Mary Jo Pletz was really, really good at eBay. But now the former stay-at-home mother and gonzo Internet retailer fears a $10 million fine for selling 10,000 toys, antiques, videos, sports memorabilia, books, tools and infant clothes on eBay without an auctioneer's license.
A Department of State official knocked on the door of Pletz's house here, north of Allentown, in late December 2006 and said her Internet business, D&J Virtual Consignment, was being investigated for violating state laws.
"I was dumbfounded," said Pletz, who led the dark-suited investigator to a side patio area, where he grilled her. "I told him I would just shut down," she said.
The Pletz case has unleashed a political storm in Harrisburg, the state capital, over what – if anything – should be done about regulating Internet auctions in Pennsylvania.
Two bills have been introduced. One would require Internet sellers who run a business to get an electronic auctioneer's license. The other would leave Internet auctions as the Wild West of retail.
Thousands of jobs and the fate of a new-economy industry in Pennsylvania could be at stake. There are 400 so-called Internet retail drop-off stores in Pennsylvania, according to state officials, and 14,000 state residents who earn most of their annual income selling on Internet auctions.
EBay opposes state regulatory action on Internet auctions around the nation and warns that it could threaten the livelihoods of an estimated 430,000 people who "earn a substantial portion or all of their incomes selling on eBay."
Some Pennsylvania officials now acknowledge that Pletz, with her heart-tugging story, was not the best person with whom to make a legal point.
Pletz, 33, opened her Internet business in 2004 so she could stay home with her 6-month-old daughter, Julia, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
She cooperated when told it was illegal, and works at dental offices in Allentown, Bethlehem and Lehighton as a hygienist to help pay the bills at home. Julia, whose health stabilized on medication, is enrolled in day care. Pletz also has a son, Douglas, 7.
But the state has not dropped prosecution. It sent Pletz a complaint in April and an amended complaint in December. The complaint says she could be fined $1,000 for each violation of the state law. The April complaint noted 10,000 sales. Pletz and her attorney, Joseph V. Sebelin Jr. of Palmerton, did the math – $10 million in possible fines. The second complaint does not list a number.
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