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Rounding Up a Posse

A bad EBay auction experience spurs an ad hoc Internet manhunt by ordinary folk, who, like frontier vigilantes, find themselves skirting the law in their quest for justice.

January 24, 2002|CHRISTINE FREY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The posse dogging an online auction seller seized control of his e-mail account, grilled his mother and even assumed his identity in a nationwide hunt for a man they believe swindled as much as $125,000 from buyers through fraudulent Internet auctions.

The members of this squad are not federal agents, police detectives or even private investigators. They are salespeople and investment advisors and registered nurses who say they were bilked online by the 35-year-old Arizona man and used the Internet to track him down.

Like a modern vigilance committee, the 50 or so people from Florida to Alaska seized the community-building power of the World Wide Web both to prompt and to preempt investigation by legitimate law enforcement agencies. Although most have never met, members of the group swapped information daily on a Web site and divided up investigative duties--most of which also were carried out online.

Such a rapid, wide-ranging response by ordinary people would have been virtually impossible just a decade ago, before the Internet gave anyone with a cheap dial-up account instant access to e-mail and massive public databases. They are growing increasingly common, particularly in the realm of online gaming, where players gang up to mete out punishment to miscreants.

But like vigilante gangs of the American frontier, ad hoc communities seeking justice on the electronic frontier sometimes trample the very laws they seek to enforce, as their quest for justice warps into a plot for revenge.

"You just end up with might makes right," said Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

The group seeking the seller claims that the Arizona man and his girlfriend sold 74 laptop computers on five EBay auctions. Winners of the mid-December auctions said the seller accepted payments--which ranged from $1,350 to $3,700--only by cashier's check or money order. Payments made through PayPal or escrow, commonly used in online auctions, were refused.

"It should have tipped us off but it didn't," said John Cobin, an investment advisor from Oxnard and the group's unofficial manager. After sending their payments and not receiving their laptops, several people grew suspicious and e-mailed the nearly 60 other winners, inviting them to join a Yahoo message group and share information on the seller.

Within a day, at least three people reported that the Postal Service tracking numbers they received were falsified.

Winners scrambled to contact the couple, but the phone number they had for the pair soon was disconnected, several people said.

One person, who lives in Arizona, drove to the Phoenix address to which the payments were directed. A man at the address said that the seller and a woman had visited recently but that they did not live there, according to a posting.

Fearing the worst, auction winners contacted officials at EBay, who said they would not accept complaints until 30 days after an auction's closing date. Local law enforcement officials in Arizona said they did not have the resources to handle the case. And the FBI told them to fill out a form and wait.

So they took matters into their own hands.

They began searching online databases for additional phone numbers and addresses. Through various online records, they obtained personal details about the seller, such as his birth date and Social Security number. One man, Joseph Chahine of Ohio, said he even called the Arizona man's mother and obtained his cell phone number.

The Times made several attempts to contact the seller and his girlfriend but was unable to reach them.

A woman who said she was the seller's mother told The Times that she did not know where her son was but that "he's checking all angles that he possibly can to get this straightened out."

"He told me, to begin with, that he had some problems with his shipper," who was sending him the laptops from Florida, she said.

The last time she spoke to her son, the woman said, he told her that he had contacted the police. Her son had received money for the computers but said he was returning some of the checks, the woman said.

He had been buying and selling items on the Internet since about last March, she said. He was not otherwise employed and had been living with her in Glendale, Ariz., until last month, when he "wasn't coming home at nights anymore."

Although she did not know where her son was staying, she said she believed he was with his girlfriend.

Shortly after the group seeking the seller formed, Cobin became its informal leader and began handing out assignments. Laurie complied Arizona ZIP Codes. Sue and Mike researched genealogical records. Pam and Hugh and Pat called the neighbors.

Soon though, squabbles broke out over the direction of the investigation. Some people wanted to hire a private investigator. Others wanted to contact the media. A few wanted the less active members to pick up the slack.

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