It's been a long time, hasn't it?

This is the first YOIS column I've posted in over a year. I've had plenty of things I could have written about in-between, but I thought this article would make a bigger impact if it had a lengthy silence preceding it. I predict some people will applaud, and others will truly despise me for this one. So let's get started, I'm eager to find out how many of each.

"Ill-Gotten Games"

This column is essentially a sequel to the "Latest Form of Fraud" article in my last. In that one I talked rather angrily about collectors interfering with auctions of rare games by making private offers to the sellers, thus depriving honest bidders of a fair chance to win. I took a strong stance against this practice, and made what I thought were convincing arguments.

And while there does seem to be a decrease in the number of cheaters who pull this off successfully (such as the Missle [sic] Defense game by Sierra), there are still plenty of them trying (as seen with a recent pair of Infocom T-shirts). I've corresponded with sellers who have admitted they got outside offers, and although they didn't take them, they still seemed reluctant to directly involve themselves by naming names. Which I suppose is understandable. They don't completely "get" our bizarre little world and thus aren't anxious to take sides. But still it's frustrating, to know this is happening but not who is responsible.

So I decided to kick things up a notch. I wanted to see the feeding frenzy that other sellers of rare items were experiencing. I wanted to find out exactly who was making private offers, and I knew in order to beat these little shits, I had to be a BIG shit. Fortunately this was an area in which I was confident I could excel. I knew someone at work who'd created an account earlier this year but had barely used it and didn't care about it anymore, so I asked if I could borrow it for my experiment and they agreed. A made-up name, address and backstory later, I was ready to sell.

I constructed a list of games, spanning a variety of titles, companies and genres, much of it rare but all of it hopefully believeable. That was the key, as I wanted people to think these were real auctions. The listings had no pictures, and were crappily-written descriptions with the titles all together in one big paragraph, very amateurish. I posted a test auction first, to "make sure" I was doing it right. I didn't offer PayPal as a payment option. I didn't even mention shipping outside the U.S., as if the very concept was (heads up, incoming pun) foreign to me. I started bidding at $10, rather than $9.99, and paid the higher tier in listing fees. Anyone looking at my auctions could tell I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. It was genius. B-)

With everything in place, I sat back to see how many other collectors were selfish and greedy enough to swallow the bait.

It didn't take long for the auctions to be noticed. Within two hours of posting I'd already received three e-mail inquiries, and the next morning I had seven more. I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised by this first wave of communications: Not one of them asked me directly to end the auction early to sell to them. The new technique, it seems, is to ask the seller to put a BuyItNow on the item, and hope the taking price is low enough to still get it at a steal. To me this is somewhat less dishonest than the old method, since the auction site is still involved in the transaction and there's still a chance that another buyer could snag it first. It still preys on the seller's lack of knowledge though, so I can't say I entirely condone it.

UPDATE (7/28/2005):

Another collector has pointed out a variation on this that I hadn't considered: Asking the seller to add the taking price to the auction at a specific time. This is every bit as much a cheat as a backdoor deal, because you're making sure you and only you know about the buy price and will be waiting to snatch it. If you're doing this (or considering it), please don't. It'll land you on the shit-list too.

The rest of the messages all came from honest collectors. A couple suggested I sell the items individually, and I could make a lot more money that way. Quite a few warned me about being cheated through private offers, and plenty of people gave their predictions on what the items might go for if I let them run. I got lots of requests for pictures, which I held off by saying I'd get them posted the following week. I responded to all of them, answering as helpfully as I could and expressing my astonishment at the interest my items were generating. Of course "Jeff Cowe" / Eyal Katz wrote me on the Sierra stuff, but even he approached it cautiously, asking for pictures first since I only had one feedback point and he wasn't sure how trustworthy I was. I guess no one knows more about scamming than a scammer, eh, Katzy?

I left the auctions and went to VGS over the weekend, and there were 23 new messages waiting when I got back. Most of them were warnings not to sell prematurely or with a BuyItNow, which made me feel a lot better, knowing I'm not standing alone against the world on this issue. Everybody else hates you assholes who pull this crap too. Yes, by this time a couple of back-door offers had trickled in. I held them off by saying I'd definitely think about it, but that I wanted to let the auction run a few more days to see if it got any more bids.

I did screw up, three times to be exact. First, I failed to notice that the co-worker had paid for his previous purchases using PayPal, which made a couple of potential bidders curious about why I wasn't using it. Second, I forgot that your real name (which I had to include for the billing info) now appears on messages sent between members, in an effort to thwart phishing scams. I know I replied to at least one forgetting to edit it, but fortunately they didn't seem to notice. And third and finally, it turns out my "irresistable" lots were maybe just a bit too collectible to seem entirely plausible. They were getting a lot of attention on SWCollect, and a few people were openly debating whether they really were legit. You guys are sharp. B-)

I let the auctions continue until the day when I'd promised I'd post pictures. At that point I cancelled them.

It took less than five minutes for the first panicked question to arrive, no joke. I had about 20 by the next morning, and SWCollect had absolutely ERUPTED with discussion.

What astonished me was that I did not receive a single private offer after the fact. Not one! I'd expected to see an absolute feeding frenzy, everybody making a grab, offering $1000, or $2000, or whatever amount they thought might be just slightly higher than everyone else's. Instead they all just wanted to know what had happened, if I was going to relist the items individually, maybe with pictures, and that they would have bid a lot if they had the chance. At least one guy threatened to report me. (Heh, good luck fella, but the auction site is pretty much powerless to do anything. Why do you think so many cheaters get away with it?)

I didn't respond to any e-mails, but the following day posted a brief message on SWCollect urging everyone there not to panic, an explanation was forthcoming, which silenced the avalanche. In fact I didn't receive a single message the entire day... Is everybody reading SWCollect now?

Below are the identities of the two collectors who tried to circumvent the auction process. I've included e-mail addresses in case anyone else wants to write and let them know what you think of their behavior. (They've already seen the column, I sent them a link to it.) Both of them are on my auction blacklist, banned from any future trading with me, and have been reported to the appropriate persons at the auction site.

Name Auction ID E-Mail
Benjamin Kirst game-hunter_de, lonely-george
(Removed) (Removed) (Removed)

To these two individuals:

You probably hate me, but you brought it on yourselves. I warned people not to do this, and you didn't listen. I may not be able to stop you, but at least now everybody knows exactly who you are. For the rest of your collecting lives, you can expect accusing e-mails from other collectors every time a rare auction ends suspiciously. What's more, every time you write to a seller asking them to sell privately, you will be left wondering to yourself: Is this auction real? Or is it YOIS or somebody else working undercover, waiting to nail your cheating ass again?

Are you pleased with yourselves? Was it worth it?

To other people who pull this crap but haven't gotten caught... yet:

No matter how sneaky you little bastards might think you are, I can be a bigger, sneakier bastard. This column is the proof. I'm imploring you one last time: Please... Knock it the hell OFF. Believe me, you don't want to see me kick it up yet another notch. I don't want to either. But you know how strongly I feel about this, and you know I'll do it if I have to.

To everyone else (the honest collectors):

Please believe me when I say my intent with this little experiment was not to create distrust among our group. That's already there, as evidenced from a few of the posts on SWCollect, and from the simple fact that people are still making behind-the-scenes offers. I wasn't suspecting anybody in particular, but I did know for a fact that someone out there was doing it. I, like many of you, wanted to know who it was.

What I'm hoping is that collectors will take it upon themselves to behave more honestly, realizing that when they deprive everyone else of a fair chance to bid, it has an impact. It has repercussions. Occasionally it even gets people so worked up they resort to doing crazy things just to prove their point. (And yes, I'm painfully aware of the irony of my own underhanded actions in trying to stop people from cheating, but it's a sacrifice I was willing to make. Greater good, yadda yadda.)

I'm sure I'll get lots of comments, so fire away and I'll post them here along with my replies. Better yet, join SWCollect and post there, so everybody has a chance to respond.

Oh, and just in case anyone is thinking of trying to retaliate by getting me banned? You should note that in this entire "confession", I never once mentioned on which auction site these events took place. B-)


UPDATE (7/28/2005):

Just when I thought this column couldn't possibly get any more explosive... it promptly blew up, right in my face.

One of the bidders wrote me, justifiably angry that I'd publicly named him as an auction cheater. And when you read the message I originally had posted, it probably looked that way to you too. However... With all the e-mails I received about the auctions, I managed to overlook this one, in which the same person originally asked to have a buyout price put on the auction. The $125 offer I later received from him was not a private one, it was a suggestion for the taking price, in response to my reply that I "wasn't sure how much to ask". But since I sent all my replies through the auction site's e-mail system, there was no quoted text from the original message to put his message in the appropriate context, so I misidentified it as a private offer.

*Sighhh*... I feel SO damn stupid right now. I screwed up, plain and simple.

I have apologized to the collector privately, and he has accepted my apology (and a free game to make amends). His name and contact info have been taken down, whereas the full details of my colossally idiotic screw-up will remain posted here for as long as YOIS exists, as permanent as my blacklist page, to show everyone that I can be every bit as harsh on myself as I can on others.

No doubt certain people will point to this as "proof" that my trick auctions were a bad idea to begin with, but I disagree. Just because I mishandled the results, this does not invalidate the entire experiment. I could have made a mistake anywhere on my site: in a sales item description, on a vault page, on my blacklist. And in fact I have posted incorrect information in all those places before. Does that mean I should never have done them as well? So I still have no regrets about the auctions. I feel it was worthwhile just to get people really talking about this issue (and I did still identify ONE wrongdoer). My only regret is my carelessness, which caused someone else unnecessary grief. But I've fully admitted my mistake, have done my best to set things right, and will make every effort not to do it again. Try finding an auction cheater who can say the same. B-)

Speaking of cheaters, I also discovered that the real one (game-hunter_de) has an alternate ID, which I have added to the blacklist. With this guy, I have double-checked all my auction mail, and I am positive that his offer was the first correspondence he sent.

All in all, this seems a fitting epilogue to this little saga. I still get to feel like I've accomplished something, while my detractors get to say "I told you so". Having to admit my mistake should keep me from getting overzealous and posting more trick auctions again unless I truly feel it's needed, and it'll guarantee I take extra careful next time. I conclude this column more determined than ever to stay the course. Backdoor bidders beware. B-)

A sampling of the e-mails and posts I've received (my own thoughts in parenthesized italics):

Interesting, so my little theory was correct after all! I didn't honestly think you were crazy enough to do it, and I can't say I totally approve of your methods, however I am glad Eyal didn't get all the games [...]

(This message seems to represent the general consensus: A number of people suspected it was a trick, I've reached a whole new order of magnitude of craziness, there are varying degrees of agreement with my methods, but at least nobody grabbed away any games.)

rofl, that was hysterical Chris! Hahah, great work! :)

(Uh-oh, this is the kind of thing that encourages me... B-)

I didn't know it was a scam--C.E., you devil, you! :)

I *did* have a feeling (but much later, after everyone started talking about it), and now it seems so obvious.

Passing the test was a piece of cake for me tho. When I saw the auctions, I was very interested in watching. I was eager to see the high bid, and then email the buyer to talk about which game in the Origin arena he was 'desiring'. But then I started reading the questions--"Will you accept a Buy It Now?"--"Will you accept a Buy It Now?"--I was shocked to see this. The real kicker was your answers! Asking what these games were worth was all it took for me to post! [...]

(One of the things that made this experiment so interesting was that I actually got to see firsthand what a clueless seller would go through. I suspect that happens a lot more often than we get to see -- most sellers probably wouldn't publicly answer people's BuyItNow requests, they'd respond privately. I seem to have panicked a number of people by doing that. A few specifically told me to hit my e-mail's reply button rather than the one inside the message. People seem to get very nervous about having everyone know what they're asking. Actually that raises another interesting point: Collectors normally love to brag about their rare finds and their lucky snipes... but you never hear anyone boasting about how they talked a seller into ending an auction early for them. Hmm, wonder why? B-)

Hehe, you're one sneaky devil :D.

Wow, that was interesting and surprising; we can probably expect just about anything from you now :). [...] As a side note though, I don't feel calling names and extra hostility towards the "wrong-doers" is necessary there (they didn't kill anyone, say); shouldn't you represent the more mature party and an example all the way :). And being black-listed is probably punishment enough.

(I refuse to ever be labelled as the "more mature party". B-) Seriously... Yeah, I probably took it a little farther than I needed to. But I truly *loathe* the practice of backdoor offers, I'd just had a major victory in my eyes... and I couldn't resist gloating a bit.)

(At least one other person has made the point that there are worse things happening in the world, but I don't feel that's a valid excuse to ignore anything smaller. I for one didn't kill anybody either, does that mean I'm completely off the hook too? B-)

evil...through and through...

(*Chaotic* evil, to be exact.)

I just wanted to say that I didn't feel you did a bad thing, its great to hear that so few people were willing to cheat.

Great article!!! This one rates up there with the April Fools column.

That you're set on a mission to uncover the "cheaters" is understandable, to a certain extent. But when the end justifies the means, then I'm led to believe, again, that some people are taking collecting way too seriously.

(You're darn right I take collecting seriously. To some of us it's more like a second job than a hobby. It's really unfortunate that there isn't any kind of authority out there willing to actually do something to put a stop to cheating -- and it is cheating, whether or not you put quoties around it. That's the sort of thing that makes frustrated people take matters into their own hands. If anyone has a better suggestion for stopping this behavior, I would very much like to hear it.)

I'll certainly be extra careful from now on dealing with people that have this kind of tricks up the sleeve... next day I may find myself on some public virtual pillory cause the shrinkwrap of some game wasn't up to expectations or something.

(Now come on. There's a big difference between accidentally describing an item incorrectly (which I've done on more than my share of occasions) and deliberately trying to make people lose their opportunity to bid.)

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