eBay’s VIN System Error Costs Me $1,000, They Don’t Particularly Care

It seems like a good idea on the surface: when an eBay Motors seller types in a car’s Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, the site automatically determines the make and model from that number and populates the auction with that information. It’s only a problem if that information is bad…which it was, and just that sort of bad info in a listing led reader S. to spend $1,000 more than he would have for the particular model of used Prius that he bought.  Or was the data he found on Edmunds.com bad?

A few days after the car arrived, he realized the discrepancy and, he wrote to the seller:

Hi [seller]. The car that was advertised was a 2010 Toyota Prius III, the the car that I’ve received is a 2010 Toyota Prius II. According to Edmunds.com, there is almost a $1,000 difference between the prices of Prius II and Prius III. How would you like to resolve this?

The seller wrote back:

Hi [S],
When I put the vin, it automatically decodes the vin which means: it automatically puts the year, make, model and sub model. I put my descriptions and my pictures on the listing but I don’t put the year, the make, the model or the sub model. The 2010 Toyota Prius III on top of the listing came from the vin number, and I didn’t change any of them. Please let me know if you have anymore questions

If you haven’t Prius-shopped, the differences between the models are subtle but would are things that would be nice to have. According to Edmunds, the same site S. consulted, the Prius III has some extra trim options, and according to Edmunds, the two cool extras are a solar roof and a navigation system.

S. turned to eBay customer service after that. He quoted the e-mail from the seller, adding that he contacted a local Toyota dealership and they told him that the sub-model information (that is, a Prius II versus a Prius III) isn’t encoded in the VIN.

Ever-helpful, eBay recommended that he contact his trading partner or call the police. If the seller had sent him, say, a ’92 Camry instead of a Prius, eBay Motors would protect him. If they had sent him a stolen Prius, that would be a matter for the police. if they sent the same model of car with fewer features. Here’s the beginning of eBay’s letter back:

Thank you for writing to us about the 2010 Toyota Prius. I understand your concern regarding your purchase. You did the right thing by contacting us. I would like to provide you with your best options in this situation.

My name is [Redacted] and I will be happy to assist you. Please be aware that package options are not covered under the Vehicle Purchase Protection (VPP) program, Because you received a vehicle with the same make and model, you won’t be able to request a reimbursement through our VPP program.

From there, eBay went on to say, “Call the police or deal with the seller yourself, but leave us out of it.” We paraphrase.

Who is really at fault here? If it was the seller’s error or intentional omission, then they should give S. a refund. We’ve looked at the original auction, which doesn’t list the additional Prius III features for the vehicle and mentions only the “Base Trim Package.” Leaving it open-ended in the initial e-mail wasn’t a good idea. Their answer to “How would you like to resolve this?” was “it’s not our fault!”

One possible starting place would be to contact the state attorney general and Department of Motor Vehicles in both states: where S. lives and where the seller is. As we’re neither licensed car dealers nor attorneys and S. didn’t specify what state he lives in, it’s hard to get into more detail than that. “Wrong accessory package” isn’t usually a major complaint in used car sales, as cool as it would have been for S. to have a solar roof and built-in GPS.

If we can all learn anything from this transaction, it’s that you shouldn’t assume anything from an auction title if you haven’t inspected the car yourself or had a trusted mechanic look at it for you.