NEW YORK – It seemed like a great Christmas deal.

Dr. Steve Wakschal of Staten Island thought he had scored. He paid for and mailed a $380 postal money order, the sum he agreed to pay eBay.com seller Alisher71 for a digital camera and printer that was intended for his son for Christmas. The transaction should have saved him $50.

Instead, it cast him with hundreds of other Internet victims whose wallets are smarting after an eBay.com scam artist swindled them out of their holiday purchases.

“About five days before Christmas, it came to me that it was never shipped,” Wakschal said. “I sent an e-mail to the person. They never answered me.”

Alisher Mardonov, an Uzbekistani who had been living in Florida, allegedly absconded with more than $100,000, Wakschal’s $380 included, pooled from money that was supposed to serve as payment for thousands of pieces of electronic equipment traded over eBay.

Almost 400 people have come forward claiming to be victims of Mardonov, police say. The sheriff’s office in Collier County, Fla., where he is believed to have resided, has been unable to find Mardonov for questioning.

Meanwhile, burned victims are seething. They have organized blogs, petitions and even an online support group, where they commiserate and share tips about how to try to recover their money. They are considering a class-action lawsuit against eBay.

Wakschal said he is working with members of the group to start a donation fund, so that members who have been reimbursed, or members who can afford it, can chip in to restore Christmas gifts to less-fortunate members.

“Luckily for me, I’m in a position where I went to Staples the next day,” said Wakschal, a psychologist. “But there are a lot of heartbreaking stories, where people saved up a long time.”

Tom Adinolfi, who owns Auctions East in New York, a company that sells other people’s items on eBay for a commission, said defrauders on the Web site usually prey on customers looking for electronics.

Adinolfi estimates that 99.9 percent of eBay auctions aren’t fraudulent, and recommends using PayPal, an online money exchange service that allows eBay buyers to use credit cards and offers protection against fraud.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, Mardonov allegedly put hundreds of items up for sale on eBay, the most popular online auction site.

Citing trouble with PayPal, Mardonov persuaded his customers to make purchases with money orders and personal checks.

Would-be buyers, especially eBay-savvy ones, usually question such a restriction, but many were buoyed by feedback left on Mardonov’s profile by other eBay users. The feedback radiated praise for Mardonov, with almost 500 glowing comments dating to December 2003.

Mardonov posted messages through Dec. 15, replying to those who had problems and promising service. But a few days after his last post, all the feedback turned sour, as items due for Christmas delivery failed to appear.

Wakschal tried to stop his U.S. Postal Service money order, but only bank money orders can be halted. Many who tried to put a stop on their checks found that the checks had been cashed already.

Wakschal and others say Mardonov padded his positive feedback rating – one such commenter said Mardonov “wouldn’t stop e-mailing me to leave feedback” – so that customers would be lulled into security.


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