The first eBay seller to be prosecuted for bidding in his own auctions to boost the price of his goods was ordered to do 250 hours of unpaid work today by a judge who also told him to pay £5,000 in fines and costs.
Minibus firm owner Paul Barrett was told by a judge at Bradford Crown Court he would have been facing a prison sentence if it had not been for his lack of previous convictions and the relatively small sums involved.
The court was told how the case, involving so-called shill bidding on eBay, was the first of its kind in the UK following the introduction of new legislation.
The judge was told Trading Standards investigators discovered the 39-year-old used two logins - "paulthebusman" and "shanconpaul".
He would advertise under one but put bids in using the other to boost the price.
The court heard his two eBay identities were set up using the same contact details and IP address.
The items involved included two Mercedes vehicles, a pie and pasty warmer, a cash register, a refrigerated display counter, three mobile phones, a Land Rover and a digital camera.
The judge was told how, in some cases, Barrett ended up winning the auctions and he would often then leave positive feedback on himself.
In relation to a vacuum cleaner he left the comment: "Thanks very much. Item is great," the court heard.
Harvey Murray, prosecuting, gave the example of how Barrett fixed the price of a pie and pasty warmer.
He said the defendant put the item up for auction under the username "shanconpaul" with the sale due to close at 1.28pm on May 30, 2008.
Mr Murray said Barrett logged on as "paulthebusman" and placed five bids in the run up to the deadline between 12.53pm and 1.23pm on the date.
The bidding was at £74 just 35 minutes before the deadline, the prosecutor said.
It sold for £127.
Trading Standards Officers uncovered Barrett's eBay practices when a complaint was made about him by a customer who claimed he had been sold a "clocked" 16-seater minibus which was advertised on the site.
The court heard the buyer found the minibus was advertised with a mileage of 55,013 miles but had actually done 132,401 miles.
The complaint sparked a trawl of Barrett's eBay dealings.
Sentencing Barrett, Judge Peter Benson, said: "Had you had previous convictions for dishonesty the result would have been a custodial sentence. If you had profited to a substantial extent to sentence could well have been a custodial sentence."
Instead the judge imposed a community order involving 250 hours of unpaid work.
He also fined Barrett £3,500 and ordered him to pay costs of £1,456.89.
The court heard how it was very difficult to put a figure on the difference between what Barrett made from the sales and what he would have achieved if he had not dishonestly intervened.
The judge said the practice of shill bidding echoed the long standing practice in "traditional auctions" of "taking bids from the wall".
This is where auctioneers would take fictional bids to push a price up.
He said: "That doesn't lend it any air of respectability. It is an obviously dishonest practice whichever way one looks at it."
Judge Benson also said eBay relied on users being able to trust each other.
He said "This sort of conduct strikes at the heart of that trust which is vital if this very, very useful commercial medium is to continue to operate successfully."
Barrett, of Stanley, Co. Durham, admitted 11 charges under the Business Protection from Misleading Marketing Regulations 2008 and the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.
The two new laws were brought into force two years ago to tackle growing internet fraud after an EU directive to bring existing UK consumer protection up to European standards.
Balding Barrett, who is married with a teenage son, stood in the dock wearing a dark blue suit.
Vanessa Canzini, eBay's head of corporate communications, Europe, said the company welcomed today's ruling.
"We are extremely pleased with Paul Barrett's sentence," she said.
"While this case was not solely about shill bidding, we hope that it highlights how seriously we consider the practice of artificially increasing prices.
"This practice is not only prohibited on eBay as it damages the integrity and fairness of trading on our site, but it is also illegal.
"We continue to invest over £6 million every year in industry- leading technology to proactively detect shill bidding.
"We will always work closely with law enforcement agencies to ensure that, on the rare occasion someone attempts to follow in Barrett's footsteps, they will be stopped and will face the consequences."