his merry way and had not closed the claim from his end. Nice. I do not presume he was malicious, more I presume he doesn't understand how Ebay works and doesn't use Ebay much.

It was strange to me though that the 'deciders' there at Ebay Spain had refunded the buyer for one of the essays, when all 5 essays are pretty much the same sorta thing, and all were purchased on the same day. Why refund just the one?

Anyway, I was irked but confident that this could all be cleared up with another phone call to Ebay, especially given that there was a trail of communication in 'My Messages' showing the buyer had accepted that he would receive the downloads and had gone ahead and downloaded and seemed happy with the resolution.

This time I escalate through the same levels at Ebay customer service: robot, customer service rep., customer service rep. supervisor, and then, up yet another tier to 'appeals'. Yes! The 4th stage is reached!

After I explained the situation in detail to each of humans involved, I was faced with explaining it all again to the person in the 'appeals' department. The story in itself was becoming a heavy weight to lift. Eventually, the appeals agent told me that because these cases were being handled by Ebay Spain, it was Ebay Spain that needed to be contacted. The appeals agent told me that they would send an email to Ebay Spain, and that i would be hearing back from Ebay Spain in another day or three. Total elapsed time of that call: 1 hour and 20 minutes.

On May 27th I hear from Ebay Spain at last:

Thank you for contacting us about case ******1534 for the following item:
332026225082 - Japanese Carpentry Drawing, Volume V (PDF)

We've reviewed your concerns and have reversed the outcome of the case. You don't need to take any additional action to reimburse eBay for the refund paid to the buyer, and eBay will make no further attempts to seek reimbursement from you.
Okay, progress. But what about the other 4 essays and the claims against them?  I checked the Paypal account and the money for the Volume V essay had indeed been returned to me.

The next day, seeing nothing had changed, I phone up Ebay again, passing once again to the vaunted 4th level, and appeals agent (a different one than the time before of course). Again, I was told that Ebay USA couldn't do anything about the claims filed from Ebay Spain, but would send them an email. Total elapsed time on the phone: 1 hour and 15 minutes.

On May 31st I receive a lengthy email from Ebay Spain:

Greetings Chris,

My name is Luzciana, from eBay’s Guarantee Program, and I contact you for the 5 transactions that you have completed with the buyer: "krinkncrank".

Chis, after reviewing the 5 claims I inform you the following:

1. Item: 330572399076
Case: ******1222
Note: I have closed the claim and eBay not take action. You should expect the funds associated with this transaction to be released in the following 14 days.

2. Item: 332026225082
Case: ******1534
Note: This case was closed by mistake on our part, in buyer’s favor. Therefore, on the appeal for this case, we have granted the decision in your favor, and you should receive the refund for the original amount within the following 10 days of the case decision (approximately June 7, 2017).

Regarding the 3 remaining cases (******1412, ******1630, ******1734), there is a decision buyer’s favor, and we have not deducted the amount of your paypal account yet, nor have we collected it on the invoice. In these cases I’ll ask you that you wait until June 7, 2017 and check your eBay’s invoice and your paypal account, if in either of the two we have done the collection or discount, you must notify us immediately, so please reply to this email if this situation happens, so we can offer you a solution for this 3 cases.

For now I recommend to follow my recommendations and wait at least, until June 7, 2017.
Well, now I was even more baffled. So, now they were saying that the decision on Volume 5 had been a mistake on their part, and that they had now decided in the case of one of the other essays to close the claim. Why that essay? And why is the refund on 'case 1' going to take 14 days, as they seem to be able to put a hold on my Paypal lickety-split? And again, why are they assessing each of the 5 claims as if they are fundamentally different from one another in some way? It made no sense.

They asked me to wait until June 7th, which I did. Nothing changed, the day came and went. Still in the red in my Paypal, no refund as promised, and the three remaining claims were still open. I tried emailing Ebay Spain using the address they sent the emails with, however these were undeliverable. There was no way to communicate with Ebay Spain directly

Time to call Ebay again. Same deal as the time before, more emails to Spain - and even a phone connection to Ebay Spain where I learned they had limited ability to understand English, but said they would email a response soon.  Total elapsed time for that call was 1 hour and 25 minutes.

On June 11th I at last hear back from Ebay Spain:

Hello Chris,


I am Gabriel D. Team eBay customer, first, I want to wish you a good day and thank you for belonging to our community on eBay.

I am contacting you regarding the appeal request for cases # ******1412 , ******1734 , ******1630 .

This is to inform you that thanks to the information you provided have been able to verify the case and I am pleased to inform you that it has approved the appeal of the case, so you'll see in the next few hours the updated your account information.

I congratulate you on your excellent management as a seller and I apologize for any inconvenience caused.

I hope you have a very good and happy day we wish you well on eBay in the future.
At last, it's over!

Or was it?

I check my Ebay account and saw that the claims are all gone from my seller account. In fact, all claims from all time are now gone from my account, like it was wiped clean. Weird. Then I checked Paypal, and to my considerable chagrin, saw my account was still in the red. The money was still held.

I thought I'd wait another few days in case it took a while for these things to process.

A few days later, and my Paypal account remained in the red. Checking into it further, I have to employ various sleights of hand on my Paypal account just to be able to see the correct history page where the description of the hold is listed. You won't find such things without a struggle, let me assure you.

Mousing over the details on the hold, it states that Paypal has placed a temporary hold on the funds.

What?!

Time to call Paypal. With Paypal, I had to wait an hour and 15 minutes just to get a customer service agent on the line. When I finally did talk to a human, and explained the whole story, I get bumped up to the supervisor. That supervisor told me that the hold is there because Ebay hasn't transmitted the message to Paypal that the claims have been reversed and that the hold is off the funds. It's Ebay's problem it seems.

Then this person tells me that the situation can be resolved with a three-way call between me, Paypal and Ebay. Ooh, that sounded positively enticing! (sarcasm). I was told however that this call had to be originated from Ebay's end, not Paypal. The supervisor then transferred me over to the Ebay phone system.

Oh my god, nooooooo.......

After passing through the 4 tiers of agents once more, re-explaining my story again and again, I am then told that a 3-way call can be made between me, Ebay, and Paypal, but that the call had to originate from Paypal.

(this is where the term 'kafkaesque' came more sharply into my thoughts).

I protested and said that Paypal had just told me the opposite in a previous phone call, and that I could feel my life energy draining away in this maze of insanity. Was there some way, somehow, that this could be resolved? Were any of them open to bribes I wondered? Nope.

I had to call Paypal again.

"Hello" Paypal, "it's me again".

Did you know that one of the quotes attributed to Kafka is "One of the first signs of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die"? I was beginning to see the truth in this statement. He was perhaps onto something there. I had come to understand Ebay and Paypal, and I yes, prayers for death had entered my thoughts.

Now, in this phone call, second of the day, and falling some 2 hours after I initiated the first, I again was faced with climbing my way up through the tiers of representatives. Not by choice, but this seems the only way to get an answer or to get some things done.

Things immediately went into a bad patch when the customer service rep who took my call, after looking at my Paypal account details, concluded that Ebay had decided the claims against me(!).

Holding my temper, I managed to convince her to let me talk to her supervisor, and after yet another explanation with that agent, I was promoted to a heretofore unknown advanced level of representative. The way the phone clicked - a bit like a Mercedes car door - even suggested I was going into some sort of executive phone wing of Paypal. The fellow who picked up the phone sounded, measured, in control, and probably had polished shoes of some sort. After hearing my lengthy story, he said, well, we'll take it on faith, and we'll simply take the hold off the funds. He then said that if Ebay's automated system however still thinks their are claims outstanding, the holds could reappear in the next couple of days. I was perfectly willing to take that chance. In a few moments my Paypal account was back in the black.

Total phone time approached 4 hours for that session. So yeah, it took 8 or 9 hours altogether on the phone for me to resolve such a simple issue with Ebay and Paypal.

I transferred the funds immediately out of Paypal and into my bank account.

One of the things which annoyed me the most about the whole process, was that I as seller, had acted in good faith. I was the one with hundreds of transactions and a 100% feedback rating. That a person with no feedback rating could file a claim and it all falls on me. I am presumed guilty, the funds held and it is entirely up to me to sort it out. 9 hours of my life which I'm not getting back to resolve such a straightforward matter, one which buyer and seller had worked out mutually but which the Ebay System kept churning like a beast. I have concluded that the people at Ebay Spain's Resolution Centre don't know what they are doing. That's the least of it.

I no longer sell TAJCD essays on Ebay, and will no longer sell anything on Ebay. I'll keep my account there and might buy the odd thing from time to time, who knows? Some things are hard to find elsewhere.

I never want to go through that sort of thing again though. I'm still in recovery, growing stronger each day, scars getting fainter with each passing minute. Consider my tale one of warning.