Any time you drop a few hundred, or thousand, dollars on a digital camera, PDA, notebook or other computing device online, there's a little uncertainty. Of course buying something from Best Buy online is one thing, while Cheap Dealz USA out of Brooklyn is something entirely different. What can you do to protect yourself from those who make a living off of unsuspecting shoppers?
If you haven't heard the horror stories about places like this, let me get you up to speed. The problem seems to be most rampant in the digital camera business. For whatever reason, hundreds of these online stores are especially shady. They often sell refurbished merchandise as new, charge extra for things like manuals and batteries that are supposed to come with the product, and force you to call in to verify the order where they try to up-sell warranties and over-priced accessories.
Odds are you even know someone who this has happened to. My aunt-in-law got caught up in one of these shady Brooklyn-based camera shops. She placed an order for a low-priced camera and even ponied up for their exorbitant overnight shipping fees. They lured her to call their "store" then told her the manual would cost $10 and they aggressively pushed her to buy memory cards that we easily twice as expensive as they should have been.
These issues are more widely reported for camera dealers, but the same thing goes for any consumer electronics or computing devices. Products designed for international markets are routinely sold to the US audience, often with incorrect power adapters or even a foreign language set for the menus or operating system.
Home of PriceRitePhoto.com, TheCameraMall.com and BarclaysPhoto.com (More photos)
So how do you protect yourself?
First off, start with a reputable site. Almost everyone these days uses a price comparison engine to start from. We've partnered with CNET for our price comparison data. We know for a fact that they have a rigorous screening process for new merchants that includes a site visit. The other major comparison engines probably do something similar and some offer merchant reviews, which can be helpful in determining reputability. There are also a few great watchdog sites that will give you the inside look at a merchant. Our favorite is Reseller Ratings, who has an extensive database that covers just about everyone. One other thing to do, that can be somewhat difficult, is to make sure they're an authorized dealer for the brand of product you're interested in buying.
Step two; don't pay with cash or other non-recourse methods. Some stores offer a discount if you pay with check or money order. While saving a percent or two sounds nice, you're actually better off sticking with a credit card. The protection you get from a bank is well worth it if you ever have a dispute. With a credit card you can immediately dispute a charge. The credit card company has a vested interest in protecting you, so they'll help you push for a resolution or in some cases they'll just give you the credit and take the issue up with the merchant on their own.
If you have a problem that isn't resolved by the merchant, credit card issuer, or anyone else, there are still places to turn. The Better Business Bureau is a good place to start. I've used them twice to resolve issues, first with Microsoft over a faulty XBOX drive and the second time with Sony Ericsson regarding a bad Bluetooth headset. It takes a little patience, but the BBB is generally very effective. Your odds are even better if the merchant intends on staying in business. Several reports into the BBB lead to all sorts of problems, like investigations into operations, that merchants don't want to deal with.
Aside from the BBB, each state has an attorney general and consumer advocacy agencies. If the issue gets really bad, it's worth calling them, in addition to your local police agency to further document the problem. It's also a good idea to reach out to your local television and newspaper outlets. Most have a "troubleshooter" guy or gal who does nothing other than track down shady merchants, publicizing their dealings in an attempt to get resolution.
While the web is a great place to find deals and even avoid, albeit probably temporarily, sales tax, there are several merchants looking to do nothing more than prey on unsuspecting buyers. Education is the best defense against such criminals. Do your research before buying, use a credit card and know your options for dispute resolution. These steps will make the internet a safer place to shop.