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Resolving Online Seller Disputes (Like eBay): Do I Need a Lawyer?

You may be able to resolve most disputes with sellers on online marketplaces like eBay without a lawyer. EBay has procedures that let buyers communicate directly with sellers and, if they can't work out their dispute on their own, eBay will step in and help. You may also try an online dispute resolution service or be able to get your money back from PayPal or your credit or debit card company.

If you are unsuccessful, you can try to sue the seller in court, likely small claims court, for breach of contract. But unless they are present or do a lot of business in your state, your only option may be to sue them in their state. Suing an out-of-state party poses a lot of challenges, so if you do decide to go this route you would greatly benefit from having a lawyer's help.

Online Marketplace Disputes

Online marketplaces, especially with the pandemic, continue to grow in popularity. According to webretailer.com, nearly half of global electronic commerce sales — $2 trillion — took place on an online marketplace in 2020. As of 2018, Amazon led the market by the number of visits to its site. EBay, which does not make or sell its own products, is still the second leading online marketplace in the United States.

Most eBay transactions go off without a hitch. Seller ships the merchandise, buyer pays in a timely fashion, and both parties are happy. But not every buyer is so lucky.

From time to time, disputes with online sellers arise. You may be very upset and want to fight, but you may not need to bring a lawyer in just yet. There are a number of things you can try first.

eBay Disputes and the Dispute Resolution Process

You can generally run into two types of disputes with an eBay seller:

  • You pay for an item, but it does not arrive during the specified time frame or at all
  • You receive an item, but it is damaged or doesn't match its listing

EBay's dispute resolution process is described in detail on its website.

Contact the Seller

EBay first recommends that you try to work out your dispute with the seller directly. You don't need a lawyer for this. All you need to do is click a button under your purchase history on eBay's website.

This lets you communicate directly with the seller. If you want the seller's phone number, that may also be available. Many disputes are resolved through direct contact.

According to eBay's procedures, the seller is supposed to try to resolve your dispute within three days. If you don't hear from the seller or you're unable to work your dispute within 21 days, the next step you can take — which you can also do on your own without a lawyer — is to bring eBay in to take over for you.

Get Help From eBay

The process is easy. You simply click a button in your order history that asks eBay to step in. EBay takes it from there.

As eBay describes on its website, once they receive your case, they review it and try to get back to you within 48 hours. If they need further information, the process may take longer.

But it may be worth the wait. If eBay decides the case in your favor, and your transaction is covered by eBay's “money back guarantee," you should receive a refund within 48 hours.

Once eBay reaches a decision, they close your case. If you disagree with eBay's decision, you can appeal by providing new information within 30 days of the date they close your case. EBay lists the specific information that they would be looking for:

  • Photos showing that the item does not match its listing
  • Tracking details showing the seller received an item you returned
  • Proof that the seller sent your item to the wrong address
  • A copy of any police report (if you choose to file one).

EBay reviews the new information and tries to get back to you within 48 hours with a final decision. Again, you can do this on your own without a lawyer.

Negative Feedback

A word about negative feedback. EBay sellers and buyers have the option to leave each other feedback. If you leave negative feedback, a seller can choose to respond or, if they think it's unfair, dispute it.

If a seller disputes your feedback, eBay will send you an email with the details. You then have ten days in which to either:

  • Revise the feedback (your original comments will no longer be displayed)
  • Decline the request (you can choose to keep your reasons private if you want)

EBay will send you a reminder email after seven days, but if you don't respond within the ten-day time frame, the feedback stays the same.

Online Dispute Resolution (ODR)

If you're still unhappy and the seller consents, you could then try what's called online dispute resolution (ODR). ODR is a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that takes place entirely online. Thanks to the efforts of a few pioneers in the field, including Colin Rule and Ethan Katsh, there are now a number of ODR platforms you could work with.

According to its website (which may be out of date), eBay has a relationship with SquareTrade, an ODR service. SquareTrade advertises two different services:

  • A web-based forum in which you and the seller can try to work out your dispute (which you most likely have already tried to do)
  • The ability to hire an impartial mediator for a small fee who hears from both sides and works with them to come to a resolution

SquareTrade boasts an impressive 90% success rate, so you may get lucky.

Contest the Transaction Through Your Payment Method

Perhaps you are still unable to reach or are unhappy with the resolution. You could then, again without a lawyer's involvement, seek a chargeback based on your payment method.

PayPal Buyer Protection Program

Many eBay buyers make their purchases through PayPal. If you have a PayPal account and use it for your purchase, your transaction may be covered by PayPal's Buyer Protection Program.

According to this program, you have 180 days from the date of the transaction to dispute the charge in PayPal's Dispute Resolution Center. The process begins by opening a dispute, which provides another opportunity to try to work it out with the seller. If you can't, you have 20 days from the date you open your dispute to raise a claim with PayPal. PayPal would take over from there.

PayPal will investigate your claim. Although they try to get back to you within 10-14 days, it can sometimes take as long as 30 days to hear back. If they decide you're right and the transaction is covered by the program, you will get your money back.

Chargeback Through Bank

If you can't work it out with the seller or have no luck with eBay, you may be able to dispute the charge with the bank.

You start by contacting your bank and opening a claim. You typically can do this by phone or online. You provide the details. They conduct an investigation. If the bank believes you have been defrauded, they will reverse the charge and refund your money.

Sue the eBay Seller in Small Claims Court

As you can see, you have a number of ways to get your money back if an eBay sale goes south. But none of these may work. In certain very specific instances, you may be able to sue an eBay seller in small claims court.

Many small claims cases can be handled without a lawyer. In fact, in some states, you are not allowed to be represented by a lawyer in small claims court. In addition to resources provided by the link above, you may be able to get specifics about how to bring a claim and the amount you may be able to recover from your local court's website.

This may seem like an easy, practical, cheap option. But in most instances, it won't work. Jurisdiction is the word lawyers use to describe the power of a court to decide a dispute. Although the subject can get complicated, your small claims court would only have what's called personal jurisdiction over an eBay seller if they happen to be in your state or do a lot of business there.

That is not going to be the case for most eBay sellers. But if your small claims court is an option, you may be able to handle it on your own without a lawyer.

Some Situations Would Justify a Lawyer

As you can see, you have a number of options at your disposal that don't involve a lawyer. But there are a couple of situations in which you might want to have one in your corner.

A Lot of Money Is Involved

The first is if there is a lot of money at issue. If you buy something small from an eBay seller and are unsuccessful in getting a refund or a chargeback, it might not be worth the expense to hire a lawyer.

But if you do have enough money on the line, a contract lawyer could negotiate with the seller on your behalf. That would demonstrate that you are serious and give you extra leverage in the discussions. A lawyer could also help you prepare a court case, even if you need or choose to represent yourself in court.

Seller Is Out of State

Assuming it's worth the expense, you could also use a lawyer if you decide to sue an out-of-state seller (particularly if you're out more money than their small claims court handles). You would need to get a lawyer licensed in the state in which you can bring your case.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified attorney to help you navigate the challenges presented by litigation.

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