|26 Jan 2002 @ 14:42, by Flemming Funch|
A group of eBay users were cheated out of money they supposedly paid for laptops after winning auctions, and then they spontaneously got together and started their own investigation. The police, the FBI and eBay itself seemed unwilling to help them at first, so they just did it themselves. Interesting story of spontaneous collaboration amongst people who otherwise didn't know each other.
Bad EBay experience spurs Internet manhunt
By Christine Frey Los Angeles Times Published January 24, 2002
The posse dogging an online auction seller seized control of his e-mail account, grilled his mother and even assumed his identity in a nationwide hunt for a man they believe swindled as much as $125,000 from buyers through fraudulent Internet auctions.
The members of this squad are not federal agents, police detectives or even private investigators. They are salespeople and investment advisors and registered nurses who say they were bilked online by the 35-year-old Arizona man and used the Internet to track him down.
Like a modern vigilance committee, the 50 or so people from Florida to Alaska seized the community-building power of the World Wide Web both to prompt and to preempt investigation by legitimate law enforcement agencies. Although most have never met, members of the group swapped information daily on a Web site and divided up investigative duties -- most of which also were carried out online.
Such a rapid, wide-ranging response by ordinary people would have been virtually impossible just a decade ago, before the Internet gave anyone with a cheap dial-up account instant access to e-mail and massive public databases. They are growing increasingly common, particularly in the realm of online gaming, where players gang up to mete out punishment to miscreants.
But like vigilante gangs of the American frontier, ad hoc communities seeking justice on the electronic frontier sometimes trample the very laws they seek to enforce, as their quest for justice warps into a plot for revenge.
"You just end up with might makes right," said Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.
The group seeking the seller claims that the Arizona man and his girlfriend sold 74 laptop computers on five EBay auctions. Winners of the mid-December auctions said the seller accepted payments--which ranged from $1,350 to $3,700 -- only by cashier's check or money order. Payments made through PayPal or escrow, commonly used in online auctions, were refused.
"It should have tipped us off but it didn't," said John Cobin, an investment advisor from Oxnard and the group's unofficial manager. After sending their payments and not receiving their laptops, several people grew suspicious and e-mailed the nearly 60 other winners, inviting them to join a Yahoo message group and share information on the seller.
Within a day, at least three people reported that the Postal Service tracking numbers they received were falsified.
Winners scrambled to contact the couple, but the phone number they had for the pair soon was disconnected, several people said.
One person, who lives in Arizona, drove to the Phoenix address to which the payments were directed. A man at the address said that the seller and a woman had visited recently but that they did not live there, according to a posting.
Fearing the worst, auction winners contacted officials at EBay, who said they would not accept complaints until 30 days after an auction's closing date. Local law enforcement officials in Arizona said they did not have the resources to handle the case. And the FBI told them to fill out a form and wait.
So they took matters into their own hands.
They began searching online databases for additional phone numbers and addresses. Through various online records, they obtained personal details about the seller, such as his birth date and Social Security number. One man, Joseph Chahine of Ohio, said he even called the Arizona man's mother and obtained his cell phone number.
The Times made several attempts to contact the seller and his girlfriend but was unable to reach them.
A woman who said she was the seller's mother told The Times that she did not know where her son was but that "he's checking all angles that he possibly can to get this straightened out."
"He told me, to begin with, that he had some problems with his shipper," who was sending him the laptops from Florida, she said.
The last time she spoke to her son, the woman said, he told her that he had contacted the police. Her son had received money for the computers but said he was returning some of the checks, the woman said.
He had been buying and selling items on the Internet since about last March, she said. He was not otherwise employed and had been living with her in Glendale, Ariz., until last month, when he "wasn't coming home at nights anymore."
Although she did not know where her son was staying, she said she believed he was with his girlfriend.
Shortly after the group seeking the seller formed, Cobin became its informal leader and began handing out assignments. Laurie complied Arizona ZIP Codes. Sue and Mike researched genealogical records. Pam and Hugh and Pat called the neighbors.
Soon though, squabbles broke out over the direction of the investigation. Some people wanted to hire a private investigator. Others wanted to contact the media. A few wanted the less active members to pick up the slack.
Underlying tensions eventually gave way to the fear that spies had infiltrated the group and were reporting to "the evil one." One man even posted the transcript from an online conversation he had with another auction winner who had not joined the message group, citing it as evidence of a possible mole.
Despite the confusion and paranoia, several in the group called for patience.
"Try to be a little subtle," one woman wrote, "and play the spy game."
So after exhausting basic Internet searches and online databases, some members of the group decided to probe further -- much further.
"Listen, I can get into his Yahoo mail account and his PayPal account (want an instant refund?) right now if I have his mother's maiden name, last 4 digits of his SSN," one man wrote on the site. "I could also get more info if someone could get the first 12 numbers of his Visa card."
Later postings asked members if they knew anyone -- "a jeweler or a mortgage broker or real estate agent or banker" --who could run a credit report on the seller. One message suggested that they lie to obtain his birth certificate, which, they were told, only family members can request.
"Can't you tell them that we are doing genealogical research and just want to get parental names and maiden names and DOBs???," another asked.
The group even attempted to obtain the seller's driver's license number from an Arizona transportation Web site using the personal information they already had gathered to assume his identity online. They had all the necessary details except for his eye color.
But they didn't stop there.
Four days into the manhunt, messages from the seller's e-mail account began appearing on the site. Initially some feared that he had secretly joined the unsecured message group, but one member assured them otherwise.
"We know who is sending the e-mails from jaybird's e-mail," he wrote in a posting to the site. "No need to worry and it is taken care of!!!!! You will still receive them periodically ... just read, laugh and ignore them."
Someone in the group gained control of the e-mail account, Cobin said. He would not say if he knew who broke into the account except that "We've got a lot of tech-savvy people on this list."
The legal angle
Although law enforcement officials can gather massive amounts of information on individuals, average citizens -- and even licensed private investigators --are limited in what they can obtain legally, said Lee Curtis, president of the High Technology Crime Investigation Assn. and managing director of high-tech investigations for Kroll Inc., a risk consulting company.
Private investigators, for example, cannot go undercover and assume an alternative identity to gather information on an individual. Pretending to be a member of someone's family or the individual himself is illegal, Curtis said.
Despite their sophisticated databases, private investigators are also restricted from collecting certain types of information. They cannot pull credit reports or break into someone's e-mail account, for instance.
"As long as it stays in the realm of public information, no problem," Curtis said. "But if you generate a ruse, then you're crossing the line."
Attempting to obtain information about an individual that isn't publicly available could be "considered criminal activity [on] its own," said Pati Urias, a spokeswoman for the Arizona attorney general's office. The best course of action for individuals who claim to be victims of crime is to file a complaint with law enforcement officials, she said.
"Potentially if you go too far you can get in trouble," Urias said.
This month the Arizona attorney general's office agreed to look into the case, said Laurie Pringle, a registered nurse from Penryn, Calif., who volunteered to be the group's unofficial liaison with the office. The attorney general's office, though, would neither confirm nor deny its involvement.
EBay, which has received "a number of complaints" about the five laptop auctions, also was reviewing the case, said spokesman Kevin Pursglove. EBay suspended the seller from the site as well. Pursglove would not disclose the reason for the suspension.
If the auctions are found to be fraudulent, winners may be reimbursed up to $200, minus a $25 deductible, through EBay's insurance program.
Though much of their own investigation has come to a halt, members of the message group are supplying law enforcement officials with the details that they have obtained on the seller.
"I think [the investigator for the attorney general] knows that some of what we've done is not quite kosher," Pringle said.
But what they've done may have worked.
Although at least five people posted messages online that their checks and money orders had been cashed, this month Pringle received a plain, business-size envelope in the mail. It bore no return address, only a Phoenix postmark.
Her cashier's check was inside.
Copyright Â© 2002, The Los Angeles Times