Monday, January 02, 2006

Happy new year -- but first, a little righteous indignation

I'm looking forward to a bright and exciting 2006, but first I need to get a little something from 2005 off my chest.

As some of you are aware, in 2004 we started a new tradition: the fps charity auction. This is where I take a bunch of the animation-related goodies I get every year, and get a bunch of companies to donate animation-related goodies, put them all in a big pile, and then auction them off on eBay, with all the money going to a selected charity. I clear some shelf space, people get Christmas presents (some, I'm sure, for themselves) at a good price, and money goes to a good cause. It's my favourite kind of arrangement: one where everybody wins.

Except that this year, it was much more difficult than it had to be. Thanks to donations from 14 different organizations, I had about 100 items to auction this year on eBay.ca. I sat down on the last Friday of November and proceeded to put every item up for auction one at a time, including links from the fps website so that people could easily find our items.

It took about six hours, all told -- maybe more. And then, right after I entered the last item, I get a message from eBay in my e-mail inbox: they were pulling a bunch of the listings offline because I'd violated their policy for fundraising auctions.

This was kind of fair; in the wake of 2004's tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, a lot more people were donating to charities, and there were plenty of scam artists waiting to take advantage of them. Sometime between the first and second charity auctions, eBay.ca had added some new requirements that I was unaware of -- specifically, a scanned, signed letter from the benefitting charity (this year it was the Canadian Cancer Society) saying that everything was legit.

Fair enough, but six hours of repetitive-strain-inducing work had just gone down the drain. I confirmed with eBay: when they pull the listings, they are deleted and unrecoverable. So much for benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, people who had already started to bid on listed items and people who followed links from the fps site were treated to a message that said the listing had been pulled for violating their rules. Technically true, but it made us look bad to the person who'd never heard of fps or the charity auction before. Then, of course, we had to go to the different companies who had donated items -- many of whom had never donated for our auction before -- and explain what had happened. That was a nice little hit to our credibility.

We postponed the auction for a week so that my request to the Canadian Cancer Society for a letter could work its way up whatever channels it had to. In the meantime, I went back and forth with eBay's customer support (a process made all the more aggravating because a different person responded to each e-mail) to clarify the rules so that this wouldn't happen a second time. My first question: could I include just a link to the scanned letter (which would be hosted on fpsmagazine.com) rather than an image of the scan itself? I didn't want the screen to be so cluttered it would turn potential buyers off. No problem, I was told. Second question, related to the first: eBay.ca's rules for charity auctions aren't 100% in sync with eBay.com's rules. Even though I'm listing on eBay.ca, the listing will go out over the entire family of eBay sites. Will this cause a problem? No, I was told -- so long as I comply the rules of the site where I'm posting, I'm okay.

The alarm bells went off when they rep added this little note:
Also, please be informed that it is not a guarantee that if you complied with eBay.ca policy, it will not be removed from the site. There are some information and internal guidelines that we have to take into consideration but I am not into position to tell you for security reason.
Um... what?!? How, I asked, am I supposed to comply with rules that I don't know exist? (Curiously, this was the only question I asked to which I never received an answer.)

So we started the auction a week later than originally planned, bumping into the Christmas season (bad for shipping to winning bidders, who are also slower to pay because of holiday distractions) and interfering with the production schedule of fps #6, among other things. Things went along smoothly, with me nervously checking the listings every day, expecting them to be pulled arbitrarily.

I only had to wait three days. Three items were yanked for violating their policies. I immediately relisted the items and fired off an e-mail, asking what rules I had broken. The answer:
The scan of the letter from the Red Cross must be included directly in the listing as an image. Linking to it is unfortunately not permitted.

All Charity auctions that are not listed with MissionFish (a partnered group of eBay) are subjected to the following: [etc.]
So, three things: (1) Red Cross? The letter and the listing clearly stated the charity was the Canadian Cancer Society. (2) I had already confirmed that linking to the letter was okay. (3) MissionFish? That's part of eBay.com's policy, not eBay.ca's.

I pointed these things out, including a copy of the initial e-mail exchange corroborating my claim. The response:
We have reviewed your listings and found that they were removed correctly. If you are only posting within Canada, then, the link to your letter of authorization that is hosted by a third party is allowed. However, since your items are also available in the US, they have more strict policy with regard to charity listings. You may need to have the authorization letter scanned and put as a part of your item description when you post to the US.
Of course, I'd already anticipated and asked about that, and been told that it wasn't a problem. Meanwhile, some more of my listings had been pulled.

In the end, most of my listings went through unscathed, though the last 24 hours were pretty nerve-wracking. We raised about $1500, about $200 of which goes to eBay and PayPal fees.

But the whole process was made much too difficult by eBay's unforgiving policies and inconsistent explanations and enforcement, which also contributed to stress, damage to our reputation, loss of work hours and a serious impact on my schedule. I hope eBay enjoys the $200 they made off of us this year -- if I can find a reliable alternate route for the 2006 auction, they won't be getting any more business from fps.

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