eBay Rules Survival Guide

Keeping yourself on the right side of the eBay law

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An unexpected suspension for breaking the rules is one of the most shocking—and most common—things that can happen to new eBay buyers or sellers. Despite the common misbelief that eBay is a rules-free “wild, wild west” kind of trading environment, eBay is in fact governed by dozens upon dozens of well-enforced rules and policies.

While it's not feasible to make a complete and easy-to-read list of all of them, it is possible to provide a workable summary that can help buyers and sellers to avoid trouble from the outset.

eBay's rules are primarily a matter of common sense and prudence. Keep some basic ideas in mind and you'll go a long way toward avoiding eBay rules violations without having to memorize each and every rule.

General Rules for Sellers

If you're a seller, you're particularly vulnerable to unexpected suspension if you violate eBay's rules. eBay works hard to create an environment in which buyers feel safe buying, because once eBay loses buyers' trust, the business model collapses. Keep these general rules in mind as a seller; they cover most of the more specific rules that apply to sellers on eBay:

  • Don't violate your contract. An auction transaction is a contract on eBay between you and your bidder(s). Once you post a listing, you should think of it as a legal responsibility to sell the item at the auction's closing price and to deliver it in the condition advertised to the winning bidder. Any other action is generally a violation of rules—not just eBay's rules, but the law as well.
     
  • Don't sell anything that is restricted outside of eBay. Any sort of item that is restricted or heavily regulated when sold outside of eBay is generally equally restricted or regulated on eBay. Items that are dangerous, that cannot be sold to minors, that cannot be moved across state or national borders, or that infringe upon copyrights or the rights of other legal parties all fall under this rule. If you couldn't sell it in both a retail store and by mail order from the back of a newspaper or magazine, you should assume that you can't sell it on eBay.
     
  • Don't sell to yourself or bid on your own auctions. Bidding on your own auctions or buying and selling to yourself or your own family or company in any way is strictly forbidden on eBay and if you attempt to do this, you will get caught. eBay restricts this kind of behavior precisely because of the kinds of advantages it gives—bidding on your own auctions allows you to essentially charge buyers more than the market price for an item, and leaving feedback for yourself after buying from yourself allows you to earn a feedback profile that doesn't reflect your ability to deliver products to real buyers. Both undermine trust in eBay and are strictly forbidden.
     
  • Don't commit a crime of any kind. If it's illegal in society at large, it is also against the rules on eBay. Most commonly, this applies to things like making threats against or harassing those with whom you do business, publishing personal information or accusations about them online in any form or place, or re-selling information about them without their consent.
     
  • Don't try to minimize your eBay fees. Whether you do this by charging very high shipping prices while heavily discounting items or by canceling auctions at the last moment and selling to buyers directly, eBay takes a dim view of sellers that attempt to minimize or avoid having to pay eBay selling fees. Such practices will indeed get you suspended.
     
  • Don't use eBay purely to drum up non-eBay online business. Get to know eBay's links in listings policy. You're allowed to promote your retail store in your listings by doing things like posting your store's phone number and address. You're not allowed to use eBay listings to direct customers to any online page that provides more than simple item information. It makes sense—why would eBay permit its users to use it as an advertisement for competitors? eBay expects eBay sellers to sell on eBay, not to use eBay to sell on another site where they don't have to pay eBay fees. Don't use eBay listings as direct advertisements or links to your non-eBay e-store.
     
  • Maintain good customer service. Many new sellers are surprised to find that they can be suspended for not having provided accurate contact information in their buyer-accessible profiles, or for getting too much negative feedback. It can happen and it does happen. As an eBay seller, you are expected to maintain good customer service practices, including having a valid email address and phone number on file and keeping your seller performance up. Fail and you won't be allowed to sell on eBay any longer.
     
  • Pay your bills. This last one seems almost silly, but there is an entire department inside eBay dedicated to handling seller account billing “situations.” When you sell on eBay, you agree to pay fees for your auction listings. This is eBay's income as a company; failing to pay eBay is like failing to pay any company with which you do business. eBay does not hesitate to suspend sellers whose accounts are past due.

Don't think general rules are for sellers only—buyers need to keep some basic rules in mind as well, too. Read on to find out what they are.

In the same way that some sellers seem to imagine that as sellers they should untouchable, that it's up to the buyer to “buy carefully” and avoid scams, some buyers seem to have the opposite misbelief—that all responsibility for good behavior is up to sellers, since they're the ones “making the money.”

Not so. As an eBay buyer, you are also bound by strict rules that help to keep eBay a nice place to do business for all involved.

  • Don't violate your contract. Remember, a contract is between two parties. In the same way that a seller is bound by the terms of an auction listing, such a listing is also a contract listing your responsibilities as a buyer to your sellers(s). Once you bid on a listing—not once you win it, but once you bid on it—it is your legal responsibility to ensure that you have funds available to pay for the item should you win it, that you are legally able to receive it, and that you will follow through if you do ultimately win the item by actually sending remittance in a reasonable time frame.
     
  • Don't bid if you can't hold up your end of the bargain. This is closely related to the first general rule above, but a little more specific. Each auction listing spells out terms that the seller has established. These are the terms of a contract. It is against the rules to bid if you know from the beginning that you are unable to fulfill the contract. For example, if you live in the United States, it is against the rules for you to bid on an auction in which the seller says that they are willing to ship only within Germany. Similarly, if you do not have a credit card, it is against the rules for you to bid on an auction for which the seller only accepts credit cards as payment. It is up to you to read and understand the terms in the auction listing before you bid.
     
  • Don't retract bids. eBay provides bid retraction functionality for a very limited set of purposes involving typographical errors and direct problems in being able to communicate with a seller. Retracting bids for any other reasons, no matter how valid you feel them to be, is a violation of your contract and can cause you to be suspended.
     
  • Don't commit a crime of any kind. Once again, if it's illegal in society at large, it is also against the rules on eBay. Some frustrated buyers believe that it is totally fair for them to “put a seller out of business” by bidding on every one of their auctions with no intention of paying for any of them, effectively ending their ability to sell. Don't do this—not only does such behavior represent multiple contract violations (one for each bid), it also constitutes harassment and disorderly conduct, amongst other things, and may be referred to the police in addition to leading to suspension. As was the case for sellers, for buyers this rule also applies to things like making threats against or harassing those with whom you do business, publishing personal information or accusations about them online in any form or place, or re-selling information about them without their consent—no matter what the reason or motivation.

Use Your Common Sense

In reality, it's fairly easy to judge what might be against the rules at eBay simply by using your common sense. All of these are likely to be illegal and against eBay rules as well, for both buyers and sellers:

  • Trying purposefully to inconvenience or harm someone in any way (including financially)
  • Using “the system” in to gain a trading advantage that others don't have
  • Trying to mislead or take advantage of your trading partner in any way
  • Doing anything that is against the law outside of eBay
  • Gaining at someone else's expense without their permission
  • Harming or shortchanging eBay directly (for example, by referring traders to business outside of eBay, or by failing to pay your selling fees)

Keep these general rules in mind at all times while trading on eBay and remember to ask yourself at every moment whether you'd be proud of your trading practices if your parents, your children, and/or other members of your community were to find out about them. Keep your hands clean and you'll stay in good stead on eBay for a long time to come—without having to carry around a detailed rulebook.