Dec. 2, 2008 at 1:32 PM ET
eBay.com users are complaining that a holiday contest offered by the auction Web site has been overrun by Scrooge-like computer hackers, and that eBay’s poor design for the contest is to blame.
As part of its "Holiday Doorbusters" promotion, eBay is giving away about 1,000 items -- everything from jet skis to iPods to a Corvette -- for $1. The first buyer to find and bid $1 on the specially-marked items wins. But users say the contest has been overrun by "cheaters" who are implementing automated scripts to game the contest, winning hundreds of auctions before the items are even available to the public.
As evidence, the disgruntled point to a number of closed auctions where the visitor counter shows “0000,” meaning no Web users visited the item’s page before it was won. On Saturday, for example, a "Green Life" brand electric scooter worth $1,000 was won by a bidder before anyone visited the page, according to the counter on it. The next day, a vintage Oscar de la Renta evening gown was also won with the counter reading zero.
Forums devoted to eBay users are ablaze in complaints about the contest from disappointed would-be bidders who haven’t won.
"This should have been advertised as a programming contest because those are the only people who can win," complained contestant Rich Coloyan in a note to msnbc.com. "eBay can stop this if they want to by requiring a verification screen or something, they just don't care."
The contest rules on eBay's Web site seem to suggest automation is prohibited. They say:
“Sponsor reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to cancel or suspend part or all of this Promotion at any time without notice, if in the Sponsor’s opinion there is any suspected or actual evidence of electronic or non-electronic tampering with any portion of the Promotion, or if virus, bugs, non-authorized human intervention or other causes corrupt or impair the administration, security, fairness or integrity of the Promotion.”
During a series of brief interviews, however, eBay representatives were unable to provide a clear explanation of what kind of automation is allowed and what is prohibited.
In one interview, a spokesman said the use of automated tools to find Doorbusters items as they come up for sale is not prohibited. He said the rules quoted above were designed to prohibit the creation of multiple fake eBay user accounts that could be used to gain an advantage in the contest.
But later, the spokesman – who asked not to be named – said the rules might prohibit automation of Doorbuster prize purchases.
When asked for clarification, eBay could not provide it, and instead offered only an e-mail statement from spokesman Usher Lieberman.
“We can not discuss the specifics of how we are monitoring this promotion as it speaks to how we prevent fraud across the site. Rest assured that we are doing everything in our power to ensure that all eBay users have an equal opportunity to search for and win these hot holiday items,” he said.
'eBay will not do anything'
Many eBay users don’t think the firm is doing nearly enough to make the contest fair.
“Since the beginning of this promotion I have been trying to win something, but it seems to be impossible with all the so-called fake accounts out there that have scripts and bots doing automatic bidding for them ,” said Melissa Henlsey. “This is terrible and it seems as if eBay will not do anything to prevent this from happening.”
Programmers have long used automated scripts as part of both bidding and listing items on eBay. But the widespread script application in the Doorbusters contest has frustrated many contestants who now feel they have no chance to win.
"Unfortunately, scripters have taken over and almost 100 percent of the prize auctions are 'won' with 0000 on the counter, meaning that the auction page was never even seen by mortals and the scripter stole the auction by jumping straight to a ‘buy’ with a hacking program," said eBay user Victor Ireland. "eBay has done nothing to mitigate the fraud even though it's within their means to do so."
eBay did not provide an explanation for how a contestant could win an auction without at least registering a single hit on the items auction page. Ireland suggested that programmers may have found a way to access listings before they are posted to the eBay site, but an eBay spokesman said that was impossible.
All items are listed on the site by an outside firm, New York-based Strobe Promotions, which is helping eBay administer the contest. Soon after it began on Sept. 24, programmers figured out they could gain an advantage over manual bidders and began using automated tools to search for and win the special $1 auctions. In fact, one eBay users actually posted a solicitation on the RentACoder.com Web site asking to hire a professional free-lance programmer to create such an automated tool.
Bids placed by scripting tools are now so widespread that some eBay auction sellers pulled pranks in recent days and began inserting the word "Holiday Doorbusters" into their descriptions so automated tools would be tricked into purchasing them. In one case, a member sold several $1 pictures of his pet with this warning:
"This is picture I took of my cat with my Cannon Powershot Camera after she overheard that people where using scripting to purchase HOLIDAY DOORBUSTERS items on eBay. Not responsible for poor scripting techniques."
Rosalinda Baldwin, who runs eBay watchdog group The Auction Guild, said she didn't believe that programmers who were winning auctions had done anything illegal.
"eBay made it so a decent programmer could monopolize the searches, that does not make such a programmer a scammer, just someone with the skills to take legal advantage of eBay's system," she said. "eBay is responsible for the way they set this promotion up, and it is up to them to decide if it is equitable or not, and change the code and rules accordingly."