Chapter 4. Don’t Get Burned on Shipping

So your widget is ready to go. Everything’s nice and secure. You’ve used a good sturdy box and enough packing peanuts to simulate a Minneapolis snowstorm. Well done!

Now what?

Unless you’re in dire need of frequent flyer miles and are planning to deliver the item in person, the next step is selecting a shipping service. And they aren’t created equally.

For example, only one carrier accepts items sent to P.O. boxes. Another is best for lightweight items. One in particular charges international customers exorbitant fees for the privilege of delivery. There’s a certain carrier that insists on a signature for any item delivered to an apartment building. All will be revealed in this chapter!

Other considerations: should insurance be purchased? Can the item be sent via air? What prohibitions do some foreign countries have against certain items?

Confused yet?

Well, don’t be. It’s a lot to remember but it’s not as bad as it sounds and some details are pertinent only under rare circumstances.

I mean, how often will you want to ship chrysanthemums to Latvia, dried milk to Denmark, or underwear to Peru?

Assuming you just said “never” (and I really hope you did), you’ll be able to absorb what’s necessary from this chapter and refer back to the minutiae when necessary.

As your eighth-grade Social Studies teacher used to say, “It won’t be on the test.”

Pros and Cons of the Major Shippers

Dozens (if not hundreds) of shipping services exist, but for the purposes of this book, I’m going to focus on The Big Three: USPS, UPS, and FedEx.

All are reliable but each is better at some things than others. And sometimes you shouldn’t trust any of them.

If you’re an eBay seller, choosing the right shipper for your items can add to the excellent service you’re already providing your customers.

And if you’re an eBay buyer offered a choice of shipping services, selecting the most appropriate carrier for your new acquisition can save you money and untold amounts of aggravation.

Absolutely, Positively Overnight

Jeff, a resident of San Francisco, purchased tickets at a premium from a broker for the sold-out SF Giants/NY Yankees game.

A few days before the game, he learned he was going to be sent out of town on business so he decided to try to recoup his money by selling the tickets on eBay.

Since time was of the essence, Jeff ran a three-day auction, sold the tickets for slightly less than he paid for them and offered overnight shipping to his buyer (who lived in Las Vegas). The scheduling was a bit tight but the tickets were supposed to arrive that Thursday—the day before the buyer’s plane would depart for San Francisco.

Unfortunately, Thursday came and went with no delivery.

Jeff frantically called the shipping company, who told him “mistakes happen” and that the tickets would be delivered the following day. But since the buyer had an 8 a.m. flight, this meant she’d have to depart without the tickets in hand and would therefore miss the game.

Jeff refunded his buyer and later spoke to the shipping company about their “on-time guarantee.” He expected the carrier to cover the cost of the unused tickets since it was the shipper’s fault the tickets hadn’t arrived when promised.

You can imagine his horror when he learned he was only entitled to a refund of the shipping costs.

Avoid it!

If you’re the seller, allow a week for your item to get where it’s going, regardless of how it’s shipped. If it has to be there sooner than that, you could be rolling the dice.

It’s always risky to sell event tickets close to the date of the event, especially if your buyer lives out of town. Even the most reliable overnight shippers have a margin of error, and you can count on the fact that the mistake will happen at the most inopportune time. (Murphy’s Law and all.)

It seems no one bothers to read the fine print of those “on-time guarantees” until something goes wrong, and only then do they learn that regardless of a carrier’s incompetence, a refund of the shipping costs is all you’re entitled to if they don’t deliver when they said they would.

Ironically, if you purchase proper insurance, you’re better off if the carrier takes gold in the Incompetence Olympics and just completely loses your package altogether. At least then you’ll get a refund of the value of your item.

For tickets sold to out-of-town buyers, you’re far better off arranging to meet them in person to complete the transaction, provided you will be in town yourself when they arrive.

If you’re the Eek! a stranger!” type, take a big beefy friend along and/or meet in a public place, like the buyer’s hotel lobby or a nearby restaurant. And remember, cash only for a face-to-face transaction.

In Jeff’s situation, he was going to be out of town when the buyer arrived, but he could have done one of a few things. An obvious option was to ask a trusted pal to meet the buyer in his place, collect the money and hand over the tickets. No muss, no fuss, no chance of the tickets being lost in transit.

Jeff also could have called the baseball park and possibly arranged to leave the tickets at the box office with the buyer’s name and other identifying information. That way the buyer could pick them up herself the day of the game.

But if you’re in Jeff’s position and must ship overnight, I suggest FedEx (specifically their "Next Business Morning” service). Next-day deliveries are what the company was founded upon, and FedEx’s record is better than anyone else’s (although it’s not as good as it used to be and UPS is a very close second).


The USPS’s record for overnight shipments is less pristine, but it’s significantly less expensive than FedEx or UPS and there’s no extra charge for Saturday delivery. USPS also does something no one else in the business can: they deliver on Sundays and holidays.

Keep in mind: if you ship using a method that requires a signature upon delivery and no one’s there to sign for the package, the courier won’t leave it—which could ultimately result in a late delivery. If that happens, any guarantees previously issued for on-time delivery are nullified.

Escape it!

Sorry, if you’re the seller, there’s not much you can do but refund your buyer and do things differently next time.

Don’t even think of just telling the buyer “tough luck” and sticking her with the now worthless tickets.

It may not be your fault the item wasn’t delivered on time but it certainly isn’t her fault either.

Why USPS is Best for International Shipments

Emma, a Canadian, purchased an item from an eBay seller in the U.S.

She paid the auction price and the stated shipping charges, but was surprised when UPS delivered her package and demanded another $50 in “brokerage fees”—this on top of the usual taxes Canadians pay on imported goods.

Emma was told if she didn’t pay this fee, UPS wouldn’t relinquish her package and would return it to the sender.

She paid it and then demanded her seller refund the fee. He refused, stating he had no idea UPS would tack on extra charges—and besides, she was responsible for knowing her own country’s rules on these things.

Avoid it!

If you’re buying from someone in another country, the only way to avoid brokerage fees is to have your item shipped via USPS or via air. If you’re the seller, you may want to tell your buyer about the added fees so you don’t end up in a battle with an irritated Canadian. (No, that isn’t an oxymoron.)

Arguments over extra fees are a common problem between buyers and sellers who don’t have much experience with international shipments.

It’s a little complicated but let me try to walk you through it.

When you send something via ground shipment outside the U.S. and use a private carrier (that is, anyone except the USPS), you’re asking the shipping company to be your representative and get those goods across the border. The shipping company basically takes on the role of “broker”—a person in charge of expediting the shipment through the customs office of the recipient’s country.

The broker takes care of paperwork and makes sure the proper duties (a.k.a. taxes) are levied. The recipient is then expected to pay the broker’s fee, which may or may not include the required duties.

So far it sounds fair, right? It stands to reason the broker should get a little something for his troubles. Call it a “handling fee,” if you will (see Figure 4-1).

Here’s the rub: those fees are usually based on the declared value of the item, but the percentage isn’t regulated. So each carrier can charge what they want—and according to a lot of Canadians, UPS has a serious case of the greeds.

Canucks contend UPS’s brokerage fee is outrageous, making it more expensive than other private carriers (like FedEx) who do the exact same job.

UPS’s brokerage fee includes duties, but they’re only a small portion of the grand total. The rest is UPS’s own fee, and the exorbitant sum routinely charged for doing five minutes of paperwork should at least involve breakfast and a kiss goodbye.

Worse yet, when you ship with UPS, they don’t tell you about these fees in advance so you won’t even know you’re about to have a very unhappy recipient on your hands. UPS won’t release the package until those brokerage fees are paid. If the buyer refuses to pay, the package is returned to you, and you’ll be the one paying for its scenic trip home.


FedEx doesn’t require its brokerage fees be paid upon delivery but it invoices for those fees later. If the recipient refuses to pay, the sender is ultimately responsible for those fees himself.

UPS Customs Clearance fees for Canada: what you’re seeing isn’t even everything that’s charged. Avoid these fees by shipping via air.

Figure 4-1. UPS Customs Clearance fees for Canada: what you’re seeing isn’t even everything that’s charged. Avoid these fees by shipping via air.

How do you avoid these fees? There are a couple of simple ways.

  • If you’re going to send items (especially expensive ones) to Canada, do it by air instead of ground. The shipping costs are more but the buyer won’t be hit with a bunch of extra brokerage fees later on.

  • Ship via USPS. For all items valued under $1,200 Canadian, the recipient pays duties, taxes, and one flat $5 fee. This avoids the brokerage headache altogether.


Many savvy Canadians won’t even bid on auctions that don’t offer USPS shipping.

Escape it!

As the buyer or seller, you may be able to raise enough hell with UPS to get at least part of their brokerage fees refunded, but it’s an uphill battle on a mighty steep slope.

Sellers, if you’re going to open up your auctions to international buyers, it makes good business sense to do a little homework and find out what the final cost to them will be. Unless, of course, you like receiving vitriol from another country.

And really, the U.S. gets enough of that without your help.

Buyers, if you don’t know how your country handles shipments from outside its borders, you need to find out—or limit yourself to local sellers.

You can’t really blame a foreign seller for not knowing the ins and outs of shipping to every single country on the planet. Do a little of the footwork yourself and you’ll both be spared some unnecessary grief.


It’s bad form to ask a seller to lie about an item’s value on a customs document just so you can save some money in duties. See the “When Honesty Is the Best Policy” section later in this chapter for more details.

Delivery Confirmation Is Not Tracking

Miranda sold an item on eBay, received payment via PayPal and used PayPal’s shipping center (Figure 4-2) to print a USPS shipping label with delivery confirmation (DC).

She emailed the delivery confirmation number to her buyer and shipped the package.

A week later, her buyer emailed to say the package still hadn’t arrived and when he used to track the package, there was no activity shown. It simply said the postal service had been “electronically notified” to expect the package.

He said if the package had actually been shipped, the web site would show in-transit scans. He accused Miranda of stealing his money and demanded to know where his package was, but she had no more information than he did.

PayPal’s shipping service is fast, easy, and free (excluding postage costs, of course). Click the “ship” button next to any PayPal payment and follow the instructions. For more help, view the demo at .

Figure 4-2. PayPal’s shipping service is fast, easy, and free (excluding postage costs, of course). Click the “ship” button next to any PayPal payment and follow the instructions. For more help, view the demo at

The buyer then left scathing negative feedback in which he called Miranda a thief and a liar.

Two days after his rant, the package arrived safe and sound. A check of the DC number showed the date and time of delivery, but no prior information about the package’s path en route.

Avoid it!

Buyers and sellers repeat after me: delivery confirmation is not tracking. Its only purpose is to show delivery (hence the catchy name).

There are two types of DC:

Retail DC

Purchased at the Post Office. You’ve probably seen the neon-green label and its accompanying bar code on packages before.

Online DC

A plain bar code appearing on shipping labels printed at home using one of several shipping services.

While the end purpose of both is the same (the bar code is scanned by the postal carrier when the package is delivered), what happens along the way can be vastly different.

Retail DC is typically scanned when postage is purchased at the Post Office. It’s also often scanned en route to its destination so sometimes you can see the colorful journey your bag of organic catnip took before finally reaching you.

Online DC is usually not scanned when the package is dropped off. In fact, it’s rarely scanned at all until the package is actually delivered.

Problems can happen when buyers accustomed to retail DC check an online DC number and see only this statement:

The U.S. Postal Service was electronically notified by the shipper or shipping partner on March 15, 2006 to expect your package for mailing. This does not indicate receipt by the USPS or the actual mailing date. Delivery status information will be provided if / when available. Information, if available, is updated every evening. Please check again later.

To a nervous buyer, that looks like a very wordy way of calling him a sucker.

Online DC is relatively new so not everyone is used to how it works yet. And many people don’t understand that while retail DC may be scanned en route, there’s no guarantee of it since "tracking” isn’t a promised feature of any form of DC.

UPS and FedEx have much nicer tracking capabilities—called "station to station” tracking—built right into their service. Within 12–24 hours after a package is accepted, you can check the web site to see where it is.


Never leave a pre-paid UPS or FedEx package unattended on a courier’s counter and just walk away, assuming it will be taken care of. Hand it to an agent and be sure it’s scanned. If the package is stolen or lost before that first scan, the automatic insurance coverage provided by both companies is void.

UPS and FedEx also have detailed information about delivery (like the name of the person who signed for the package), whereas the USPS simply scans the package when the item reaches its destination. That can mean the package was placed in someone’s hands or simply left on a doorstep.

I’ve also heard numerous stories of items scanned by the USPS as “delivered” when in fact they weren’t. They were either on their way to be delivered (and later found in the carrier’s truck) or the carrier felt uncomfortable about leaving the package unattended on a front porch and took it back to the Post Office.

Those types of scenarios pretty much never happen with UPS and FedEx. If they try to deliver and no one’s home, that’s noted in the tracking record. If they leave the package, the location is noted. Etc, etc, etc.

So if precise tracking capabilities are important to you, you should use UPS or FedEx instead of the USPS.

Escape it!

Sellers, when an antsy buyer contacts you with concerns about the DC number you’ve given her, politely explain that DC is not tracking.

If you’ve used online DC, also explain the difference between that and the retail DC with which she’s probably more familiar.


Some buyers practically watch the clock from the moment an item is shipped and email sellers in a panic if it’s not received within a few days. It’s good to let your buyer know that although the USPS states Priority Mail should take 2–3 business days to arrive, there’s no guarantee. The wait can be much longer— and Media Mail (a.k.a. Book Rate) may be a month or more in transit.

Buyers, pay attention to which shipper the seller uses and adjust your expectations for package tracking accordingly. Select only sellers who offer shipping via UPS or FedEx if you absolutely must know the pinpoint-precise location of your package at all times.

And then see someone about your control issues.

Delivery Driver Responsibility

Alan purchased a feather bed from an eBay seller, paid for his purchase, and awaited delivery.

A week or so later, he returned from work to find one of UPS’s yellow “delivery attempted” notes stuck to the front door of his apartment. The note stated a signature was required for delivery so Alan signed the note and put it back on his door before leaving the next morning.

He came home that afternoon to find yet another yellow note. On this one, the driver had written, “Unsafe to leave package unattended. Signature required in person.”

Alan called UPS and asked if the driver could come by later in the day since she always tried to deliver his package at around 10 a.m. when he was already at work. He was told the drivers have a set delivery area and always start at one end and finish at the other.

Unfortunately, his apartment building happened to be at the starting point.

Okay, then could the driver deliver the package on Saturday, when Alan wouldn’t be at work? Nope. Saturday delivery costs extra and the sender hadn’t paid for that.

The UPS supervisor asked if Alan had a neighbor with whom the package could be left, but they all worked the same hours he did. And he couldn’t accept deliveries at work, so that was out.

Since Alan had no way to get the package, it was held for a week and then returned to the sender.

Avoid it!

If you’re a buyer who lives in an apartment building, the only way to avoid this situation is to refuse to buy from sellers who use only UPS. If you’re a seller, offer several shipping options. Hopefully your buyer knows what carrier works best for him.

Sometimes I think UPS spends nights and weekends thinking of new ways to alienate their customers. Why else would they have a set of policies designed to make people chase their tails?

Those of you who live in freestanding homes probably don’t understand the fuss because UPS allows you to put a signature on file, and unless the sender specifically requests a signature upon delivery, your package will be left for you. Apartment-dwellers aren’t so lucky.

UPS’s official stance is that since apartments are so close together, the chance for theft increases exponentially.

Add to that the absurd policy of making their drivers responsible for packages that disappear and it’s pretty much a given that anyone who works during the day and lives in an apartment building (without a doorman) is going to be wildly inconvenienced.

UPS may not have many packages stolen and for that, they should be commended. But a stellar safety record probably doesn’t counterbalance the fact that many of us will simply use another carrier so we actually get a shot at having our packages delivered in the first place.

Alan’s story is a meld of my own and that of several other people who’ve experienced the same frustrating scenario. To wit: I’ve lived in my apartment for years. I know the area and I know my neighbors. Packages left by FedEx and the USPS don’t go missing around here so I have little reason to believe thieves would find those left by UPS any more alluring.

But what I think doesn’t matter. My UPS driver seems to think my tiny beach town has a crime rate rivaling that of New York—so unless a package is small and flat enough to be hidden under my doormat, I have to be here to sign for it.

Alternatively, I can take time off work to go pick up the package myself at one of the service centers. If they were as ubiquitous as Post Offices, that wouldn’t be a terrible hardship. But they’re not.

My way of avoiding it is to simply refuse to buy from sellers who ship only via UPS.

And when I sell, I don’t ship via UPS. I primarily use the USPS and sometimes FedEx. (Both are better than UPS about leaving packages.) I’m not going to take the chance of inconveniencing my customers.

Escape it!

If you’re a buyer stuck in UPS Hell, talk to one of your neighbors to see if she’ll accept packages on your behalf (stay-at-home moms are good ones to ask).

Can you accept package deliveries at work? If so, you can reroute the package there instead. If you live in an apartment complex with a leasing office, someone there is almost always willing to sign for and hold your packages for you.

Otherwise, you’ll have to rearrange your schedule and visit a UPS service center to pick up the package yourself.

Insurance Issues

Insurance is one of the most confusing aspects of shipping.

When an item is lost or arrives broken, buyers and sellers start pointing fingers at each other and screaming about who should eat the loss.

Many sellers feel if a buyer rejects insurance, he’s taking his chances and the seller should therefore not be held responsible if something goes awry.

And buyers feel sellers are the ones in charge of shipping the package so it’s up to sellers to insist on insurance if they don’t want to be held liable should there be a problem.

Who’s right?

As with almost everything else on eBay, it depends on the circumstances.

A Disclaimer and Two Bucks Will Get You a Cup of Coffee

Maggie is a seller of rare books on eBay. All her auctions bear the following disclaimer: "Insurance is optional, but I won’t be held responsible for packages lost or damaged by the Post Office.”

One weekend, she sold one of her expensive books. The buyer rejected insurance, so Maggie boxed up the book and sent it uninsured via the USPS.

When the book arrived, it was completely ruined. It appeared the box had been soaked at some point during shipment, so the book’s hardback cover was warped and the pages were smeared. The whole thing smelled of mold and mildew.

Maggie refused to refund, citing her disclaimer and the buyer’s refusal of insurance.

The buyer then filed a Buyer Protection claim with PayPal. They ruled that since the item was unusable, Maggie was required to refund—even though the book was in perfect condition when she sent it.

She was out not only the $400 purchase price of the book (and the shipping costs) but another $10 for PayPal’s administration fees.

Avoid it!

If I were to guess, I’d say the most common misconception among eBay sellers is that a disclaimer like Maggie’s protects them in the event an uninsured item is damaged or lost in transit.

Except for some very specific circumstances, it’s simply not true.

I can’t really blame people for being confused, though. The Uniform Commercial Code states one thing, PayPal states another, and of course eBay has a set of rules all its own.

Let’s start with PayPal’s rules, since they apply to the overwhelming majority of eBay transactions and thus supersede other policies.

PayPal has an advanced level of protection for buyers called the Buyer Protection Policy (BPP). It kicks in when someone purchases from a seller who qualifies for the protection by having a feedback score of at least 50 with a rating of 98 percent or better. Among other things, the BPP addresses disputes about the quality of items paid for with PayPal.

Boiled down, the BPP states items must arrive in the condition in which they were described in the auction. So unless a book is described as water damaged, it can’t arrive that way or the buyer can file a claim and likely get his money back.

Insurance isn’t addressed anywhere in the BPP. PayPal simply doesn’t care whether or not insurance was purchased, and they certainly don’t care if a seller tries to excuse herself from liability with a disclaimer.

This is why we in the Answer Center so often say insurance protects the seller, not the buyer.

Had Maggie insured the package, she could have refunded the buyer on her own (without PayPal’s intervention) and then filed a claim with the USPS for reimbursement since the book was clearly damaged during shipment.

This would have kept her buyer happy—and saved Maggie $10.

Buyers should note that while the BPP kicks in only with sellers who qualify for it, that doesn’t mean sellers who don’t qualify are off the hook. If you’re a buyer who’s purchased from a non-qualified seller, you’ll find it’s harder to get a damage-related refund but you should still notify PayPal because they will examine your case.

That’s a relatively new policy, and one PayPal doesn’t advertise. In fact, PayPal’s “help” pages specifically state they don’t get involved in “quality issues” unless the BPP applies.

But sellers who otherwise qualified for the BPP were opting out of it to protect themselves against such claims, so PayPal found a way to close that loophole.

PayPal now requires sellers to jump through several hoops if they don’t want to participate in the BPP (which is otherwise automatic to sellers who qualify)—and they still consider claims from buyers even if the BPP isn’t in effect.

Okay, so that’s PayPal’s take on things. What about eBay’s?

Since eBay is only a “venue” and doesn’t handle payments directly, they can’t force a seller to refund regardless of the payment method but they’ll sometimes dig into their own (very deep) pockets to help you.

eBay’s little-used Standard Purchase Protection Program (SPPP) has some rather strict guidelines, though. If you want eBay to cough up money when a seller won’t, it ain’t gonna be easy.

The bottom line is the SPPP won’t entertain claims of damage or loss in shipping unless the buyer purchased insurance.

This detail isn’t on the regular SPPP page at—that page simply states lost or damaged items don’t qualify for the SPPP.

The insurance exception is buried on the “Shipping Concerns” page at (see Figure 4-3). The Shipping Concerns page clearly states that buyers wishing to file claims must have purchased insurance or they’re outta luck.

The teeny tiny insurance exception to the Standard Purchase Protection Program. This is one of the few instances where insurance protects the buyer rather than the seller.

Figure 4-3. The teeny tiny insurance exception to the Standard Purchase Protection Program. This is one of the few instances where insurance protects the buyer rather than the seller.

See, I told you they wouldn’t make it easy.


While USPS insurance must usually be purchased as an add-on, UPS and FedEx shipments automatically have $100 of insurance coverage.

PayPal and eBay’s policies cover just about every possible circumstance, but there are some federal rules you may want to know too. Check out the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) pertaining to sales by going to

Just keep in mind that unless you plan to spend the tens of thousands of dollars it requires to take a case to trial in a federal court, most UCC rules won’t apply to your eBay transactions.

For example, the UCC allows sellers to transfer “ownership” of items to buyers as soon as the items are shipped (thus releasing the seller from any responsibility for what happens during shipment), whereas PayPal considers the item to belong to the seller until the buyer actually receives it.

Some eBay sellers have tried to fall back on UCC rules when items are lost or damaged in transit, only to be met with peals of laughter from PayPal. It has its own rules and everyone who signs up for a PayPal account must agree to them—the UCC be damned.

Escape it!

If you’re a seller in this scenario and the buyer paid with PayPal, there’s no escaping this one. You may be forced to refund whether you want to or not.

Don’t ever send anything without insurance if you aren’t okay with refunding the cost of the item should it go missing or be lost in transit. Everyone has their own comfort zone for the amount they’re willing to risk—mine is in the $50 range. Anything more expensive than that and I’ll buy the insurance out of my own pocket to protect myself if I have to.

If you’re selling an item and you know ahead of time it will fetch a high price, build insurance into the shipping cost and require the buyer to purchase it as a condition of the sale.

You’re within your rights to do that, even if the insurance ultimately protects you instead of the buyer who shelled out the money for it. Just make sure you state the insurance requirement in your auction.

The cost of an education can be quite high. Don’t learn this lesson the hard way.

When Honesty Is the Best Policy

Jacob sold a set of DVDs for the television show The West Wing to an overseas buyer.

The set consisted of the first four seasons of the show (when it was helmed by the brilliant Aaron Sorkin and before it became a pale imitation of the stellar drama it once was, but I digress), and the final selling price was $250.

The buyer paid via an international money order. She then asked Jacob to mark the item as a “gift” on the customs form and declare its value as $50 so she wouldn’t have to pay as much in duties (which are a percentage of an item’s stated value).

Jacob agreed and shipped the item via USPS Global Express Guaranteed (GXE) at the buyer’s request (Figure 4-4). While expensive, GXE is very fast, includes $100 of automatic insurance coverage and is one of the only USPS methods that allows a foreign buyer to track a package.

The day after the DVDs were mailed, all tracking activity for them came to a halt. Jacob was later told they were either lost or stolen, so the USPS refunded him the cost of shipping plus $50—the value he’d declared for the package on the customs form.

Jacob’s buyer was furious when he refunded only her shipping and $50 of her $250 auction payment.

She told him he was responsible for refunding her in full but he didn’t see how that was fair. Why should he be out money simply because he did her a favor?

Avoid it!

Sellers, the way to avoid Jacob’s situation is to be honest on the customs forms. Falsifying them is a very bad idea, and not just to avoid the above scenario. For starters, it’s a crime. No, you probably won’t go to jail for it, but that doesn’t make it any less illegal. Okay, with that out of the way (sorry, I have a degree in criminology and can’t help myself sometimes), let’s examine some likely repercussions.

USPS Global Express Guaranteed offers service and protection normally unavailable for international shipments. Check it out at .

Figure 4-4. USPS Global Express Guaranteed offers service and protection normally unavailable for international shipments. Check it out at

It’s not uncommon for foreign buyers to ask sellers to mark items as gifts. I can’t say I really blame them. If I had to pay a percentage of an item’s value simply because it came from outside my country’s borders, I’d probably want those numbers fudged too.

But here’s a little-known fact… in many countries, Customs holds an item’s recipient liable for any untruths on the forms.

The reason for this is fairly apparent. I mean, think about it. How often is the U.S. asked to extradite someone for filling out a customs form incorrectly?

In other words, it’s much easier for Australian Customs to punish an Australian buyer than an American seller.

“Punishment” can include revaluation of the item (to a number that may wind up being even higher than the actual amount), fines, fees, complete confiscation of the item, and/or being voted off the island.

(Scratch that last part. Just seeing if you were paying attention.)


I read recently that Canadian Customs is now sometimes using eBay to determine an item’s value. Unfortunately the agents aren’t very eBay-savvy, so they may assign a value simply because it was the amount an optimistic seller was asking (and never got) for a similar item.

Another problem, as illustrated in Jacob’s tale of woe, is insurance coverage. If you send a $500 item and state on the customs form that it’s only worth $75, you can’t really insure it for its true value. (In most cases, the amount of insurance can’t exceed what you declare the item is worth.) Even if you could get away with it, you’d raise the eyebrows of an awful lot of Postal and Customs employees.

The opposite is true as well. Don’t try to overvalue an item just for the potential insurance windfall if the item disappears in transit. Shippers like to see proof of what something’s worth before they start shelling out cash, and a printout of an auction page suffices.

They won’t be very happy when you present them with evidence of an amount far less than the declared value and insurance coverage. Words like “fraud” are thrown around in such situations, so it’s better to just avoid it completely. Be honest on your customs forms. If the residents of countries like Canada want to keep their free health care and gunless streets, they need to realize those things cost money and it has to come from somewhere, dammit.

If I sound bitter and jealous, it’s only because I am.

Escape it!

Okay, back to Jacob.

There’s no real escape for the buyer in this situation. Since the buyer didn’t pay with PayPal, Jacob can’t be forced to refund her money.

But let’s be honest, he was just as willing to play fast-and-loose with customs as she was.

Some would say it’s proper for him to at least offer to split the difference and refund half her money. That way they both lose out equally.

Others would say that’s nonsense and the buyer was responsible for the debacle, so she alone should bear the brunt of the financial hit.

And still others would say the seller is responsible for the loss since he’s the one who shipped the item the way he did.

I’ll leave it up to you and your conscience to decide who’s right.

Shipping and Handling

Even though there’s only one story to illustrate the point, it gets a section all its own.

Why? Because not a day goes by on eBay’s message boards without at least one buyer raising eight different kinds of hell because she feels a seller “gouged” her on shipping.

Sometimes it’s true. Usually it’s not.

But it’s always the same story with just a few minor variances.

Let us begin…

Shipping Is Not Postage!

Debra purchased a new eye shadow compact from an eBay seller.

She thought the shipping price of $2.99 was steep but the seller was the only one on eBay with that particular brand and color of shadow, and Debra had been looking for it for a while—so she bid on and later won the item.

When it arrived, Debra was shocked to see the postage on the package was only $1.00.

She left negative feedback for the seller with a statement that his shipping charges were “outrageous” since the postage he paid was so much less than what he’d charged her.

The seller negged her back, and Debra feels she didn’t deserve it.

Avoid it!

If you’re a buyer, I want you to get out a pen and paper.

Sit down and write this: "Shipping is not postage. Shipping is not postage. Shipping is not postage.” Write it 100 times or 1,000 times or however many times it takes for you to believe it. Because it’s true.

People who’ve never sold on eBay usually don’t understand the hidden expenses of shipping an item.

Unless you want your new end table to simply have a shipping label slapped on the leg before being tossed into a truck, you’ll need to take into account everything that goes into getting an item to you safely and in one piece.

In Debra’s case, her eye shadow was shipped in a bubble mailer via first class mail with delivery confirmation.

Bubble mailers cost about $1.00. High volume sellers buy them in bulk for much less, but the occasional seller usually just grabs one at the drug store and pays full price.

Delivery confirmation for first class mail costs 60 cents if it’s purchased at the Post Office. If an online shipping service is used, it’s only 14 cents (see the “Shipping from Home” sidebar earlier in the chapter) but again, the occasional seller usually does things the old-fashioned way.

So $1.00 + $0.60 = $1.60. That accounts for all but 39 cents of the postage “overage.”

But since we all know gas costs as much as smuggled drugs these days, we can safely assume the seller used up 39 cents of it when he drove to the post office to ship Debra’s item.

There you have it. That’s where the “outrageous” overcharge went.

Those little extra expenses add up, don’t they? But to hear some buyers tell it, they expect sellers to eat those costs themselves.

And strangely enough, when you ask one of those buyers if she paid exact postage last time she purchased from an online retailer like LL Bean or QVC, she’ll say she doesn’t know because she never thought to look.

Nearly all retailers charge a handling fee and it goes unnoticed. But eBay sellers are scrutinized much more closely (and usually unfairly) for the same thing.

Now, when I say certain allowances should be made for costs over and above postage, I’m obviously not talking about a seller who charges $100 to ship a tube of lipstick. That is outrageous, and something eBay calls fee avoidance.

But here’s the thing… you should always know what the shipping costs are before you bid on something. They’re usually stated in the auction.


To make browsing a little easier, you can add a column to your eBay search pages that displays the shipping costs for each item shown. Go to the Advanced Search page, click the “Customize search options” link on the upper right, and click the"Customize display” tab at the top. Select"Shipping cost” from the left column and click the arrow in the middle to move it over to the right-hand side. Scroll down, click the"Save” button, and voila!

If you think the shipping costs for an auction are too high, don’t bid.

If the shipping costs aren’t on the auction page itself, email the seller to ask how much they’ll be.

Again—are the shipping charges too high? Don’t bid.

And if he doesn’t respond to the question at all, don’t bid. You don’t want to be stuck with whatever arbitrary figure he comes up with after the auction.

My point is this: as the buyer, you’re in complete control of how much you pay for shipping—as long as you read carefully and ask the right questions before you bid.

If you don’t do that, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Sellers, if you want to avoid unfair negative feedback from uninitiated buyers, consider using stealth postage (Figure 4-5).

Stealth postage is one of the gods’ greatest gifts to mankind (or at least to eBay sellers). requires a shipper to opt-in by checking a box, while PayPal has yes/no radio buttons. But don’t gouge on shipping—use this power for good and not evil.

Figure 4-5. Stealth postage is one of the gods’ greatest gifts to mankind (or at least to eBay sellers). requires a shipper to opt-in by checking a box, while PayPal has yes/no radio buttons. But don’t gouge on shipping—use this power for good and not evil.

Stealth postage is a feature offered by online postage services (such as PayPal shipping, and some levels of membership on that allows a seller to hide the amount of the actual postage he paid. The theory behind it is if the buyer didn’t mind paying that amount for shipping when she bought the item, she shouldn’t mind not seeing how much of it was spent on the postage itself.

It’s a fabulous feature, one I use every time I ship. It simply takes the issue off the table. People can’t complain about something they can’t see.

Table 4-1. 

You can’t ship…


Erasers resembling food in scent or appearance


Skimmed milk in tins

The Bahamas

Cards that play music when opened




Funeral urns


Panama hats




Playing cards


Blank invoices with headings


Musical instruments


Paper, envelopes, pens, pencils

Sri Lanka

Footwear of any kind


Japanese shaving brushes


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