The hidden sexual underworld of eBay and Depop

Jennifer Savin
·14-min read
Photo credit: Hanina Pinnick
Photo credit: Hanina Pinnick

From Cosmopolitan

“Hi hun, how does this dress fit around the chest?” I look at my phone and squint, then read the message again. The use of “hun” suggests this could be a genuine prospective buyer reaching out, keen to know if their potential purchase will fit right. I’ve been selling my old stuff online for 10 years and I’ve never had any reason to hesitate. But, recently, something strange has been happening… I’ve been getting messages from those wanting more than just a second-hand dress. Was this buyer one of them? They send another message: “You look amazing in it. Do you have more photos?” Spotting the person’s username is Barry69,* I get my answer.

It all began with a fitted, crochet dress. It was a tricky item of clothing to photograph, so for once, I decided I’d model it myself – uploading a few grainy images snapped in my full-length mirror. That’s when things began to get a little… freaky. And by that, I mean I received over 20 eBay messages in one week. They ranged from men tentatively asking if I’d sell them foot pictures (“For a tenner would you make a video?”) and enquiring if I’d create “naughty content” to a simple “Hey, I’m Joe, 38. Chat on WhatsApp?”

Overall, they were fairly polite. Unthreatening. While most women will tell you this sort of unprovoked and unwelcome attention isn’t exactly anything new, I sensed there was something else at play here too – something potentially lucrative for certain sellers. Intrigued by exactly how much money could be made, as well as just how far this underground sexual marketplace really reaches, I set out to investigate.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

I strike up an unlikely friendship (if you can call it that?) with GizmoPaul.* He says he’s 30, but considering he has an AOL email address, I’m not so sure. I met him through eBay, the week I posted my crochet-dress picture. He dropped me a line asking if I’d be up for chatting and when I respond, for journalistic purposes, he instructs me to send a screenshot of my email address (eBay doesn’t allow you to send it in a message). Luckily, I’ve long had a fake one for such occasions, which suggests my name is Gemma, not Jennifer. Paul soon reaches out. The subject line? “Beautiful girl from eBay.”

He tells me he’s “born and bread [sic] London” and that his ex-girlfriend was a webcam performer, which is how he discovered that some women sell nudes under the guise of “dress for sale” listings. Paul then adds that he typically begins by asking for… wait for it… “around 30 pictures, some of you in underwear, heels, some topless, then fully naked (some of you bent over – show me what you can do!). Then just 25 pictures of your feet.” These girls must be raking it in, I think, given that he’s such a willing consumer. Until we talk shop. Paul’s generous offer for over 50 intimate images? £5. In total. When he asks if I’ve been scared off, I say, “Only by your prices,” to which he responds, “Sorry, even pervs have a budget – sometimes I get 10 sets a day, so it starts adding up!”

But why eBay? And how does he find these women? After all, the internet is full of places for (self-professed) “pervs” like Paul to get their kicks (we’re all familiar with OnlyFans by this point, right?). Surely he doesn’t need to turn to a site that’s essentially an online car-boot sale? The answer is relatively straightforward: Paul says he prefers “women who don’t usually do this type of thing”, adding, “You’d be surprised how many who’ve never thought of selling pictures have sent me content, some with partners.”

When theorising why, he says, “I suppose the money, but maybe someone offering to pay for pictures made them feel special.” As for how he finds the seasoned professionals, Paul explains there are certain words on eBay that some women use to signal they’re selling a lot more than just clothes – “well-worn”, “private” and “see-through”, for instance. He found my listing because I’d used the word “worn” in the description. Paul rounds off our chat by saying, “Anyway, mother always said don’t ask, don’t get – send us a cheeky pic?”

Days later, a new message lands in my inbox. “Afternoon Lady Gemma, My name is Velvet Lord,* how did you sleep? I would love to talk.” He suggests I download a highly encrypted messaging app which, friends of mine tell me, is mostly used for hook-ups, buying drugs and… as I soon discover, selling wet-look leggings. When I message Velvet, he immediately sends me a video of his erection in a pair. His thick Irish accent can be heard panting in the background saying, “Look at them, they’re perfect. I’m being so naughty.” I find myself shoulder-shaking with laughter.

Photo credit: Hanina Pinnick | Katie Wilde - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hanina Pinnick | Katie Wilde - Hearst Owned

“Will you sell me leggings, Lady Gemma?” the Velvet Lord asks. Keen to keep him talking, I say I’ll consider it and every time he veers off topic (which is frequently, as he keeps sending videos – in one he’s skilfully balancing two pairs of worn leggings on his penis), I tell him he better shut up and answer. “Please don’t hurt your leggings, Lady Gemma,” he replies, “They’ve done nothing wrong!” Have I inadvertently become a dominatrix on a casual Wednesday night?

Velvet tells me he’s a 36-year-old virgin and his fetish is a form of escape. He’s timid and clearly enjoys being dominated. “I first asked for used underwear on eBay 16 years ago, having previously just bought normal things on there. I took a chance and a kind older woman sold me a thong she’d worn in the gym.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Emma’s* eBay profile is made up of ankle pictures (it encourages her buyers to message asking her for a full-leg pic). But she has a USP: she’s a flight attendant. The photos of her feet clearly on board an aircraft always attract the most attention. She soon tells me she trades off sweaty heels or “well-worn” tights in order to fund furnishings for her new home. As do many of her colleagues, who also view it as an easy-win side hustle. “My partner sees this as my scatter-cushion fund,” she tells me with a laugh. “It’s just tights and shoes we sell, nothing that connects you directly to the airline.” She makes it sound so easy, my own boyfriend (upon learning money could be made) was quickly full of encouragement too: “It’s only feet, babe! We could get a new sofa.” Obviously, Paul’s £5 offer for a clip of me fingering myself quickly put an end to that pipe dream.

“Price-wise, it depends how badly they want it,” Emma says. “I’ve sold a pair of tights for £40; I’ve also sold two pairs and two pictures for £50. I’ve been given Topshop vouchers before too.” Men – and in her experience, it’s always men – have asked for everything from dirty knickers to videos of a damp footprint on the floor of a plane.

The most Emma’s ever made in a month is around £200. “You have to watch out for scammers though,” she adds. “Once, one of my colleagues got a message on social media offering hundreds for a foot photo. We all whipped our shoes off and sent it. He replied with a heart-eye emoji… then blocked her.” It’s a dog-eat-dog world, the foot fetish one, I’m learning.

For others, like Louise,* 30, from Hereford, this work is far more than a side hustle – it’s a serious business. “I can make up to £200 on a good day,” she tells me (do the maths and that’s thousands a month). “It depends how much I want to push it.” She started nine years ago, when, like me, she innocently included a picture of herself wearing a dress she had for sale. Someone then got in touch asking if she sold photos. This particular man started off wanting foot content (“he liked worn, fluffy socks and old Ugg boots”), then upped his offers and asked for nudes. When I mention Velvet Lord to Louise, she starts laughing, ‘Those were my leggings in that video! He paid me £75 to wear them without underwear, plus postage and packaging, of course.’ Louise charges Velvet £40 to even speak to her. I’m consider the same with my boyfriend (kidding).

Photo credit: Hanina Pinnick | Katie Wilde - Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hanina Pinnick | Katie Wilde - Hearst Owned

Her own partner (a man she's been with for 10 years) has no qualms about it and alongside her work as a beauty therapist she also has an OnlyFans account – which she uses eBay to “advertise”. Sometimes, she receives up to 300 messages a day. She describes half of the senders as “time-wasters just wanting a chat”, but the bona-fide customers? She believes they use the site to go undetected by their partners – which in her experience has varying degrees of success.

Louise is currently on her fourth account, having been reported by angry wives of her customers in the past, who’ve also sent her abusive messages. Interestingly, she has a small handful of female clients too. On the subject of eBay being used to consensually sell sex, a spokesperson said, “The sale or offer of services that are illegal or sexual, or violate our user agreement, is not allowed on eBay. Used clothing can be sold, but the listing description cannot fetishize the item. Our global security and enforcement team works around the clock to ensure these policies are adhered to.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Sophie* could spot them easily, the predators. All she had to do was look at their search history. “It’d be hundreds of “size 8 bikini” searches, then “men’s XL polo top” or something; their username would be Aimee, but their email registered to John,” she says. It was during her time working as a moderator for Depop in 2017 that Sophie realised how online shopping platforms could be used in sinister ways.

“It’d mostly be complaints regarding missing items, or abusive messages – given that Depop has a largely teen userbase [a third of 16- to 24-year-olds in the UK have downloaded the app], it means things can get bitchy fast,” she tells me of her day-to-day working life. “But then every couple of weeks, a user would pop up that we’d get multiple reports about.” Sophie also tells me it wasn’t uncommon for men to create fake profiles and message young girls, who were selling bikinis and crop tops, asking for more photos.

Often the teenagers (some as young as 14) would send them, not realising who they were really speaking to. Scarily, Sophie adds, “We’d get data requests from the police who had apprehended paedophiles, seized their devices and seen Depop on their phone.”

In Depop’s defence, she says, they were always quick to clamp down on it whenever possible – and could ban whole devices from using the app, not just email addresses – but Sophie is unsure what more can be done to protect these young girls. When I reach out to their VP of Trust and Safety, Fabian Koenig, he says, “We have a zero-tolerance approach towards sexual harassment, inappropriate or predatory behaviour. We consistently enforce our [protective] policies and monitor for predatory behaviour, using machine learning scripts for greater efficiency.”

He continues, “We encourage users to block and report individuals who make them feel unsafe. Additional resources, including tips for parents, are published on our Help Centre.” The thought of a paedophile’s phone screen depicting the red Depop logo still leaves my stomach churning.

And it stays that way as more and more creeps come across my eBay profile. One message reads, “I enjoyed cumming over your listing photos.” That user then barrages me and I can’t find out how to block him. I begin to feel dirty, hating that my photos – posted purely to sell clothes – are being taken out of context by these men. My eyes blur with anger. I try to use eBay’s “live help” tool to report these users, but while they claim they’re helping and taking me seriously, I am told that the same user will still be able to message me.

When I then reach out to eBay’s PR team for a formal comment on my experience, they explain: “We have zero tolerance for abusive behaviour between members and strongly encourage anyone who experiences harassment to report it to us through our Resolution Centre. We take actions against users who violate our policies, including account suspension, and support law enforcement in pursuing individual cases.” I’m starting to see that, although the prospect of making a quick buck from a foot picture seems easy, there’s a fine line between hustle and harassment, and sometimes it tips without you even realising.

Then Fred,* who purchased a black dress from me, messages saying he wants a refund. He asks for my address to post it back to and my number (something that prior to writing this, I’d maybe have given). I desperately don’t want him to know any of these details, but because he’s purchased something from me, my name and email are on the PayPal invoice.

When I ask PayPal what measures are in place for instances like this, they tell me to take it up with eBay, making clear they’re separate companies. When I push it, a spokesperson says, “When someone makes a PayPal payment, the seller’s details are made available to the buyer to complete the transaction. As a financial institution, PayPal cannot allow anonymous transactions.” They add that their user agreement says harassment, threats and unsolicited emails aren’t tolerated. “We have the right to close accounts immediately and to refuse future services.”

It’s at this point that I cast my mind back to when, aged 18, I sold a Lakers cap on eBay to fund a night out. A few days post-exchange, the buyer (a man in his thirties) contacted me asking what I was studying in Brighton, seemingly having spotted my (fairly distinctive) name on the invoice and looked me up on Facebook. He also asked if I had any “used underwear or sex toys for sale”. I just laughed it off and blocked him, never thinking to file a report to eBay.

As women, society has conditioned us to tolerate comments and behaviour like this by the time we’re in our teens. Pulling on this thread also reminds me of the delivery man who once WhatsApped me, saying, “Hi gorgeous, how was your food?” and the cab driver who – at 30 years my senior – asked me on a date as I sat trapped in the back of his car. In our modern world, it’s worryingly easy for people to get our numbers. Our addresses. Photos of us. Each time it’s happened to me, I’ve thought, “Gross, but that’s how it is.” But we shouldn’t have to think like that.

I’m so bored of having to police myself all the time, to be on my guard for harassment. I should be able to post a picture of myself in a dress for sale without being contacted by people like Paul or Velvet. We must refuse to accept this behaviour and report it to the relevant platforms when we see it and, if necessary, the police. But perhaps more importantly, these companies must protect their users, ensuring they enforce their policies to the fullest.

As for women like Emma and Louise, I can certainly see the appeal in taking advantage of a flawed system. While I wouldn’t rule out flogging foot photos in the future (gotta get that house deposit somehow, right?), for now I’ll stick to selling dresses – pictured on the hanger, not on me. ◆

*Names have been changed.

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