Selling Your Laptop on eBay

My mother, a longtime flea-market shopper, says it's always easier to buy than to sell. Man oh man, is she right about that.

Twice in just over a week, my efforts to sell a laptop on eBay were thwarted. One effort climaxed in an excruciatingly anxious dash to the post office--to retrieve the laptop I had just shipped.

Here's the story, in a nutshell, followed by a few lessons learned.

Acting Without Authorization

In early 2007, I bought my sweet little Sony Vaio TXN19P/L ultraportable to use as a secondary computer. (Read my review of a similar Vaio laptop. It's been an ideal traveling companion: The laptop weighs just 2.8 pounds and goes for 5 hours or more on a charge. It has a gorgeous screen and beautiful Slate Blue carbon fiber casing--it truly is a masterpiece of industrial design.

The laptop was pricey, however. In January 2007 I paid $2800 for this model, which has 2GB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive, and Windows XP Professional. And so, in December, I decided to sell it. I felt it was time to try something new and oh, all right: I needed the money. Plus, I have an older, less glamorous, but still working IBM ThinkPad 240 in my closet. Why not use that?

At any rate, I listed the Sony laptop on eBay on December 8, thinking it would catch the interest of holiday shoppers. I put a reserve price on the laptop as well as offered the "Buy It Now" option.

One week later, as the auction ended, the reserve price was met and the laptop sold. I boxed up the laptop, considering it a done deal. But two hours later, I received a message from eBay, informing me the listing had been "cancelled due to bidding activity that took place without the account owner's authorization."

And then eBay wiped out the listing. It was as if it had never existed. Worse, eBay informed me of the following: "Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to automatically relist these items for you. Instead, to relist these items you will need to start from the beginning of the listing process...We know that this is an inconvenience and we apologize for the negative impact it may cause you. We are working on tools to allow you to relist your items without starting from the beginning, but they are not available at this time."

In other words, to relist my laptop on eBay, I had to start all over again.

When I asked eBay about this, a spokesperson responded in e-mail: "The current process where we cancel the listing is optimized around immediately refunding the seller's full fees (listing fee and final value fee). We realize that this solution can also have its drawbacks--specifically the inconvenience to the seller of having their listing removed and also the inability to offer Second Chance Offers to any underbidders, which is way eBay is always looking for ways to improve its services to its users."

Bolting Like Batman

On December 17, a few days after the laptop's second listing appeared, someone from Indonesia contacted me via e-mail and asked if I would ship to Bali. I was hesitant, as I worried about Customs forms and other details I wouldn't have to deal with if selling to a U.S. buyer. I checked the potential buyer's eBay feedback--it was nearly 100 percent positive. So, even though I had reservations, I agreed to sell to him.

Minutes later, the man from Bali used the "Buy It Now" option to procure my laptop and pay me via PayPal. He urged me to ship it to him right away, to be sure he could get it in time for the holidays. At 1:19 p.m. (Pacific Standard Time), I received an e-mail from PayPal, informing me the funds were in my account. So I labeled the box containing the laptop and headed to the post office.

I groaned when I saw the long line at the post office, but I expected as much at this time of year. I filled out the necessary forms and waited in line for about 30 minutes. All told, everything went smoothly. Still, I wondered: Am I doing the right thing?

After returning home, I went back to work. Around 4:45 p.m., I checked my e-mail and discovered one from PayPal (sent at 4:16 p.m.). This one informed me that I "may have received an unauthorized payment...We have placed a temporary hold on the funds until the investigation is complete."

Dear reader, you should have seen me tearing out of my office, jumping into my car, and rocketing to the post office, like Batman out to save Gotham. Would my package still be there?, I fretted. Would they give it back to me?

When I arrived at the post office, it was about 5 p.m. The line was even longer now--nearly snaking out the door. I took my place at the end and fidgeted. What if a truck with my laptop on it is driving away at this very moment, while I'm standing in line?

I asked the person behind me to save my place in line. Then I dashed to the counter and told the clerk I had an emergency. Had their trucks picked up any packages in the last half hour or so? The clerk, who had no doubt seen a lot of foolishness that busy day, eyed me warily and said no, he didn't think so, but go to the back of the line.

For the next 45 minutes, while I waited in line, I took deep breaths and tried to remain calm. Finally, it was my turn, and after some explaining, I was mercifully reunited with my package and refunded the $61 shipping charges.

By the time I returned home, PayPal had determined the buyer had purchased my laptop fraudulently and had removed the deposit from my account.

Learning Lessons

I must admit this ordeal left me feeling a bit foolish. But I decided to write about my experience to underscore the potential peril of selling an expensive laptop over the Internet to a stranger.

On balance, I've sold dozens of things on eBay before and never experienced fraud. Once, someone didn't follow through on his winning bid, but that's the worst of it. And as an eBay buyer, I've never received anything that wasn't what I had expected.

Nonetheless, I've learned some valuable lessons. First: Trust my instincts. I didn't have a good feeling about the second buyer, and I was right. Second: In the future, I will wait 24 hours after receiving payment before I ship an item, especially for big-ticket items like a laptop. Granted, PayPal alerted me within 3 hours of the fraud. But had I not been able to react quickly, my laptop would have gone to Bali, and trying to get it back would have been a nightmare, if not an impossibility.

A few tips from PayPal regarding selling online:

Beware of unusual requests. Abnormal requests can be a sign of suspicious activity. A few examples include:

  • Rush shipments at any cost.
  • Partial payments from multiple PayPal accounts.
  • Payments not received in full.

Be extra cautious with high-priced items. It's fairly common for shipping addresses to differ from billing addresses. However, be extra cautious when sending high-priced items, especially if payment is received from one country and sent to another.

More tips are available from PayPal.

Next Steps

As for my Sony laptop? Call me a glutton for punishment, but I am going to give eBay one last try. And if this doesn't work, I may try selling it on Craigslist. Or I may just keep the laptop. It really is such a sweet little thing.

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Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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