The scam, said Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Fortinet, is a new twist on an old con where criminals set up bogus auctions, rake in the proceeds, and then scram, never intending to ship anything to buyers.
Long-time eBay users, however, have gotten wise to such double-crosses, and have learned to avoid auctions where the seller has little or no transaction record and/or little or no buyer feedback.
The new dodge, however, makes that defense useless.
According to Fortinet, the racket uses a bot to create a large number of fake accounts, then applies a spider to scavenge eBay for 1-cent "Buy Now" items, then purchase them.
(eBay typically contains several hundred one-cent items such as ebooks, Windows wallpaper images, or digital photos, all delivered electronically so there is no shipping cost.)
Ironically, most sellers of one-cent items also use bots to power their sales -- it would economically unfeasible to do so manually -- that automatically e-mails the purchase to the buyer, then posts a standard, and positive, feedback on the buyer's profile.
It's the sales history, and more important, the positive feedback, that the cyber crooks are after.
"Once they have 15 or 20 feedback items, they can use that account to set up bogus auctions," said Guillaume Lovet, the leader of Fortinet's virus research team in Europe and the discoverer of the scam. "They can set up an auction for an MP3 player, start the bidding at $35 or so, and run a short auction so that it's less likely buyers will look at the details of the account's feedback."
When the buyer of the purported MP3 player doesn't receive his hardware and complains to eBay, the only recourse eBay offers is to shut down the seller's account. By that time the scammer's moved on to another fake account.
By creating accounts with a bot and letting that bot scan eBay for penny deals, the criminal can set up a network of auctions and pull in some serious cash, said Lovet. "With that one-cent rate, building 100 accounts with 15 positive feedbacks each costs [just] $15 [total]," said Lovet. "And 100 accounts are a reasonably solid base to set up a good deal of bogus auctions. [These criminals] are building positive feedback while sleeping, watching porn, or chatting on IRC, and only for a fistful of bucks."
The whole setup -- sellers of one-cent items automating their end of the deal, criminals automating purchasing those penny items to create a history and receive legitimate-looking feedback -- is a good example of a cyber symbiotic relationship.
"It's win-win for both sides," said Lovet. "There are one-cent auctions that exist on one side, and crooks wanting to build positive feedback on the other.
"Two bots are talking to each other at some point," said Lovet, who noted that it would be funny if it wasn't being used to scam innocent eBay users.
Lovet said he had not uncovered any evidence that the two sides of the arrangement were being operated by the same people. "Both sides are only using each other," he said.
He recommended that buyers check any eBay seller's profile carefully, and if there are numerous one-cent purchases in the account's feedback, steer clear. "That's a strong sense that something's wrong," said Lovet.
Lovet has posted his eBay scam research on the Fortinet Web site.