Next month, the online auction giant will close its direct e-mail link to SafeHarbor, its department that responds to questions about suspicious activity on the site or specific fraud complaints. Instead, eBay will direct members to an online form, which categorizes their problems and links to related help pages.
The company has not posted a notice about the change on its announcements board; instead it is notifying customers who send e-mail to the firstname.lastname@example.org address.
"On May 15, 2002, this e-mail address will no longer be available," the company said in an automated reply to a member who e-mailed the SafeHarbor address. "Instead, all SafeHarbor queries should be sent using our online Contact Rules & Safety Web form."
But here's the rub. Some members fear that because of the way the form is set up, eBay is limiting members' ability to report fraud or rules violations.
"It's incredibly disgraceful that they're doing this. They keep shutting down your means of getting in contact with them," said Rosalinda Baldwin, editor of the Auction Guild, a newsletter that covers the online auction industry.
eBay does not list its phone number on its site and recently moved to curtail some of the discussions on its message boards.
eBay representatives did not return calls seeking comment, but a customer service representative, contacted through the company's, said the new form was meant to help organize customer inquiries.
"We have found that it is very hard to take the e-mails sent in to this address and answer them in a timely fashion. By using the Web form, the e-mails automatically go to the same area, and the Web form also allows us to make sure the e-mails get sent to the appropriate department right away instead of having to rely on a representative to get them there," she said.
eBay is the latest company to try to streamline its customer service operations. Many companies try to categorize the complaints and questions they receive from customers in order to track them and deal with them most efficiently. And, as they have been pressed to post profits, many Web companies such as Amazon.com have cut back on customer service departments or removed toll-free service numbers from their Web pages.
Like Amazon, eBay does not list a customer service number on its Web site, and members have complained about the difficulty of reaching the company.
For some members, those concerns have become more pressing in recent months. eBay has acknowledged that a growing number of member accounts have been hijacked and used to set up fraudulent auctions. Affected customers often want answers immediately and don't want to wait for an e-mail response.
One of the problems with the new form is that for most purposes, customers using it will have to be members of the site and log in to eBay. That could mean that members who have been suspended by eBay or who have had their accounts hijacked may not be able to use the form to report problems.
Baldwin notes that a person who had some property stolen from him and placed for auction on eBay would have no way to contact the company about the problem through its form, except by registering on eBay.
"But what if you don't want to become a member? There has to be a way to contact them without you being a registered member," she said.
Around the time the SafeHarbor e-mail address is cancelled, eBay will have a "workaround" in place that will allow non-members as well as members who have problems accessing their account to contact eBay, the company's customer service representative said. She did not know exactly when the workaround would be in place.
But members point out other problems with using the form. Alan, a Los Angeles resident, said he often reports suspicious activity to eBay. Alan, who asked that his last name not be used, noted that the form has a limited number of categories that members can choose from and doesn't allow members to select more than one violation at a time.
"It's wonderfully simple if you're reporting a single violation," he said. "But most of the time you're trying to report multiple infractions at once."
Additionally, by e-mailing SafeHarbor directly, he's able to keep a copy of his messages and therefore has documentation of past fraud cases. The new form won't allow him to have that same documentation, because it doesn't send a copy of a filed complaint back to the sender, he said.
Alan sees the move to cancel the SafeHarbor addresses as being related to eBay's recent move to posts on its discussion boards. One of eBay's new posting rules forbids members from discussing specific fraud incidents or suspicious auctions.
"To me, it is clear that what is happening is a two-pronged attack: Discussion of fraud is being stifled on the boards, while reporting of fraud is being made more difficult," Alan said. "The inevitable result will be greater ignorance among the membership and the public at large about the amount of fraud on eBay, while the fraud will be allowed to spread unchecked."
But member Laurie Jefferson said eBay's move to use the Web form instead of directing all complaints to the SafeHarbor e-mail address could improve customer service. Jefferson, who lives outside of Boston and has been an eBay member for about a year, said she has often received replies from SafeHarbor that have nothing to do with the inquiries she has sent.
"I've found that I rarely get the answers I'm looking for, no matter what I'm reporting or questioning or what the case might be," Jefferson said.