Once in a while in the world of online auctions, you'll come across a deadbeat--of either the bidder or seller variety. You can trust in feedback ratings and use certified mail, you can pay with money orders or credit cards, and you can cross your fingers and pray. Despite all these precautions, occasionally you can get a raw deal.
My friend Mitch just learned this lesson the hard way. He was the high bidder for an arcade video game on eBay, but the reserve wasn't met so he didn't win the auction. He emailed the seller and worked out a deal: $800 plus shipping for the game (Race Drivin', if you care about these things). Mitch sent a money order and, long story short, the seller sent him lots of excuses but no game. And so far, no refund. Since this wasn't technically an auction transaction, Mitch isn't even covered by eBay's Safe Harbor insurance policy.
The seller no longer answers his phone calls or email. Other buyers have certainly dealt with more frustrating situations, including email addresses that stop working after the money is sent, or sellers using bogus contact information. In these cases, you may be down but not out: The right Internet tools might help you to track down a deadbeat.
When you need to talk with the other party after an auction, email should be your first line of defense. If that email bounces, though, you might start to wonder whether the seller has absconded with your loot. Maybe so. But it's also possible that the seller simply moved to a new email address. Start by requesting his or her current contact information from the auction site.
With eBay's Find Members page you can get his or her email address, company, city and state, and phone number. (Note: eBay recently changed this service, restricting access to personal information to users who are involved in a transaction. Previously, eBay members were able to request another member's contact information at any time.) Unfortunately, Yahoo Auctions and Amazon.com Auctions don't provide a similar feature.
If you can't get the phone number, or the one you've got turns out to be bogus, it's time for some sleuthing. Reserve the following tricks for when you're certain they're trying to cheat you--remember, the other guy might be out of town, or just a little slow mailing your package. Don't jump the gun.
The Internet is home to myriad "white pages" tools. You might be able to turn one nugget of information--such as a name or address--into more details, such as phone number. Switchboard, Yahoo People Search, and WhoWhere? are excellent sites and services that can reveal addresses and phone numbers.
If all you have is a phone number, the tools at Reverse Phone Directory might be able to reveal the name and address that go along with it. Given a name, Internet Address Finder might be able to find the louse's other email addresses.
Also, take note of the deadbeat's email address. Look at the domain name--the part of the address after the @ sign. For many people, the domain name belongs to their Internet Service Provider (such as aol.com or prodigy.net) or a free email service (such as yahoo.com or mail.com). But you might be able to tell from the domain name that the person is a student at a particular college (purdue.edu or mit.edu) or where he or she works (bobssandwichshop.com). Heck, some people are vain enough to have their very own domain names (like me: savetz.com).
So, if you think your nemesis' email address might include a personal or business domain name, use the WHOIS tool to find out who owns that domain. WHOIS can reveal the organization's name, phone numbers, address, and other vital information. If it's a business, try phoning the receptionist and asking if Dirk Deadbeat is in. Won't he be surprised to hear from you?