Home > Internet Columns > Jan. 19, 2003

Shuttle mishap sends buyers, sellers rushing to online auctions

Feb. 9, 2003


In the hours after the disintegration of space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry over Texas, auction giant eBay was hit with a huge surge of users looking to buy and sell space shuttle memorabilia. Many sellers were posting auctions within 90 minutes of the disaster, hoping to take advantage of the world's interest in the Columbia and her crew.

Mission patches for the Columbia's final mission, STS-107 (available from official Web sites for $4.95) were attracting bids of 10 to 20 times that and more. The bidding for one patch posted on eBay 30 minutes after the Columbia's 9:16 a.m. touchdown time topped $1,275.

Media reports of Columbia debris showing up in auction listings attracted even more attention for eBay. The debris listings, which were apparently hoaxes, were quickly taken off eBay. I spent a lot of time on eBay in the days after the disaster and never found a single debris auction.

The prices for legitimate items quickly escalated in the first days following the disaster. Some eBay users began posting anything they thought would sell. Some users printed out official NASA photos and documents (available free on the Web) and sold them to memorabilia hunters. Even media photos from wire services (printed out on home printers) were listed for sale in the $25-$50 range. Some sellers assembled "mission kits," consisting of a full-color launch program, T-shirt with the mission logo and a patch with a selling price of $149.95. The same items purchased separately from the Johnson Space Center Web site totaled less than $21.

Other eBay'ers who sought to cash in on the demand for Columbia memorabilia created auctions not for the actual items, but for the links that would take you to a Web site to buy them for the "regular" price. Ironically, a number of these sellers accused other memorabilia sellers of price-gouging -- though they themselves were selling a link to a Web page that could located at no cost by typing "shuttle patch" on any search engine.

Within 36 hours, more than 5,600 auctions were listed under "shuttle Columbia."

Some unusual memorabilia joined the thousands of Columbia-related auctions on eBay.

One auction was for one of three STS-107 "special edition" 2003 Chevrolet Cavaliers. "This is a brand new, special edition 2003 Chevrolet Cavalier with COLUMBIA STS-107 stenciled in red on the side," this listing stated. "This is definitely a car to be seen in driving on the road." The minimum bid for the cars was $24,000 each. The seller ended the auctions before the cars were actually sold.

Several Internet domain names were listed for sale, including www.columbiamissionsts107.com (with a "Buy It Now" price of $5,000), and www.shuttle-columbia.co.uk for $1,800. In the days following the disaster, speculators registered dozens of shuttle-related domain names.

The surge in Columbia auctions ignited a firestorm of debate, protests and counterprotests on the eBay Community message boards. Users hotly debated the ethics of selling memorabilia just hours after such an immense national tragedy. Many called on eBay to stop all auctions of Columbia memorabilia out respect for the seven crewmembers who perished. EBay staffers promised to pull illegal auctions and those that violated its rules, stopping short of a ban on all Columbia-related items.

But as many users pointed out, eBay had an interest in allowing legitimate auctions to proceed since they earn money on successfully completed auctions.

Some users who were frustrated by eBay's apparent decision to let legitimate auctions proceed took matters into their own hands by becoming vigilantes, hoping to stop Columbia-related auctions at any cost. Many of these vigilantes created new eBay accounts and used them to sabotage auctions by submitting ridiculously high bids they did not intend to honor, or ending auctions by using the "Buy It Now" feature.

As you might expect, over time the rush to buy and sell Columbia-related items subsided. A week after the tragedy, there were still roughly 5,500 Columbia-related auctions listed on eBay. Prices for most items have returned to what would be considered near-normal levels, and the debate over selling Columbia-related items has cooled.

In the end, the ethical questions surrounding the sale of Columbia-related items must be answered by each of us as individuals. As one eBay seller said, "If you don't like what I'm selling in an auction, don't bid!"

IE UPDATE. Microsoft issued a "critical" security update for its Internet Explorer Web browser last week.

According to the company, two new security problems make it necessary for users to update their Internet Explorer browsers. The versions affected by the problem include Internet Explorer versions 5.01, 5.5 and 6.0.

To check which version of the browser you have, click the "Help" button on the top menu bar and go click on "About Internet Explorer."

The latest security bug could enable a Web site operator to load malicious code onto a user's computer system, and even start executable files on the computer.

For more information on the free software update to fix this problem, visit www.microsoft.com and click on the "Cumulative patch for Internet Explorer" link on the right hand side of the home page.

TAXING SITUATION. Beginning this month, if you buy something from one of the major online retailers you can expect to pay sales tax -- even if the retailer doesn't have a store in your state.

The list of retailers includes Wal-Mart, Target, Toys R Us, Amazon and others.

The move follows work to promote the Streamlined Sales Tax Project, an initiative by the National Governor's Association to get states to simplify sales tax laws. The goal is to make it easier for online retailers to collect sales taxes.

Under current federal law, Internet retailers must charge sales tax if the buyer is located in a state where the company has a physical presence, which means a store, office or distribution center.

The Internet Tax Freedom Act remains in place, but only prohibits states from taxing consumers on the use of Internet provider services. The law doesn't apply to sales taxes or federal taxes.

The incentive to amend state sales tax laws is simple -- money. A report by the University of Tennessee last year estimated that all 50 states could collectively lose more than $45 billion in Internet sales tax revenue in 2006.

Fewer than half of all consumers are aware they can avoid sales tax by buying online, and nearly two-thirds said they didn't go out of their way to avoid paying sales taxes in the first place.

As states' budget woes increase, you can bet that collecting sales taxes from online retailers will become more important.

Comments and questions about this column may be sent to jbrooks@myoldkentuckyhome.com, or visit www.myoldkentuckyhome.com on the World Wide Web.

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