PhotoIf you have a sellers' account on eBay, be warned: even though the company's online privacy policies claim to have a “commitment to protect your personal information,” the company's actual attitude is far more cavalier.

The Consumerist blog has shared the horrifying story of an eBay seller (who chose to remain anonymous for fear that the company might retaliate by shutting down his account): “Reader A. is a full-time eBay seller, who recently listed and sold a pricey item for a relative, splitting the proceeds. Relatively early in the auction, something happened that surprised and upset A: one of the bidders requested his contact information on file from eBay, which included his phone number and the city and state where he lives. eBay automatically sent it to the bidder without consulting him. Why?”

Providing contact information

A. learned of this only after the fact, when eBay sent him an email informing him of it. Consumerist kept the details deliberately vague for fear of exposing A.'s identity, but: the item he sold was rare, valuable (final bid in the four figures), and “highly portable,” and since A., like most eBay sellers, operates out of his home, the fear that someone might want his contact information in order to find out where A. lives and rob him of that small, valuable item was not unfounded. Even if he put it in a safe deposit box for safekeeping, that wouldn't prevent a would-be burglar from paying hm a visit.

Of course, given the nature of eBay transactions, once an auction is completed, the seller and successful bidder need to have each other's contact information in order to arrange for payment and shipping. But why would eBay hand out sellers' contact information to any bidders early in an auction?

Arguably, such a policy means anybody who bothers registering for an eBay account can get this information about any seller at no cost. Suppose, for example, you see an item which you know is valuable enough to sell for at least $500. You post a deliberately low bid of $25. This is a “good-faith” bid in the sense that you actually intend to pay it if your low bid wins the auction; it's just that you know there's effectively no chance of this happening. But, presumably, once you place that low bid you can ask eBay for the seller's contact information and eBay will provide it.

When Consumerist asked eBay about the policy, eBay responded:

Typically the seller shouldn’t have anything to worry about, as we only allow members of eBay to request contact information. We allow any transaction partner (including a bidder) to request the buyer/seller’s contact information. This includes a phone number, and the address. This is for all members of the site, and something we’ve found be very helpful overall. There’s not a way to opt out of this as we expect it of everyone on the site, namely because we’re only a venue and don’t buy or sell the item directly.

(Note: that comment about only allowing members of eBay to request contact information is arguably a non-sequitur. Anybody with Internet access can register to become an eBay member; it's not as though the company requires you to pass a background check or anything first.)

Members at risk?

Has eBay ever considered the possibility that such a cavalier attitude toward members' information might put those members at risk? Apparently so, for eBay went on to say this:

Please be aware that we can’t take action on communications that happen outside the eBay system, so if you do have an issue with your trading partner’s phone call, we recommend you contact your phone company to report any harassment. If you receive calls that threaten your property or personal safety, you might also want to report the incident to your local law enforcement agency.

Perhaps I am overly suspicious, but when I read that I thought it sounded suspiciously as though eBay were saying “If we give your information to someone who proves to be dangerous, that's your problem, not ours.” So I emailed eBay's press desk to ask for clarification on this, and also posited a hypothetical: “Imagine a worst-case scenario – say, you give my full name, city, state, and phone number to a man who uses that information to figure out where I live and break into my house for reasons not in my best interest – does eBay have any policy to compensate me and/or my surviving heirs for damages?”

Ebay did not respond before this went to print, but if they get back to us later we'll let you know.

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