Here is a must-watch MSNBC interview with Blakely Smith, a bride who was duped while buying a wedding dress during her first eBay shopping experience. 

Her attacker convinced her to use Western Union due to “a security breach at Paypal”.  In a bizarre twist, Ebay's PR spokesman took this as license to say that Smith “let her greed get the best of her” in falling for the scam. “What she did is the online equivalent of walking out of a store and buying something in a back alley.”

Watching the MSNBC interview with the very likeable and reasonable Ms. Smith, it's hard to believe that eBay has really adopted this PR strategy.  I don't auction, so I have no first-hand experience with which to judge the situation, but I came away from this convinced that Blakely Smith deserves better technology.  If we don't come up with it, sales of wedding dresses on the Internet are going to falter.

Here is the story as told by the South Bend Tribune:

PHILADELPHIA — Blakely Smith dreamed of getting married in a Monique Lhuillier wedding gown — the kind she'd always loved when she saw them on pop stars such as Pink in People magazine. She's out $2,400 to an eBay scammer and thinks maybe she should be married in a courthouse.

She called to tell her tale of wedding-dress-lust, clouded judgment, and wedding-dream-lost. Yes, it's a bit embarrassing. But she hopes to help others avoid the pain she feels.

EBay says Smith made at least two textbook mistakes en route to being scammed. What may make her case most remarkable, though, is how it ended — in a bizarre e-mail exchange with her anonymous scammer.

It came after Smith had paid her money and got nothing back. She e-mailed “Kate,” the supposed seller, told of a coworker's eBay horror story, and outlined why she was was suspicious. “I am sorry to be this way, but in today's world, it is not totally off base to be wary,” she said.

To which “Kate” replied:

“That's true, indeed. I just scammed you, sorry for that, it's nothing personal. … It's what I do, and it pays well.”

How did Smith get into this mess? The way any confidence-game victim does — by letting an overabundance of trust overwhelm ordinary caution.

Smith, 29, works in advertising at Philadelphia Style magazine. Her fiancé, Michael Minton, teaches high school science. She turned to eBay because, dreams or not, a new Monique Lhuillier gown was out of reach.

She was the top bidder for the gown, which sold new for $5,500 and features Alencon lace, “decadent silk chartreuse lining.” But she fell short of the reserve, the seller's hidden minimum price.

She couldn't tell how short. Neither, presumably, could the scammer. But the fake “Kate” knew when to pounce.

Soon after the auction closed, Smith got a message via her eBay account. The seller had decided to accept her final bid, it said, and directed her to reply to an outside e-mail address.

Looking back, Smith realizes that was a red flag — one that was even warned against in a “Marketplace Safety Tip” on the same screen: “If you receive a response inviting you to transact outside of eBay, you should decline — such transactions may be unsafe and are against eBay policy.”

Another red flag was the wire-transfer “Kate” requested, saying her account on PayPal, eBay's own payment system, had been frozen because of — what else? — a scammer's intrusion.

But Smith, new to eBay, didn't notice either warning until the deed was done. Last week, after a brief e-mail exchange with “Kate,” she sent her money — more than $2,400, including fees — to a Western Union office in Mount Clemens, Mich.

Police there are investigating and may catch the scammer or a confederate. But there are broader lessons in Smith's story for anyone new to eBay.

One is that eBay says it can only warn against scams, not prevent them. “Ultimately, this is between the buyer and seller. This is just a venue,” spokesman Hani Durzy told me.

Don't expect much sympathy, either. Durzy even suggested that Smith “let her greed get the best of her” in falling for the scam. “What she did is the online equivalent of walking out of a store and buying something in a back alley,” he says.

For that matter, eBay doesn't even count such “back alley” crimes as frauds when it boasts that only a small fraction of total listings — just one-hundredth of 1 percent — “lead to a confirmed case of fraud.”

Sure, it's a small fraction. But eBay reported 1.9 billion listings in 2005, so it translates into 190,000 confirmed frauds in one year. (To report an online scam, go to www.ic3.gov/complaint.)

Smith is understandably angered by the suggestion she fell victim to her own greed. She turned to eBay for a used wedding dress, and lost eight months of savings. The truth is, eBay can be a risky place for newbies.

Don't take my word. Consider how “Kate” put it when I e-mailed her at the address the scammer gave Smith: “It's like the food chain, you know — I was the predator, she was the prey.”

A chilling reminder of an online truism: On the Internet, anybody might be a shark.

Published by

Kim Cameron

Work on identity.


  1. I sympathize with the girl, but I can completely understand eBay's view. eBay provides assurance to people who use Ebay's service to pay for goods. This girl did not, in the end, use the service, why would she receive the time of day from eBay? She participated in an auction that was not successful – then she stepped outside of the reputation system and away from the ceremony at hand, and in doing so she lost any protection that she had.

    What I like about infocard is that it provides users with more reasons/opportunities for users to become suspicious. That is what eBay needs to do too. Still – the user needs to take responsibility for her actions too. She sent a wire transfer for thousands of dollars to a stranger with no guarantee of anything in return. Not the brightest move, regardless of any technology involved.


  2. At least she got the dress in the end which is more than the 189,999 other victims of fraud can say.

    This is a confidence fraud though and not really a technology problem. Whilst technology can help, the issue is really in changing the mindset of the consumer. When RSS and blogging first emerged, bloggers viewed the web as a place where traditional thinking does not apply, revealing their most intimate details openly. I say “did” but this still goes on (MySpace etc.).

    Overtime people learn (as in Blakely's case) that the internet is just as dangerous if not more so as the real world and you should be even more careful than normal.

    I don't know how to fix this problem but perhaps publicising stories such as Blakely's is a first step. In my day we learned Civics and Econonmics, perhaps in the future there should be an “online awareness” course incorporated into middle and high school curricula?

    If you haven't seen it, “House of Cards” is one of of all-time fav movies which deals with the art of the confidence fraud in great detail.

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