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February 12, 2007

The Paypal Saga

Paypal has become indispensable as a way of transferring money between unconnected parties. When the web first become a means to shop, the traditional methods of payments didn't quite meet the demands of this new frontier. Cheques and money orders worked, but they were slow and difficult to deal with, increasingly difficult as you try to make payments in other countries. Credit cards are great, the payment can be made online in real-time and their usage is valid in other countries and currencies. But the terms of service meant that smaller shops and individuals can't accept credit cards. Along comes Paypal (or X.com as it was known). Their idea, store money in an account with them that you can transfer in from a bank account or credit card. You can then send money from this account to another party who can transfer the money to someone else or back to their bank account. I sure wasn't eager to get my money locked into an account with an unknown party. But after a while, Paypal grew successful and I tried it, instantly transferring money from my credit card to Paypal and then to another party. Paypal is basically the only way to transfer money between individuals over the internet now. The service is invaluable, simple and reliable. The fees are also fairly reasonable, although sneaking up. The big issue is the edge cases. Customer service is near useless. Customer service phone numbers are hard to find, and individuals are discouraged from calling toll free. As far as I can tell, reps that answer the phones cannot make any changes to a transaction or account. The end result is that their answer always becomes, email customer service. Emailing customer service is a long trying ordeal. You aren't likely to get an answer to any question in any response, you also aren't likely to get a timely response. You're likely to go in circles, getting the same answers and asking the same questions over and over again. Normally you wouldn't need to use customer service, even a dispute over a payment can be handled automatically on the web interface. In two cases where I received products that were not as described and could not resolve the issue with sellers, I lodged complaints with Paypal. Paypal resolved neither case. The protection system is easily foiled, in one case it was obvious a tracking number of any kind was sufficient to prove that an item was received. It didn't really matter where the tracking number indicated the package was headed or if it was delivered. They really don't care if you don't get what you paid for. They care a little more if you don't get anything. In the latest case, I didn't receive an item, didn't receive any email responses from the seller and filled a claim with Paypal. As I neared the deadline for my Paypal dispute expiring, I finally received an item, but it wasn't what I ordered and I couldn't even use it. To avoid the dispute expiring I proceeded to the next step, filled a claim and indicated that I received something, but not the right thing. Shortly there after, Paypal awarded a decision in my favor and refunded the payment. I contacted the seller to return the item I received. Weeks later, still having heard nothing from the seller, Paypal reversed its decision. They sent me a notice that the decision was reversed and that I needed to "provide business information" or my account would be limited. I was confused and emailed customer service, I'm not a business, I couldn't even provide business information when I tried. Given the round and round treatment by customer service my account gets locked down because I haven't been able to meet their requirements. Limited access means I can't make or receive payments and can only fund my account via bank account. I guess the account state is generic, it doesn't make sense to limit and prevent money from flowing into my account to make the payment. During this period, attempts at receiving funds and making payments result in odd error messages that are completely unrelated to the limited access state of my account. Eventually I'm sick of email circles and dig around for the customer service email and call when they are open during normal business hours. The long summary is, the decision to rule in my favor in the dispute was a mistake, they reversed it and they needed me to refund the money and I would have to email once I did. Providing business information had nothing to do with it and made no sense since I had a personal account. After complying with the now clear request, I dutifully sent off the email using the exact phrasing the customer service rep said and including all the required and pertinent information. A while later I get a response in something resembling english stating they could not comply with my request. I noticed that my account was unlocked at this point. It has been a while and I have no idea whats going on with this, its just in limbo, so I'll leave it there, I'm not going to continue to fight with them to provide a refund they refused to accept.

Comments (1)

In Stock?

The web has dramatically changed the way we shop. From gathering information on products we know about, to discovering new products, to finding sources of old or obscure products, to finding sales and discounts. Many existing Brick and Mortar (B&M) retail shops have launched web based shops to compliment their B&M stores, both to grab market share and to allow them to tailor more specific offerings that suit the online store model. One the big advantages of an online store backed by a B&M retailer is the leveraging of the B&M stores as outlets of the web store. This allows returns and exchanges to the physical store, which greatly simplifies the process and improves customer service. One of the other advantages is by using the online store as a informational front end for B&M shoppers. People can browse items, descriptions and pricing online before venturing to a physical B&M store to make the final selection and purchase. In this usage model a handy feature is stocking status of a product at a specific location. I've seen several companies launch this feature, some withdraw and relaunch it later, but I've never really seen it work properly. In every case, the stock status is either not available or incorrect. It is especially troublesome when a specific trip is made to a store, but the item is nowhere to be found, even though plenty of stock was indicated. Pure online stores also suffer from erroneous stock status. It is usually less troublesome though. The stock indicator would usually only be used as a deciding factor between otherwise equivalent items, or as a deciding factor between otherwise equivalent stores. For a pure online store, the business model is usually such that much of the product ships directly from a distributor and thus it is fairly obvious to see how this stock status can be completely out of whack, but certainly not excusable. Bottom line, if you are going to provide the information, make sure it is correct. I'm pretty sure its critical for operating a retail store to have an exact idea of what products are stocked where, so it can't be that challenging to present the information to the consumer.

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February 08, 2007


Spam is a big problem, blah blah, everyone knows that by now. I had a chance recently to work on an anti-spam solution implementation. I thought I'd share some of the results. We implemented the solution with all open source products. Postfix was used up front as the MTA. The first line of defense was the Spamhaus SBL and XBL lists, dropping approximately 50% of incoming messages. From there, we used SQLgrey to implement greylisting, knocking out roughly a further 40% of the incoming messages. Next the MTA was setup to reject mails to invalid recipients where it could determine validity (Exchange severs are set by default to give moot answers to vrfy requests). Then the remaining messages got passed through SpamAssassin. We configured SpamAssassin to use the RBL tests, the Razor hash system and some custom rules, scores and RBLs. There were some false positives and negatives, most of the false positives were removed with tweaks to the rules. Approximately 0.3% of the incoming messages were delivered to the end recipient. The peak traffic day saw around 1,300,000 incoming messages which resulted in around 4,000 actual messages delivered to user accounts. The solution we implemented was a front end anti-spam filter for several different domains. We noticed that each domain had a unique set of spam directed towards it and each of the anti-spam measures varied in effectiveness for that domain.

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February 05, 2007

Who changes the light bulbs?

More and more these days you see the little things left unchecked at corporate entities. Is it because as time went on, the responsibility for that task went unassigned? Or is it that the task was outsourced to the lowest bidder and they just don't do as good a job? Or is it that no-one really cares anymore? With the increased focus on productivity and profitability, this happens. Short cuts are taken to cut costs and allow employees to focus on revenue generating tasks. With the evolution in the corporate culture, fewer and fewer people care about doing whats possible for the best interest of the corporation. Or even worse, people are prevented from taking action, even if they cared. It is simply amazing how little things left unattended can snowball. The monkey-see monkey-do mantra takes effect, and morale can sink incredibly fast and be hard to recover, fixing those little things isn't going to do it. And the effects certainly aren't limited to internal issues. As time passes and the issues grow, customers will take notice, problems will start occurring more frequently and revenues will drop. So my question is, who is checking for burnt out light bulbs and changing them?

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