Brace yourself for the eBay robocalls [update]

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(MarketWatch) Most people ignore notices from Internet companies about changes to their terms of service. Who wants to read boring legalese that you don't get to change or negotiate anyway? But doing so can give you a heads-up to what you might expect to see on the screen ... or hear on the telephone.

Yes, the telephone, in the case of eBay. The latest update has new provisions for the company to place calls to users, including "autodialed and/or pre-recorded message calls," whether on traditional landlines or mobile phones, even if you didn't offer your numbers to eBay. Mobile phone users could also receive SMS messages, even if users are charged by their carriers. And the contacts can be marketing on behalf of third parties. In other words, eBay has covered itself for a new revenue line if it provides audio promotional services to other companies.

Apparently eBay has been calling some customers since at least last summer. But the new notification seems to be the first time that the practice has been stated so obviously.

The eBay email, sent early Sunday morning, announced changes to the user agreement, privacy policy and buyer protection policy. The portion relevant to receiving telephone calls is called "Authorization to Contact You; Recording Calls." It provides permission to telephone users:

You agree to receive calls, including autodialed and/or pre-recorded message calls, from eBay at any of the telephone numbers (including mobile telephone numbers) that we have collected for you as authorized and described in our Privacy Policy, including telephone numbers you have provided us, or that we have obtained from third parties or collected by our own efforts. If the telephone number that we have collected is a mobile telephone number, you consent to receive SMS or other text messages at that number or on that mobile device. Standard telephone minute and text charges may apply if we contact you at a mobile number or device.

In other words, even if you have not provided a telephone number for eBay to use, the company can still call or text if it can find your number from other sources, even you incur a cost to receive the call or text.

There are two general cases in which eBay can call or text users. One is related to using the company's services and could include collecting a debt, resolving a dispute, or enforcing the user agreement.

The other is "for marketing, promotional, or other reasons that you have either previously consented to or that you may be asked to consent to in the future." Users can opt out in the "communications preferences" section under the "account" tab on MyeBay.com. Go to "promotions and surveys" and be sure that the "phone updates and promotions" section is unchecked.

The user agreement explicitly says that eBay "will not share your telephone number with non-affiliated third parties for their purposes without your explicit consent," strongly suggesting that the company will consider placing marketing calls for such non-affiliated third parties. In addition, eBay is allowed to pass user phone numbers to "members of the eBay corporate family" and also to "affiliates," which would also be third parties. Even though the page states that eBay companies or affiliates "will only contact you using autodialed or prerecorded message calls and/or SMS or other text messages, if you have requested their services," that is still a vague restriction and does not indicate what happens if an affiliate ceases being affiliated.

Although the user agreement currently reads that it was updated on Feb. 4, 2013, and takes effect March 26, an examination of archived versions suggests a different history. The change actually appears to have taken place in January. An archived version that the Internet Archive made on Jan. 28 indicated that eBay had updated its terms in August 2012. There was no mention of telephone calls.

But the version showing on the Internet Archive on Jan. 20, 2013, still claiming that it had last been in 2012, had the additional wording about telephone calls.

[Update: The earlier version of the user agreement did have language about telephone calls from "eBay, its affiliates, agents, and independent contractors," but not about calls being placed for marketing purposes or any call being placed on behalf of non-affiliated third parties.

An eBay spokesperson claims that "affiliates" are part of the eBay company, but that does not explain why the lawyers would mention affiliates and members of the eBay corporate family as two separate things. It may be that eBay partners with companies, particularly internationally, to offer services in other parts of the world, but they would still be third parties.

The eBay spokesperson pointed out that although earlier versions of the user agreement did mention permission for eBay to contact users, they did not mention calls for marketing purposes nor calls on behalf of third parties.]

MoneyWatch has questions in to eBay and will update this story when answers arrive.

Image: Stock.xchng user swissboy

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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