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Sunday, April 15, 2007

WEEK 3

INTERNET BUYERS BEWARE!

Train fan's dream buy is derailed online


Staff writer

Internet-auction sites allow people to sell and buy, at the click of a mouse or with a push on a cellphone button, almost anything from brand bags to resort condominiums to moldy Imperial Japanese Army uniforms. And, according to a 2005 report by Nomura Research Institute, in Japan it's a market that is not just booming, but skyrocketing -- from 1.34 trillion yen (approximately $11 billion) then to a projected 2 trillion yen-plus by 2009.

News photo
An Internet surfer reviews models trains on sale in online auctions. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

But what if you successfully outbid all-comers, pay for your purchase -- then wait in vain for it to arrive? Worse, what if your vendor is overseas, and your online auction operator doesn't compensate for failed overseas transactions?

That's exactly what befell a 43-year-old Taiwanese man who lives in California, and who asked to be identified only as Chang. He paid a Kobe-based seller 320,000 yen for a classic model train through Yahoo! Japan Auctions.

But after his purchase failed to materialize, unlike most others in a similar position (police across the nation received 14,905 inquiries on troubles related to Net auctions in 2006, up from a mere 2,099 in 2001), he never gave up pursuing his case.

Chang's two-year travail began in February 2005, when the story-artist for a major Hollywood film studio entered a bid for a secondhand 14-car "Tsubame Tenbosha" model train made by Ginza, Tokyo-based Tenshodo. He knew the Tenshodo brand well and thought it was a great bargain.

Even though the auction site stated that the seller, a Kobe-based dealer named as Aritomo Yagura, would not ship internationally, Chang exchanged e-mails with him and says that Yagura agreed to send the goods if Chang covered the postage and insurance. But then, after Chang paid the purchase price and shipping costs into a designated bank account, he says all correspondence from Yagura suddenly stopped.

Although Chang kept sending e-mails, he says he found out they were being blocked by Yagura.

Extremely peeved

Already extremely peeved, Chang says he became outraged when he learned that Yagura had started selling lots of other trains using a different Yahoo! Japan Auctions ID. He confirmed the second ID holder was Yagura by e-mailing more than 10 bidders, he says.

"Oh my god, it took me so much effort," Chang says. "Ninety-nine percent of the bidders did not feel comfortable to speak to me . . . but luckily one lady did. I explained my situation to her, and she revealed the information to me -- and (that the vendor in her case) was also Yagura."

At that point Chang went legal -- attempting to seek redress against someone whose identity and contact information were uncertain (because many online trades are done with both parties using pseudonyms), and who lived in a country whose language and legal system he knows little about.

Playing the sleuth himself, Chang said he asked one Japanese bidder to contact Yagura, who apparently answered once on his cellphone but never again. Chang also hired a Tokyo-based legal notary, who sent Yagura a registered letter. When that, too, failed to elicit a reply, Chang flew to Japan and hired Osaka-based Masataka Kiyokawa, a Taiwan-born lawyer who speaks Japanese, English and Mandarin, Chang's mother tongue.

Chang said Yagura ignored two warning letters sent by Kiyokawa to two different addresses. So, in July 2005, he finally filed a damages suit against Yagura with the Kobe Summary Court. In his deposition, he asked for the full payment to be returned, plus interest, and 100,000 yen for his mental distress. This, he says, included many nights' lost sleep due to stress over the whole episode.

"I know people think I'm crazy," he conceded in a recent phone interview. "Usually people don't make the effort to do anything. I thought of moving on and letting it go, but after three months of agony and all that, I just felt that this guy needs to be educated. Not everyone is going to let go. I just felt that somebody needs to teach him a lesson."

But "teaching him a lesson" hasn't proved easy. The defendant delayed the court process by canceling one session at the last minute. Then, in November 2005, as the summary court ordered Yagura to pay Chang everything he had asked for, except for the mental distress, the defendant appealed.

"I guess he appealed because he wanted me to just give up or something, because I'd have to pay my lawyer again," he said. "At that moment, I decided it wasn't about money any more."

Out-of-court settlement

Yagura, who could not be reached for comment by The Japan Times, argued in a written statement to the Kobe District Court that he did not set out to deceive Chang, but was himself a victim of scams committed by other traders that have left him broke.

Kiyokawa also said it was impossible to prove the defendant had a malicious intent from the beginning to commit fraud. "I confirmed with police that he had no history of legal trouble," Kiyokawa said. "Mr. Chang's was the first."

In the end, in April last year, the Kobe District Court upheld the summary court decision. After that, Yagura returned the money Chang paid for the train, and agreed to a 150,000 yen out-of-court settlement (payable in 10 monthly installments) to cover the legal fees he incurred because Yagura appealed. All very well, except that the money Chang received was all eaten up by legal fees -- and he says Yagura's payments stopped after the fourth. In January, Chang closed his account with the lawyer, who nonetheless still makes phone calls in an effort to recoup the outstanding money from Yagura.

Chang says he is now much more careful about buying online, always making sure to check the feedback from past buyers. But he hasn't stopped bidding entirely.

"I'm still buying -- so you know I'm crazy," he said, giggling. "I'm totally crazy -- but sometimes you can find a lot of interesting stuff. There are people who are selling their mouthwash, and it's half-used. It's like a gigantic garage sale."

The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan recommends that consumers take four basic steps to avoid problems when buying from online auction sites:

* To establish a seller's reliability, ask about the item(s) before bidding.

* Consider using escrow (third-party) services to hold your payment for expensive purchases, only releasing the funds upon your satisfactory receipt of the item(s).

* Check the past records of sellers -- and beware if they have suddenly started dealing in much more expensive items than before.

* Make sellers disclose not just e-mail addresses, but their residential addresses and their landline phone numbers. Then contact them to ensure the details are not bogus.



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