How eBay knows if you've listed an 'exotic' banned item

In 2021, eBay blocked approximately 389,000 listings that violated their wildlife or animal welfare regulations.

eBay’s Regulatory Director Mike Carson spoke with Yahoo News Australia from the United States about the company’s developments to clamp down on banned items, particularly those which impact wildlife.

He’s been with the company for 17 years and had countless “weird things” come across his desk for review over the years, including giant bees and a rotting beached whale.

Left - an eBay box. Right - a cat in a box
Live animals have been banned from being listed on eBay in Australia. Source: Getty - File

Decisions on what can be traded on its site are largely based on the regulations in each jurisdiction it operates in, however when it comes to elephant ivory a choice was made in 2008 to ban it across the globe.

Opera House yabbie traps were also prohibited ahead of government crackdowns in Australia after their use was linked to the deaths of platypus.

They've been added to a list that outlaws bear traps, shock collars, glue traps and steel-jaw leghold traps in Australia.

Live animals, other than sea monkeys, aquarium cultures and composting worms, are also prohibited from being traded.

How eBay tackles ‘bad actors’ selling prohibited goods

Sellers who break eBay’s rules have their posts taken down and are educated about what triggered the delisting.

A smaller group of sellers known internally as “bad actors” regularly work to circumvent eBay’s policies by testing filters, trialing keyword combinations, using numbers instead of letters, or listing in the wrong category.

One common trick was using the term “ox bone” to list ivory products after they were banned from the site in 2008.

Thirteen years on, Mr Carson said ivory remains the “item that we’re looking for and finding the most”.

“By nature it’s probably in so many products throughout history, so there’s just so much of it out there.”

How eBay’s automated filters search out illegal products

The majority of prohibited products are picked up using automated filters targeting keywords which can result in an automatic blocking.

“Ideally we block it up front, before it’s ever listed on the site,” Mr Carson said.

“When it’s blocked they get sent a message which shows them what the policy and the reason why this item’s prohibited.”

Other items are flagged for review by customer service agents who will then remove anything that violates eBay’s policies.

eBay has banned the sale of ivory from all of its websites. Source: Getty (File)
eBay has banned the sale of ivory from all of its websites. Source: Getty (File)

Smaller teams proactively monitor eBay’s site searching for new items that may not yet be captured by the company’s filters, or items sold using methods that are camouflaged with discreet language or images.

Each group has its own specialisation as they work to fight listings of prohibited items, and the company is also always searching for linked “bad actor” accounts.

How eBay is using AI to combat wildlife crime

Artificial intelligence is playing an increasingly important role at the company, with machines about to predict how sellers may try to “evade the system”, as well as give insights into the conduct of individuals based on their history.

“If they have previously hit a filter, or a block, or previously had a restriction they may get closer scrutiny upon listing than a seller who has a good selling history,” Mr Carson said.

“It’s always trying to find that needle in a haystack in 1.5 billion listings.”

The company is also working to better analyse and understand images uploaded to the site.

This can involve finding “offending words” hidden in pictures to avoid triggered alerts based on keywords.

‘Enhanced consequences’: How eBay fights repeat offenders

While many ivory products posted online are done so without the seller knowing they're breaking eBay’s policies, there are some traders who will do so knowingly, or even try and lead a buyer off the site.

“They may indicate, hey if you’re looking for the other stuff… contact me here and I’ll show you where to go,” he said.

For sellers of illegal products, eBay will sometimes refer them to their “enhanced consequence guidelines”.

Repeat offenders can receive a temporary or permanent suspension of their account.

Pangolin products have become an emerging problem for eBay to combat. Source: Getty (File)
Pangolin products have become an emerging problem for eBay to combat. Source: Getty (File)

When it comes to reducing criminal conduct on the site, their Global Asset Protection team works alongside law enforcement.

This can involve proactively referring potential endangered species items to the authorities and receiving reports about high level criminal activity which have on occasion resulted in arrests.

Emerging wildlife trends eBay is battling

In order to identify emerging trends, formulate policy and education, Mr Carson said eBay works with WWF and IFAW through the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online and the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance.

“We spend a lot of our time trying to keep items off the site, take them down… but if there’s always demand for these products people are always going to try and list them,” he said.

“So we’re trying to address that side of the equation as well.”

Four or five years ago, Mr Carson said he’d never heard of pangolins, but today they are one of the globe’s most trafficked animals.

“They appear in commerce in different ways. They might appear on eBay in a much different way than they would appear in markets around the world,” he said.

“We’ve seen people try to list those using the term anteater boots, or things like that.”

Another creature that grew from obscurity to a major trafficking headache for eBay is Wallace’s giant bee.

“It’s literally a giant bee insect that was thought to be extinct for a number of years,” he said.

“It was recently rediscovered and then we found a couple of listings on eBay, took those down, and we were able to put filters in place.”

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