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Sign of the times: eBay holiday 'panhandling'

Bridget Newberry posted this eBay ad recently, hoping someone would help her buy Christmas gifts for her children.
Bridget Newberry posted this eBay ad recently, hoping someone would help her buy Christmas gifts for her children.

Not every eBay.com auction listing offers something concrete for sale.  A new kind of listing that's appeared on the Web site seems be selling only Christmas hope.

Nestled in among the Holiday-themed eBay listings for items like Razor Scooters, Transformers and Webkinz, you'll find listings that ask users to buy Christmas presents for a stranger's children.

Bridget Newberry posted this eBay ad recently, hoping someone would help her buy Christmas gifts for her children.

Perhaps it's a sign of the times, the predictable consequence of a nasty recession and the proliferation of technology. But eBay.com is now teeming with such auctions.

"Donate for holidays to family of 4 in need," said one listing viewed by msnbc.com on Wednesday, one of several dozen similar auctions easily found.

Parents who use eBay.com at Christmas are generally engaged in a frantic search for this year's Beanie Baby or Tickle Me Elmo doll, but these families say they are scrambling to give their kids anything at all this holiday season.

"Our family is in need of some help this holiday. With both parents out of work and back in school, our kids may not have a Christmas this year," writes Bridget Newberry, a 28-year-old mother of two from Lawrenceburg, Ky.  The photo on the listing shows Bridget and her husband, Alan Rice, with their two children. "I will send you a hand-written thank you note for any donation, as long as you include your address & name. Thank you and God bless you."

Another "item" for sale came from a poster who said she is a single mother of two.

"I am a single mom with a 9-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. I work part time at a gas station and I don't get much for help. I usually plan everything ahead but this year has not left me with many options. My car broke down 4 weeks ago and the repairs are quite high," she writes. The ad includes a picture of a humbly decorated Christmas tree."Please contact me if you are willing to donate a present for my kids. If you do not have time, I made a 'buy it now' in another auction for presents. I would love to see them have a nice Christmas."

And still another from a man who's asking for help in Chico, Calif., under the listing: "Help make Christmas Possible for two Children."

"Single dad raising two children. Just spent all our money to get an apartment. We are asking for a little help to make Christmas possible this year for my two children. I don't work right now. My son was born premature with chronic lung disease and requires 24/7 care. We are asking for donations. Anything is appreciated.  Thank you."

Because eBay's system requires that something is listed for sale on every auction, many listings offer worthless electronic books or other digital items for sale at 1 cent or 99 cents, but encourage higher bids.

Others include more obvious listings for items the children want as gifts.

The ads have spurred a debate among eBay users that echoes the discussions you'll hear about real-world panhandling.

"eBay is a marketplace … not a place for someone to put up pictures of their family ... and BEG for money," said one experienced eBay power seller who thinks "eBay panhandling" is bad for the site.  She complained that eBay had not removed the auctions when she notified the firm about them.  "It just cheapens the marketplace when such things are allowed to occur and takes away from some really good charity auctions that are sanctioned and within eBay guidelines."

Most of the "Christmas donation" auctions contain a smattering of critical comments from other eBay users, telling posters that they should look to local charities for help. And there's no way to verify the authenticity of a person who lists such an auction -- scammers could easily post fake pictures and manufactured tales of woe.

Terms of service violation

The ads, meanwhile, appear to run afoul of more mundane concerns: eBay's terms of service, according to the firm.

"eBay does not allow listings that have no item or service for sale," the company said in a statement to msnbc.com.  "Additionally, while we do allow listings that will benefit a charity, sellers must be soliciting on behalf of recognized, tax-deductible charitable organization."

The firm also recommends that eBay users donate to recognized charities rather than individual eBay listers.

The eBay phenomenon appears to parallel another more direct form of cyberbegging. Numerous sites like CyberBeg.com and DonateMoney2Me.com allow users to post their stories and ask for help via PayPal. But those sites don't attract nearly the audience that eBay does.

Newberry, a long-time eBay user, said she got the idea for her ad when she sorted all eBay auctions by lowest price, looking for inexpensive holiday presents.  When she did, she found many other families listing items for $0.01 so they could be found easily by people looking for bargains.

"So I figured it was worth a try," she said.

Both Newberry and her husband are currently in school, she said -- he's studying fire science to become a firefighter while she is studying clerical and computer skills so she can get an office job. Newberry said she had worked at a nearby factory, while her husband washed dishes in a restaurant, but both lost their jobs in the past 15 months.  They moved last year from their apartment into a relative's basement apartment, she said.

"It's a really hard time, but that's life," she said.

Neither child "had much of a birthday," but Newberry is holding out hope for a better Christmas. Her daughter wants an iPod, but Newberry said she wouldn't oblige even if she had the money.  A giant stuffed horse they saw recently at a store is a more likely gift.

"But it's $50. Fifty dollars for a stuffed horse?  Incredible," she said.

Like many young boys, her son wants Bakugan Battle Brawlers accessories -- so he can play the card/action figure game based on a Japanese cartoon show with friends.

But right now both gifts appear out of reach, she said. And her online pleas seem to be a dead end.  So far, she hasn't gotten a penny from her eBay donation request.

"All that's happened is I'm out the 65 cent listing fee," she said.

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