2010-08-07 20:13:52 UTC - Original Post
Here's an outline of the kind of escrow transaction that's possible in software.  This is not implemented and I probably won't have time to implement it soon, but just to let you know what's possible.

The basic escrow: The buyer commits a payment to escrow. The seller receives a transaction with the money in escrow, but he can't spend it until the buyer unlocks it. The buyer can release the payment at any time after that, which could be never. This does not allow the buyer to take the money back, but it does give him the option to burn the money out of spite by never releasing it. The seller has the option to release the money back to the buyer.

While this system does not guarantee the parties against loss, it takes the profit out of cheating.

If the seller doesn't send the goods, he doesn't get paid. The buyer would still be out the money, but at least the seller has no monetary motivation to stiff him.

The buyer can't benefit by failing to pay. He can't get the escrow money back. He can't fail to pay due to lack of funds. The seller can see that the funds are committed to his key and can't be sent to anyone else.

Now, an economist would say that a fraudulent seller could start negotiating, such as "release the money and I'll give you half of it back", but at that point, there would be so little trust and so much spite that negotiation is unlikely. Why on earth would the fraudster keep his word and send you half if he's already breaking his word to steal it? I think for modest amounts, almost everyone would refuse on principle alone.