Abstract: Caveat Emptor - buying photographic equipment

Bob Atkins Photography


Caveat Emptor - Buyer Beware

How to avoid the scams and crooks when buying photo gear

Buying New

What's so hard about buying new equipment? You search the internet, find the lowest price, fill in the order form, give your credit card info, then you sit back and the item appears on your doorstep a few days later. Right? ...well, maybe, sometimes, if you're careful...

There's no substitute for the friendly local camera store of course, but unless you happen to live next door to major discount store, your friendly local camera store will probably be a pretty expensive place to buy most equipment. If you don't mind paying for service, give them your support, but if you're in the majority, you'll be looking for the best deal that won't result in you tearing out your hair and wishing all sorts of nasty things to happen to the vendor you've chosen. "The best deal" means probably means you'll be using mail order in some form or other, but caveat emptor - buyer beware.

Scum of the Earth

So where are the problems? Well, much lies in "..find the lowest price...". The scam artists out there play on greed. They know some people will shop by price alone and that's where they reel in the suckers. It's not called "bait and switch" for nothing. The really cheap camera is the bait. Looks great, it's $500 cheaper than you see it sold at the major camera stores, you start to drool, you get out your credit card and you place the order. What happens next. Usually you get email saying "please call us to confirm your order". So you do...and that's where it starts. The item you've ordered isn't quite what you thought it was. The low price no doubt applied to the Malaysian/Korean/Outer Mongolian made version which comes without the battery, charger, manual, strap, instruction book and software. All those cost extra. In fact your best bet would be to switch the to the full USA model, which is....$500 more! So you agree and a couple of weeks later (maybe) it arrives, along with an invoice for the full price - with $85 in shipping and handling charges added in. So their plan worked. You took the bait, they made the switch, and you end up paying more than you would have if you'd ordered from a reputable store. Lets just hope everything works as the typical "bait and switch" store (also known as "Scum of the Earth Photo") has a customer service department which consists of toll number with an answering machine playing a message "all our customer service representatives are busy....". You know the rest. BTW if you say you actually WANT the Malaysian/Korean/Outer Mongolian made version which comes without the battery, charger, manual, strap, instruction book and software, it will be out of stock and they won't know when the next shipment is coming in.

There are other variations on this theme. Some stores may take your order, then see if they can find the items you ordered. They'll tell you it's in stock when you order it, but that stock will mysteriously vanish from the shelf seconds after your order is accepted.You could be waiting weeks or months and they may charge your credit card when you place the order, not when (if) the ever ship something. Some stores advertise a brand name lens, then when you call them they don't have it in stock, but just because they want to help you they'll sell you a 3rd party lens made by someone you've never heard of for the same price - how generous of them. There's basically no end of ways they'll try to part you from your money. Some will ship you the wrong item (a cheaper item) in the hope that it will be too much trouble (and they'll make sure it's a lot of trouble) to return it. Another frequent practice is to ship grey market items (which in some cases are not covered by a manufacturer's warranty) when USA warranty items have been ordered and promised.

How do they stay in business? I've no idea. They probably depend on the old saying that "there's a sucker born every minute". I guess most people don't file charges against them and often they just bend the law to the breaking point, they don't actually break it. They'll just make shopping an experience worse than a root canal without anesthesia. Sometimes when they do get caught, they go out of business and open up under a different name. Most of these stores are in the New York City area (you've got to love New York). However many of the best and most reputable stores are also in New York, so location is no guide to respectably and honesty.

Check 'em out

So who are these "Scum of the Earth" photo stores - well, that's something you can find out fairly easily. Actually listing them here could result in a law suit so I'll leave it as an "exercise for the reader". You may be surprised to find that many of them run large ads in  the consumer photo magazines. They come and go, sometimes changing their names when their reputation gets too well known. Luckily it's pretty easy to check out most online stores.

You can visit a site such as Bizrate.com or try the local Better Business Bureau (e.g. the NYC BBB for the New York stores). Believe what you read. If 95% of the reports say the store is scum and 5% say it's great, if they're offering you an EOS 10D for $250 less than the big photo retail stores, chances are you aren't going to be in that 5% who were happy. Those people probably bought a roll of film, or maybe they all work for the store. Either way, you aren't going to be one of the lucky ones.

Who are the good guys?

This site has two photo retailer affiliates I can recommend.

First there is Amazon.com. While you may think of them as a bookstore, these days they carry a wide variety of digital cameras and lenses (including "top of the line" DSLRs and professional lenses), printers, scanners and photo supplies (ink and paper), as well as photo software. They're very easy to deal with, have good customer service and their prices compare favorably with traditional photographic discount stores. They also offer free shipping on many items and a full 30 day return for refund policy.

The second retailer is Adorama which is a well established "brick and morter" store in New York City which also has an excellent website. They have a pretty good reputation and they are certainly one of the more reputatble of the NYC discount stores. They have a 14 day return for refund policy.

Buying Used or "Like New" or "Bankrupt Stock"

Buying used equipment - or even "new" equipment from private sellers - opens up a whole new can of worms. Not only do you have to avoid all the scam artists, you have to avoid buying gear that's not correctly described or gear that breaks the day after you buy it.

E-bay Scams:

E-bay is almost a study in itself when it comes to scams. The usual one is something like a "brand new" $7000 Canon 1Ds for sale at $3500. The seller usually has a good story. Often it's "bankrupt stock" - the camera store went out of business (no wonder if they're dumb enough to sell a 1Ds at 1/2 price). Sometimes it's an item which was purchased at discount by a Canon employee (doesn't happen). Sometimes the seller has fallen on hard times and needs a quick sale - Yea, right. But people start drooling and the thought of getting an item for $3500 under what it would cost elsewhere seems to drive all caution from their brains and they send off their money order to Spain, or some other place outside the reach of US law enforcement, never to see it (or the camera) again. What a shock. The sellers E-bay feedback means little. The true scam artists either hijack legitimate accounts or they set up accounts and do a few hundred dollars worth of legitimate transactions before scamming a dozen people out of $3500 each. A pretty good investment of their time and money.

There are good deals on E-bay and there are many honest sellers. Just remember that if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is. I'm not saying there are no bargains, just as I wouldn't say your chances of winning the lottery are zero. They are just not very good, and neither is your chance of getting a new 1Ds for $3500. In fact it's probably similar to your chance of winning the lottery...

Classified Ads

Regular classified ads can be a great way to get equipment at good prices. I've bought and sold many times through the photo.net classifieds with no problems. Most of the people there are honest - but you still have to be careful and do your homework if you don't want to get scammed. Crooks do show up from time to time, just as they do everywhere else.

First check on the seller. The photo.net classifieds have an associated feedback page where you can view comments left by other users on sellers and buyers. This should be the first place to check. If there's no feedback, you're on your own. At a minimum, I'd get a real phone number with a verifiable street address. If the seller/buyer will only give you an untraceable cell phone number it should raise your suspicions. Similarly a shipping address which is a P.O. Box should raise some red flags. However note that many "Home Office" type stores will provide a real looking street address for customers who have a mail drop with them, so just a street address isn't proof of an honest seller. For any sizable purchase I'd make sure I called the seller/buyer at their home and make sure the listed address matched the address for shipping. I'm sure some crooks operate out of their own homes, but probably not many.

Escrow. There are escrow services (e.g. www.escrow.com) that will help you with large purchases for a fee. Basically you send the escrow service the money. They tell the seller that they have the money. The seller then ship the goods to you. You check the goods and if they are as expected, you tell the escrow service to send the money to the seller. The service takes a commission on the sale (typically around 3% of the sale price for sales up to a few thousand dollars) and everyone is happy. If you use an escrow service, make sure it's legitimate, and not something set up by a scam artist to fool you (yes, that's been known to happen). Check it on the web. If you can't find it, that's a clue that not all is well. Also make sure it really is an escrow service. Some E-bay sellers have requested that an "escrow" service be used. However when you read the fine print of the service (which may well be legitimate) you may find that they really aren't an escrow service at all and that they release the money to the seller before you have a chance to examine and approve the shipped goods. One way to check on the legitimacy of a sale is to suggest that it be done though an escrow service. If you don't hear back from the seller, it was probably bogus in the first place.

Used Equipment Stores

Many camera stores have used equipment departments. Adorama carries a large inventory of used equipment which you can check on their website. The upside of buying from a store is that you know who you are dealing with and there's normally a short warranty (30-90days) on used items as well as a return period during which you can just send the item back. The downside is that prices are often higher than those asked by private sellers, sometimes almost as much as the item costs new.

Selling Items

You're selling something. You have the upper hand here because you won't ship unless you get the money in your hand first right? Well, are you sure? Is that cashier's check they sent you good? Well, the bank took it so it must be right? Bzzzz. Wrong. Sorry.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) requires banks to make money from cashier's, certified, or teller's checks available in one to five days. This means that funds from checks that might not be good are often released into payees' accounts long before the checks have been verified by their issuing banks. Good  forgeries can bounce back and forth between banks for weeks before anyone realizes they are worthless.

So if you want to be 100% sure your payment is good you may have to hold even a cashier's check for several weeks before shipping the goods. This applies double or triple if the funds are coming from overseas. Also beware of the scam where the buyer send you MORE than the asking price and requests you send the extra along to someone else (to save currency conversion chargers or some such bogus claim). Not only do they scam you out of the goods, but you send your own money along to their partners in crime.

Obviously you also need to wait for personal checks to clear. This can also take a week or two.

Short of actual dollar bills (which you should check for counterfeit status!), maybe the next safest method of payment is a USPS Money Order. Even they could be forged though, so still keep your wits about you!

Caveat Emptor

So the rule here is "let the buyer beware". This also applies to sellers too, but since the seller doesn't usually ship the goods until the cash is in their hands, sellers are in a better position. Just make sure the cash really is in your hands! Do your homework, always check up on the seller and be very suspicious of "amazing bargains" whether on new equipment from stores advertising in magazines or equipment sold via on-line auctions or classifieds. That sad fact is that it really can be a jungle out there and it's often not safe to talk to strangers. Do a little homework, use your common sense, trust your intuition and you'll greatly minimize your chances of problems.

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