Not Everyone Online Is Honest
I’ve decided to try to come up with the most obvious headline I can think of. Today’s may win the prize. But that obvious news may have gone right by a fellow named Benjamin Okeke. Mr. Okeke recently brought a lawsuit against Cars.com because a seller with whom he struck a deal ripped him off.
Cars.com is an online service where buyers can check out car listings uploaded by sellers. It’s efficient, and you can do it from the comfort of your home, which cuts down on the amount of time you need to hang out with car salesmen. No wonder it’s been a success.
In any event, Mr. Okeke found a 2012 Toyota Sequoia at a purchase price of $13,287. A fellow named “Alan” was selling it. Using a cars.com e-mail feature, Mr. Okeke and Alan closed the deal. All Mr. Okeke had to do was wire the money to a Goldman Sachs account at a Barclays bank in London. Once Mr. Okeke wired the money, Alan would ship the car. Mr. Okeke would have five days to inspect the car, and ship it back if he was dissatisfied. The money would be held in escrow at Barclays.
Have you figured out where this is going yet? Mr. Okeke wired the funds, and never saw the car, nor heard from Alan ever again. Given the unknown whereabouts of Alan, Mr. Okeke decided to sue Cars.com. He claimed the Web site should have taken steps to prevent this type of fraud. Cars.com put up a number of defenses, including the federal Communications Decency Act.
Section 230 of the CDA provides that an operator of an interactive computer service cannot be deemed the publisher of third party content. The Act also provides immunity for the decisions operators make about what to post and not post. The New York court concluded that Cars.com fell right under the CDA protection. It couldn’t be held liable based on the fraudulent content of the third party post. And it couldn’t be found negligent for failing to take the post down. All of that conduct is protected by the federal statute.
I suspect the court would have ruled the same way no matter who the plaintiff was. But the court didn’t consider Mr. Okeke very sympathetic. It seemed to put the blame on him. As it noted, “Okeke wired the funds without taking any precautions, such as confirming the seller’s identity, running a title report on the vehicle, conferring with Barclays that it would hold the funds in escrow for the represented time period, or asking the seller why he was required to wire the funds outside the United States when the seller was putatively located in Arizona.”
So, take note. Apparently, not all e-mail scams originate with an out of the blue, get rich quick offer. Use a little common sense and you might not have to worry about Section 230.