How International Buyers Use Mail Forwarding to Shop eBay

Should sellers ship to mail forwarding services?

Young woman taking package from delivery
••• Getty Images / Westend61

Mail forwarding services have become popular ways for international buyers to shop the large United States eBay site without being restricted to sellers that are willing to ship internationally.

These transactions are supposed to work as follows: An international buyer signs up for a mail forwarding service with a U.S. address. He uses the mail forwarding service to make a purchase on eBay from a U.S. seller. The U.S. seller ships the item to the mail forwarding service address. Then, the mail forwarding service receives the item and ships it on to the international buyer, who pays the associated shipping costs.

All of this makes perfect sense, but the devil—for many sellers—is in the details.

Are There Reasons Not to Be Comfortable With These Kinds of Sales?

In a word, yes.

  • Complexity. Using a mail forwarding service significantly complicates returns and exchanges.
  • Diminished goodwill. International buyers that have already paid high shipping costs and endured long wait times for mail forwarding are often more frustrated—and thus more difficult to work with—than domestic buyers if something goes wrong.
  • Cost disputes. Buyers may expect/believe that sellers ought to cover return shipping if the product is defective—but in mail forwarding cases this can mean very high shipping costs and added headaches.
  • Risk of damage and loss. When a seller ships to a mail forwarding service, they lose control over the shipment method and package handling involved; there is no way to know who will handle the package at the service, how they will handle it or what shipment service they will use to send it on to its final recipient.
  • The difficulty with eBay dispute resolution. Explaining the complexities of the transaction to eBay after the fact—for example, if a buyer protection case has been filed—can be difficult and infuriating, particularly since buyer protection is not supposed to apply to such cases in the first place.
  • Language and culture barriers. Cultural and language misunderstandings and the complexities of mail forwarding can make unhappy transactions and negative feedback far more common.

How Do I Know When I'm Shipping to a Mail Forwarding Service?

The problem for many sellers is that it's difficult, and in some cases, impossible to tell whether an address belongs to a mail forwarding service or not.

For sellers that really only want to deal with domestic buyers, this can be a source of deep frustration.

Why Does eBay Allow This Practice to Continue?

In practice, eBay has no way to know in all cases whether someone is buying "on behalf of" someone else. Mail forwarding runs the gamut, from commercial enterprises with popular websites designed to allow international shopping on eBay to family members in the U.S. simply buying for family members outside the U.S.

Just as importantly, there is a valid business to be done this way; some sellers are happy to ship to mail forwarding services, and some buyers are happy to receive goods through them, understanding the limitations involved.

How Should I Decide Whether to Be Comfortable With Mail Forwarding?

Some sellers are simply not comfortable with the thought of cross-border shipping and international buyers. This is a matter of personal preference and is entirely justified.

At the same time, some transactions are riskier than others when it comes to mail forwarding. Used or highly unusual or complex items are more likely to fall short of a remote buyer's expectations. Very expensive or very heavy items represent greater losses or far greater shipping costs if anything goes wrong. Both of these kinds of transactions are probably best limited to domestic sales for sellers with doubts.

Of course, risks also vary from country to country—and the destination country can be difficult to determine, even if a seller is able to establish that a mail forwarding service is in use.

In the case of mail forwarding transactions, "seller beware" may apply every bit as much as "buyer beware" does, even if there are real dollars to be earned this way.

How to Opt Out

If this kind of transaction doesn't suit you, there are several strategies to employ in order to reduce the chance that you'll do business with a mail forwarding service, or to reduce your risk if you do.

  • Ship only to PayPal verified addresses using a tracked service. When you accept only PayPal payments and ship only to verified PayPal addresses using a service that provides tracking information, you eliminate much of the risk involved. Your responsibility as a seller is to deliver the goods to the official address of the buyer; if you can prove you've done this, you begin in good shape.
  • If you allow returns, indicate that buyers pay for return shipping. On the selling form, be sure to opt to have buyers pay the return shipping costs in the case of an item return.
  • Clearly, reject mail forwarding services in your listing. In your item description, prominently state that you do not do business with mail forwarding services and that you will refuse to complete a transaction should you discover that it includes a mail forwarding service. Indicate that you ship to domestic buyers with residential or real business addresses only if that is your preference.
  • Use only eBay's mail forwarding system. If you should discover that a transaction has gone through a mail forwarding service and that the buyer in question is dissatisfied, communicate with them only on eBay—not through your email address. This way, eBay has a record of all contact involved.
  • Repudiate the transaction. If you have clearly stated that you do not do business with mail forwarding services, have shipped to a PayPal verified address, but still find yourself being contacted by a dissatisfied buyer, state (using the mail forwarding service or the dispute resolution system) at the earliest possible moment that this transaction was against the stated policy outlined in your listing, that the item was not available to this buyer, and that you, therefore, have no obligation to work with him. 

Of course, if this kind of transaction happens despite your best efforts, does go wrong and ends up in eBay's hands in the dispute and/or buyer protection system, things can get frustrating.

Wrapping Up

eBay's customer service representatives have a high caseload and are often confused by the communication that can fly back and forth between parties, particularly if the transaction has been a complicated one and one of the parties doesn't speak English very well.

If the worst happens and eBay rules against you, there's likely not much you can do about one transaction. But you can continue to work to avoid future bad outcomes.

Be sure to immediately block the mail forwarding buyer from all future transactions, to continue to adjust your listing text to emphasize that you don't do this kind of business, and to follow up on negative feedback or even try to have eBay remove it—a feat that can often be accomplished by having eBay check the account's contact information, which often either doesn't work or doesn't lead to an individual with responsibility for the account.