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As a buyer, should I use mail forwarding services?

Mail forwarding solves a common problem, but it can cause problems too

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As a buyer, should I use mail forwarding services?

Mail forwarding is one common solution to the problem of shopping across international borders, but before you use it you should be aware of the complexities that can arise.

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So you want to shop the main eBay site and may have even found goods you'd like to buy—but you happen to be an overseas buyer and the seller(s) in question won't ship to you.

If you don't have family or contacts in the U.S. and after contacting the seller, they won't agree to sell to you overseas, a mail forwarding service can seem like the obvious answer.

There are lots of them around the Internet, and they claim to work like this:

  1. You sign up, often paying a fee of some kind, and shop eBay through their website.

  2. The goods that you purchase are shipped to an address inside the United States that is associated with the forwarding service.

  3. The forwarding service then routes the package on to you, often after charging additional shipping fees.

Sounds plausible. What do you need to know before you begin?

Questions with Answers

Q: Is this allowed under eBay rules?

There is nothing in eBay's rules that specifically prohibits shoppers' use of mail forwarding, although in order to be in compliance, the account making purchases on eBay must have valid contact information and the mailing address to which items are initially shipped needs to match the address of the PayPal account making payment for many sellers to be willing to ship the item.

Q: Are there any drawbacks to using mail forwarding?

In a word, yes.

  • Many sellers don't ship internationally because they prefer not to do business with anyone overseas, because of the added complexities involved, or even because of contract issues related to their suppliers. By using mail forwarding without telling a seller, you may in fact be making a purchase from someone that would rather not sell to you—not a recipe for great customer service, should anything go wrong.

  • You'll wait much longer for a mail forwarding service package than you would for a package that was shipped directly to you from the seller.

  • Your package will be handled by several additional sets of hands. This means more potential for trouble, damage, or mistakes.

  • The added cost of using a mail forwarding service can reduce the cost effectiveness of eBay shopping considerably.

  • Refunds and exchanges can become a big problem, since the seller doesn't know who you are (they did business with someone else, as far as they know), there are multiple addresses involved, return shipping costs can often make refunds almost pointless, and the delays involved can reach beyond the refund or exchange window specified by the seller.

  • eBay buyer protection doesn't apply to items that are received by a mail forwarding service and then immediately shipped to a second party. You might be able to get your mail forwarding service to make the case for you, but you're just as likely to be out of luck if something goes wrong.

Q: Can I see which sellers are happy to sell to me using a forwarder?

Unfortunately, no.

In general, sellers tend to frown on the practice—sellers carefully decide whether or not they're willing to sell internationally and make this clear in their listings. If they offer international shipping, they usually prefer to ship direct to you. If they don't offer international shipping, they probably don't want to sell to you if you're not inside the U.S.

Of course, the way that mail forwarding works can mean that sellers never know that you're buying through such a service—but if something goes wrong with a seller that doesn't offer international shipping, don't expect them to be pleased or to go out of their way to make a return or exchange easy or inexpensive for you.

Some sellers, too, make very clear in their item descriptions that they do not wish to do business with mail forwarding services involved. If you plan to use a mail forwarding service, do not purchase such an item.

Other Things to Know

In general, there are reputable mail forwarding services, but there are also a large number of questionable ones. This is because at the most basic level, a mail forwarding service is very easy to start (all that is required is a U.S. address without any particular infrastructure, training, or policies in place), and most customers never personally see or visit their forwarding service. Some forwarding services even rely on an army of independent contractors and their home addresses, who relabel/reship packages as a side income. Without wanting to suggest that contractors don't do a good job, there are obvious reasons to want to avoid having an expensive purchase handled by a third party who is not a shipping specialist and who processes your fragile and needed package at their kitchen table between dinner and evening tooth-brushing time, potentially surrounded by playing children and Chinese take-out.

If you plan to use a forwarding service, try to use one that is referred to you by family or friends that have had good experiences with it. To select one at random is to ask for trouble.

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