Online auctioneer eBay's latest scandal centers on illegal trade in tortoise goods and other endangered wildlife products.

Published January 21, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When environmental activist Gary Appelson logged onto eBay and typed in the words "tortoise shell" at the search prompt earlier this month, he was shocked by what he found. More than 50 auctions were listed -- featuring sea turtle shell hair ornaments, glasses, cases and even a guitar pick -- and most of them were illegal.

After making the discovery, Appelson -- who works for the Caribbean Conservation Corp. in Gainesville, Fla., -- contacted eBay and Bob Snow, a special agent with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife office near San Francisco.

"Quite frankly, we weren't aware of the volume of turtle products," says Snow, who is one of the two agents responsible for investigating wildlife smuggling in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the past year, Snow has spent an increasing amount of his time at work surfing eBay, identifying or investigating roughly 300 auctions involving items prohibited by the Endangered Species Act.

Small as that figure may seem, Snow sees evidence that the problem is growing: a leopard skin here, a black rhino foot there.

Perhaps the most unseemly item that has surfaced was posted on April 12 with the subject line: "frozen baby white tiger." The description posted by the seller reported that the tiger in question was a stillborn offspring from the brood of Las Vegas entertainers Siegfried and Roy, who incorporate endangered white tigers of India into their nightly act at the Mirage. (The tiger actually came from a Las Vegas breeder with no connection to the famous illusionists, according to federal authorities.) The tiger sold for $750 to a buyer in Little Rock, Ark., before an agent from U.S. Fish and Wildlife intervened.

EBay has already banned all trade in wildlife on its site, and it is anxious to stop these illicit auctions -- many of which are prohibited under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which forbids the sale of listed species across state lines. But those efforts may be complicated by the company's desire to remain a laissez-faire virtual flea market.

At any given time, eBay hosts approximately three million auctions, with roughly 400,000 new items and $8 million in trades executed every day. EBay makes no effort to screen those new auctions in advance. With 7.7 million registered users, the eBay community has a population larger than New York.

The site benefits from its hands-off approach in two ways. First, because the auctioneer doesn't vouch for any of the items on the site and doesn't knowingly participate in any sale, it's hard to hold eBay responsible for any criminal traffic that might make its way onto the site. Second, this strategy allows eBay to sell far more items than it could if each sale was authenticated and scrutinized. And why would a company like eBay want to apply the brakes to a gravy train that delivers roughly $500,000 in commissions every day?

That doesn't mean eBay isn't concerned about wildlife trafficking, says Rob Chestnut, a former federal prosecutor hired by eBay to crack down on illegal auctions and reduce fraud on the site. "It's bad for business," he says, arguing that the publicity damage to the publicly traded company far outweighs the money eBay receives in commissions on auctions involving illegal booty. (The total estimated bidding value of the Jan. 6 turtle cache, for example, was only $4,000.)

And this isn't the first brush the San Jose, Calif., company has had with bad publicity. EBay received a lot of press last September when it stopped an auction involving a human kidney that was set to be sold for $5.7 million. But the recent discovery of the sea turtle and tiger sales underscores a continuing problem for the Internet's premiere bazaar: The site has become a popular refuge for illegal wildlife transactions.

As a result, eBay has made a number of efforts to decrease traffic in criminal goods on its site. It has prohibited sales of everything from firearms to fireworks to postage meters. EBay's efforts to enforce its own laws range from the democratic (through user education and community policing) to the Orwellian (sporadic site monitoring and cozy relations with law enforcement officials).

But these earnest efforts, especially the site monitoring, may be tempered by the knowledge that the more eBay does to clean up illegal traffic, the higher the likelihood it will be held liable for auctions gone bad in the future.

If an illegal good were sold through eBay and it ended up harming someone, a plaintiff's lawyer could point out that eBay had procedures in place to cut down on illegal traffic that did not adequately protect the client, according to Lee Levine, a Washington attorney and an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.

The good news for eBay is that many of the violations of the Endangered Species Act are the product of ignorance, not criminal intent, according to investigator Snow. Indeed, many aren't aware that selling that old grizzly bear rug in the attic, or leopard skin coat in the closet, is a violation of federal law. But if the government can prove that there was intent to commit a crime and the seller gets convicted, he can face up to one year in prison and $100,000 in criminal fines. That's why Snow praises eBay's efforts to educate its users with a section on the site dedicated to describing prohibited items.

Only a fraction of the traffic in wildlife involves individuals who know exactly what they are doing, says Snow, and therein lies the problem. "For persons who wanted to sell illegal wildlife," he says, "it provides them an avenue to do it."

Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between the ignorant and the criminal. Take Michael Moore, the man who was caught selling the frozen white tiger -- a gift, he says, from a breeder. (He was also busted for selling a leopard skin.) Moore, a licensed taxidermist, admits that he should have known the applicable laws but pleads ignorance anyway. At the time, he says, he thought there was some exception for a taxidermist selling excess inventory. "I didn't think it was a problem," he says.

Neil Mendelsohn, the agent who caught Moore after stumbling upon the auctions in eBay's taxidermy section, won't comment on Moore's protestations of ignorance, but he did fine Moore $1,500 for the two auctions and confiscated the items. He points out that auctioning an item like the frozen baby tiger creates a market for endangered species. "Just about everybody will tell you they didn't know it was illegal," says Mendelsohn. "There is a burden on the seller to research the law." (A judge apparently didn't agree. He reduced Moore's fine to a paltry $50.)

When Turtlegate broke, Snow tossed a tortoise shell in his car and drove down to eBay's headquarters in San Jose. Snow says the government doesn't have the resources to monitor eBay and the other Internet auction sites adequately, so he focuses instead on educating the auctioneer. He conducted the hands-on demonstration so that Chestnut could teach himself and the staff how to identify illegal turtle products. Not an easy task. The law is complex and the examination occurs via a computer screen.

Chestnut himself couldn't even find the turtle auctions on eBay when he was first alerted. The problem? He was typing "sea turtle" instead of "tortoise shell." And though an extended description of prohibited sea turtles items appeared on the site this week, Chestnut has declared his limits. "We can't have a staff of sea turtle experts," he says.

Because eBay's methods are self-consciously reactive, the problem will endure. A spot check Thursday morning revealed no frozen baby white tigers available at auction, but there was one leopard skin, which the seller declared was real. The auction on that item (under the evasive subject line "leopard skin") began four days ago.

Sellers, intentionally or not, have a habit of staying one step ahead of the investigators. And just because one auction is shut down doesn't mean others won't begin. Indeed, even as eBay started shutting down sea turtle auctions, new ones started popping up, according to Appelson, who says eBay should start screening its auctions.

So what will eBay do if it is lucky enough to see its phenomenal growth continue? Chestnut puts his faith in the community. He says increased site traffic will make it harder for people to conduct illegal business on eBay. "The more we grow," he says, "The more people are watching."

By Ted Rose

Ted Rose is a Washington freelance writer and a contributing editor to Brill's Content.


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