The locked shipping container sitting in a police storage yard in Long Beach, Calif., isn’t an obvious icon for the risks of the global Internet economy, but it succinctly symbolizes the predicament that dozens of American antique collectors have been trapped in since their online purchases of Chinese furniture ran into heavy seas nearly 2½ months ago.
The 40-by-8-by-8-foot container, filled with a precious cargo of ornate Ch’ing Dynasty beds, tables, chairs and other items dating back to the mid-1800s, is the focus of a legal free-for-all involving a Chinese shipping company, several U.S. cargo handling firms and the collectors, most of whom purchased their goods on eBay and paid via the Internet auction site’s PayPal electronic payment system.
The dispute has its roots in the failure of Fufu’s Chinese Antiques to pay for shipping and warehousing the container, which has been gathering dust since its arrival in the States on Nov. 16.
The reasons the company based in the town of Sanxiangin in China’s Guangdong province suddenly fell from grace after several years as a successful eBay seller aren’t clear, but fractured accounts assembled by a group of thwarted buyers indicate that the meltdown was precipitated when Rodney Fee, a Canadian citizen and partner in Fufu’s, vanished with a large chunk of the company’s cash.
‘(He) thieved our company money ... and run away’
Attempts to contact the company by e-mail were unsuccessful, but “Gary,” who says he is an employee of Fufu’s and who provided a partial list of antique buyers reviewed by MSNBC.com, stated in an e-mail that Fee “thieved our company money and lot(s) of very nice and old furniture (and) run away.” Included in the vanished proceeds, according to Gary, was $60,000 intended to pay the shipping bill for the furniture sent to the American buyers.
Sources familiar with the case say that Fee, a former amateur motorcycle racer (), is being sought by authorities in China and the United States. A spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police declined to say whether an arrest warrant had been issued for Fee there.
The number of people with paid-for goods in the crate — and a second container reportedly in the hands of a U.S. cargo-handling firm — is not known. But the group of purchasers, which has coalesced over the Internet over the past several months, now numbers 64. Together, they say they have paid well in excess of $250,000 for the works of art they unabashedly covet.
“We just have a passion for this strange, eclectic furniture,” said Kellie Ann Moore, a Los Angeles attorney who has taken a leading role in the group’s effort to interest authorities in the case.
That has proven to be an uphill battle, even though the pricey nature of the hostage antiques has made for a high-profile victim class that includes a judge, at least a half-dozen lawyers, a university professor, an art historian, a journalist, several dentists and a stockbroker.
Authorities reluctant to get involved
“Everyone has been very disappointed with the authorities,” said Moore. “They’re looking at this as Internet-related, and it’s sticky and they don’t want to get involved with the Chinese government.”
Thomas Vartanian, a Washington, D.C., attorney and former chair of the American Bar Association's Cyber Law Section, said such reluctance is understandable given that many legal and jurisdictional issues surrounding e-commerce remain undefined.
“When you buy online, you don’t normally execute a sales contract to buy the goods that ... might determine some of the issues,” he said. “And in terms of Internet jurisdiction, there is still an enormous lack of clarity in terms of whose laws apply.”
In the Fufu's case, the lone exception to the indifference of authorities has been the Oak Lawn, Ill., Police Department, which after examining the evidence assembled by one of the purchasers, Jennifer Epich, found “probable cause” that a crime had been committed. It then requested that police in Long Beach seize the container to prevent the goods from being sold to cover the shipping and warehousing bills.
Members of the group have harsher words for eBay and PayPal, charging that the companies ignored complaints for months alleging that Fufu’s was failing to fulfill orders as new victims lined up to be fleeced.
Representatives of eBay and PayPal denied that they allowed complaints about Fufu’s to pile up.
“As far as we can tell, none of this alleged fraud actually took place on the eBay platform,” said Hani Durzy, a spokesman for eBay. “There is a grand total of one complaint against this seller. That’s why the account is suspended.”
But the purchasers group said Fufu’s clean record prior to November merely reflects policies at eBay and PayPal that make it impossible to lodge complaints more than 30 days after an auction closes or post negative feedback about a seller after more than 90 days. Those limits are unrealistic when sellers are overseas and often can’t deliver goods within that time frame, they say.
Policies not geared toward overseas sellers
“You cannot get someone (at eBay or PayPal) to talk to you or listen to you (after those dates) because the complaint is not in their system and it gets dismissed outright,” said Moore. “They don’t even want to hear about it. They just let the seller continue to sell and collect their fees.”
Durzy responded that it is the responsibility of buyers and sellers to familiarize themselves with eBay’s policies.
“We offer tools to pay safely, the ability to communicate with the seller, we encourage the use of an escrow service and have an escrow service we recommend, but we hope people don’t check their common sense at the door when logging onto eBay,” he said.
Members of the purchasers group also charge that PayPal continued to accept funds for purchases from Fufu’s even after it had frozen the company’s account while investigating complaints of possible fraud.
To substantiate the charge, members of the group produced an e-mail from “info@fufuschineseantiques” dated Nov. 26, which stated that the company’s PayPal account had been frozen for “over two months.”
They also note that Fufu’s was allowed to routinely violate the PayPal user agreement, which states that sellers should not use the service to “sell goods with delivery dates delayed more than 20 days from the date of payment.”
Were complaints ignored?
“If PayPal was aware of this whole mess, then by taking my money aren’t they aiding in some sort of fraudulent activity?” asked Larry Mullin, a Massachusetts man who spent $1,875 for a Chinese marriage bed he has yet to see.
PayPal, already the target of a class-action lawsuit alleging illegal seizure of customer funds, denies the charge.
Spokeswoman Amanda Pires said Fufu’s account was frozen in early November, “as soon as we received the first complaint.”
She also said that the company “regrets very much that this has happened with this seller,” and stated that PayPal is working with authorities investigating the case.
In the meantime, frustrated purchasers are asking a Long Beach court to order the goods released to them under a state penal code that requires stolen property to be returned expeditiously to the victims. If successful, those who live outside Southern California will have to pay shipping costs for a second time to get their goods, while the shipper and cargo handlers will be left to pursue their own legal remedies.
But after waiting for months to receive their goods, many victims say that will be a small price to pay to put the frustrating affair behind them.
“It’s a bizarre situation that points out a lot of loopholes about the Internet and law enforcement and regulating it,” said Bona Flecchia, an Italian journalist living in New York City who has been waiting since June 2003 for an ornate Chinese marriage bed that she bought for her rapidly approaching September wedding.
“We are still hoping to be getting the bed by September,” she said. “Otherwise we’ll be sleeping in Japanese style on the floor.”