Abstract: Caveat Emptor II - Buyer Beware - Avoiding the Photo Store Scammers

Bob Atkins Photography
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Caveat Emptor - Buyer Beware

How to avoid the scams and crooks when buying photo gear

Some time ago I wrote an article (Caveat Emptor) with warnings about the various unscrupulous methods that some people use to part you from your money. With the Holiday season approaching (actually I think it's already here!) the scammers are moving into high gear so I though a reminder might be useful.

For some reason, and it's not 100% clear what that reason is, the mail order/website Camera and Photo market attracts way more than its fair share of scammers. Those of us who have been around for a while can spot them in an instant, but for the first time buyer they may appear to be genuine.

[UPDATE - 12/14/05] - One web site owner (Don Wiss, who has a website with images of Brooklyn storefronts) reports that he has received death threats from someone for posting pictures of their store.

"Today I received two phone calls at work. First one like blaming me for driving them out of business. Says they have already shut it down. But, of course, he didn't disclose what business, and they had caller id turned off.

I then got a second phone call. He told me to watch my back. He said if I don't leave the country I will be killed. Now nowhere at my site do I pass any judgment on the dealers here. So why blame me? My question is have you been threatened? Of course, living here in Brooklyn makes me a convenient target."

You can read more in this usenet posting

Also, if you have a strong stomach, you can actually listen to voice mail left for someone who got on the wrong side of one of these stores. Don't play this in front of your children (or your boss!). Heres' the link: Verbal Threats

[Back to original article...] The questions then are how do you tell the difference between a good deal and a scam, and how to the scams work?

Well, the most popular scam goes like this. You see a really good price for a popular item. Let's say it's an EOS 20D at a price of $700 when most stores are asking $1000. That's known as the "bait". It suckers you in. You visit the website and it all looks legitimate so you get out your credit card, fill in an order form, click the "Submit" button and off it goes.

The next thing that happens is you get an email from the company you've ordered from which asks you to call them to "confirm your order". So you call them and that's where the "fun" starts. First you discover that the price is indeed for an EOS 20D. However the battery, battery charger, USB cable, A/V cable, strap and software aren't included. They'll run these things by you one by one - "Did you want a battery? You'll need one and it's only an extra $50". So maybe you say yes - after all it's only $50, so you're still getting a good price...Then you go through the process again for each additional item. In the end you end up paying $1350 plus they'll tag on $56 for shipping. If you decline any of the accessories, they may tell you that the camera is out of stock (if you're lucky), or they'll ship you stuff you didn't ask for. If you'd bought it from a reputable store, it would have been $100 cheaper!

"OK", you say as soon as they do this "I'll just cancel my order". Good luck. They have your credit card number remember. If you try to cancel there's a very good chance they'll just charge your card, send you all the stuff and remind you that they have a 15% restocking fee if you want to send it back. If you call to complain they either won't answer their "customer service" line or they will and they will threaten and insult you. Don't believe me? It's hard to believe, I know, but it happens. If you don't believe me, read this.

If you ever do get the camera, it's likely to be a gray market import which isn't eligible for any manufacturer's rebates and which some manufacturers will refuse to repair under warranty.

If you wonder how such places can stay in business, well, there are several reasons. First most people don't complain or even know who to complain to (the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs is a good start). Second, there are an endless supply of new camera buyers shopping only on the basis of advertised price. Third, if they get shut down, they just open again a few days later with a different "owner" and a different store name.

20 Free prints, Free film developing -12c prints

So how do you spot such stores?

  1. Well the first clue is very low prices. By that I mean that their advertised prices are significantly lower than the reputable discount stores like Adorama and Amazon. Maybe 25-45% less. If you see an EOS 5D for $2200 or an EOS 20D for $700 or and EOS Digital Rebel XT for $500, it's a scam. Much as you may WANT to believe those prices (and that's exactly what the scammers count on), they are bogus.
  2. A second clue is that they have vastly overpriced accessories on their website. For example a 512MB memory card worth maybe $80 on "sale" for $200
  3. A third clue is that they have no street address listed. In fact no clue as to where they are located. The "contact" page usually contains an email address and a phone number.
  4. A fourth clue is that, when you do finally track them down, very often they are located in Brooklyn, New York. They will have a 718 area code phone number and if you do a WHOIS search on the domain name, you'll find a Brooklyn address. Sometimes you'll find the registration info is cloaked, i.e. the registrar info (e.g. Network Solutions) is given, not the true owner of the website. Legitimate companies don't normally cloak their registration information.
  5. A fifth clue is they tend to push lens and camera "packages". Not the standard Canon body + lens kits, but packages they make up themselves with names like "starter package", "premium package", "expert package" etc. which they claim also contain stuff like filters, cases, lens cloths and tripods - all of which turn out to be useless junk when you get them.
  6. A sixth clue is they tend to push extended warranties on cameras, especially really expensive extended warranties with dire warnings on how much it can cost to fix a digital camera.

Note also that some of the smaller "comparison shopping" sites may be associated in some way with some of these scammers and that some of these scammers operate businesses under several different names. So if you see a site with comparison prices from 10 stores and 8 of them seem to meet conditions 1-6 above, it's time to run!

BTW I'm sure that not 100% of all scammers are located in Brooklyn and not 100% of all Brooklyn Photo and Camera stores are scammers, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that 90% are. Also a nice looking website is absolutely no reflection on the quality of the company. A nice looking website can be assembled in a day for a few hundred dollars by a competent web designer. Remember too that just because it's on a web site doesn't mean it isn't a lie. Anyone can say anything on a website. While honest folks tend to believe what they read, they probably should be more skeptical. There are people out there who will simply lie. Store in your neighborhood may not, but you're not buying from a store in your neighborhood. I'm pretty sure most of them just make up their "customer reviews"!

For what lies behind the website see, Don Wiss - Brooklyn Stores. Note that d.b.a. stands for "doing business as" for stores which operate under more than one name (a possible clue that something may be fishy). For example he shows a picture of C&A Marketing, which operates as both PriceRitePhoto.com and TheCameraMall.com. Here's a shot of J&K which operates as InfinityCameras.com, InfinitiCameras.com, InfinitiPhoto.com, BestPriceCameras.com, eastcoastdistributor.com and MrAccessory.com. Finally here's a shot of Radio Active Electronics which also operates as USAphotonation.com and radioactivedeals.com. Decide for yourself if you'd want to deal with any of these stores.

So who IS safe to buy from?

Well I can tell you who I buy from - but I have to declare an interest here. I buy from AMAZON.COM, <>J&R and ADORAMA. However I have to tell you that I do get a small commission from sales if you visit their websites from links on this website - in fact that's what enables me to keep this website up and running. However, as I said, I also personally buy from both of them and I wouldn't do that if they gave me problems or I didn't trust them! My first choice is Amazon.com for several reasons. First they have good prices. Second they offer free shipping on many items. Third they offer a 30-day return policy on anything bought directly from Amazon. Fourth, they have affiliated stores like Adorama, J&R, Calumet etc. who sell though the Amazon interface and who sometimes have slightly lower prices than Amazon itself does (and sometimes lower prices than they do on their own websites!). However when buying from such 3rd part affiliates you pay for shipping and typically only get a 10-14 day return policy.

Another reason to but from Amazon is that if you have a VISA credit card issued by Amazon.com you get a 3% credit on items you buy from Amazon and a 1% credit on all items bought with the card anywhere. So if you buy a $1500 camera from Amazon you earn a $45 credit which you can apply to future purchases. AND, on top of this, you get $30 off your first purchase over $30. Not a bad deal.

Sorry if this sounds like an Amazon advertisement, but like I said, I use them myself and I've had no problems at all. Of course there are lots of other good stores. However one thing to watch out for are restocking fees. Some stores allow return within 10-14 days, but will charge you 10% of your purchase price. So if you buy that $1500 camera from them and for some reason you don't like it (or you get an identical camera as a present!), it will cost you $150 plus shipping both ways, to return it. Read the fine print and return policy of any vendor you buy from. Neither Amazon nor Adorama charge a restocking fee on most items. Note that most stores don't take returns on opened items like video tapes, software, batteries etc. for obvious reasons unless the items are defective.

Adorama (which has a real store in New York!) carry many more small, hard to find, low volume and expensive photographic items than Amazon, including medium and large format photo gear. If Amazon don't list it, there's a good chance that Adorama will.

Are there other reputable store? Of course. There's Sammy's in LA, B&H in New York, Hunt's in Boston as well as chains like Calumet from Chicago. All of them were real "brick and mortar" stores before the days of the web and built their reputation there. Their prices will be higher than the scammers, but you'll get what you order. There's also your local camera store. While they may not be able to quite match web prices, they may give good service and advice.

So good luck with your holiday (and post holiday) shopping. PLEASE be careful ordering from vendors you don't know. Check them out carefully and be very suspicious if their prices are too good to be true, because in that case, they probably are! As a final note, I don't know what ads Google is going to serve on this website. Not every ad is from a company I'd personally recommend dealing with and some may be from companies I'd suggest avoiding. By all means check them out (at least it will be educational...), but bear in mind what you've read here when doing so. Please don't get scammed.

Please feel free to link to this page to warn others what to watch out for when shopping for photo gear on the web.

© Copyright Bob Atkins All Rights Reserved
www.bobatkins.com

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