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*December 20, 2005 - *In view of the recent PriceRitePhoto debacle in which the company reappeared under several assumed names in order to avoid bad publicity on their service and business practices, digital camera buyers may be reluctant to veer from large online retail outlets even in the face of a better deal. This is unfortunate as there are many fine reputable camera shops that also do business online and offer competitive deals. Many price-searching websites offer access to these small businesses that consumers may not normally be familiar with. When it comes to these smaller unknown retailers, there are certain steps you can take to verify their legitimacy and protect yourself from fraud. You don’t have to stick with the big names.
It may sound old-fashioned, but the best thing to do is to simply check if the company is a member of the Better Business Bureau. No, we’re not suggesting you go searching for the phone number of your local BBB chapter and hope to get a live person. The BBB now issues a BBBOnline Reliability Seal to any company that applies and qualifies. Standards to maintain membership are high and registration includes detailed information with regard to company ownership, advertising practices and headquarters. All the application information is vetted and, if necessary, companies are met with an on-site visit by the local chapter BBB to verify the physical store’s location and claims of legitimacy. Since the Better Business Bureau has strict standards and administers at the local level, it is a good bet that a company on their list is reputable.
Unfortunately, people will go a long way to be fraudulent. Don’t just look for the BBB seal as many large companies (like Amazon) don’t keep the seal on their homepage and it is possible for fraudulent companies to put an unauthorized seal image on their website. You can drop the company’s name into the searchable database of safe companies on BBBOnline’s Consumer Safe Shopping website: http://www.bbbonline.org/consumer/
If the company is a member, you can view a detailed BBB report that includes information on the number complaints filed against the company and if or how they were resolved.
For example, we found that buydig.com had a good deal on a particular model camera through a search on Pricegrabber.com (a DCI affiliate). We searched the BBBOnline Consumer Safe Shopping site and found that buydig.com is indeed a member. The BBB Report on buydig.com listed the principal of the company, the company address and phone number, a map link of their location and their classification (in this case a "Photographic Equipment & Supplies-Retail, Electronic Equipment & Supplies-Dealers, and Video Equipment-Supplies & Parts"). It also included the number and types of complaints that have been lodged against buydig.com in the last 12 months, how many were resolved, and the fact that buydig.com has been able to maintain their BBB membership since May 1999.
While such a company may not be as well known as some of these mega-retailers, a report like that gives confidence that they are operating fairly and will attempt to resolve any issues you have with their services in a fair and legal manner.
While non-membership in the Better Business Bureau does not automatically mean that a company is fraudulent, it is an easy way to identify a legitimate business. While the BBBOnline Reliabilty Program is relatively new, about 25,500 companies have already joined and it is anticipated that gaining membership within this group will become the standard for legitimate businesses.
Companies listed on large price-searching sites do not guarantee that they are legitimate. While these websites try their best to weed out fraud and have consumer rating systems, there is no guarantee. Consumer feedback scores can be inflated by fake positive postings. We suggest reading through a number of actual feedback posts to see if there are any major complaints. Complaints about things like a slightly delayed delivery are normal; posts in which people complain of threats or misuse of their credit card should raise a red flag in your mind. Bloggers are also useful in alerting consumers to fraudulent companies, as many take the time to do IP address searches on sites like http://www.internic.net/. (This is the IP registry site that can help a searcher discern if a single company is using multiple internet aliases.)
The last line of defense is already second nature to many internet shoppers. Always use a credit card so that you have recourse if you are charged without product shipment or delivery. Many online digital camera buyers have reported companies attempting to hold on to the credit card charge and forcing them into ordering another camera when they one they want is out of stock. This is not legal and the consumer is well within their rights to call their credit card company and cancel authorization if the retailer won’t rescind the charge.
Our recommendation to you is to know your credit card company’s policy ahead of time and what you need to do to activate protection from fraud. By law all cards today have protection that insures you are not responsible for unauthorized charges or unauthorized use of the card in the event that the vendor steals your credit info. Some credit card companies do require a $50 fee, others waive this fee if the fraud is promptly reported. Policies and timeframes do vary, however, from card to card when disputing charges from a vendor whom you originally authorized to charge your card.
Some cards also offer internet programs that provide temporary card numbers for transactions in order to avoid theft of credit card info. This is especially useful for internet shoppers who regularly purchase from obscure websites.
Keeping confirmation emails or any correspondence with a vendor allows you to create a record of what you were promised, what was or was not delivered and the timeline over which the transaction took place. This is an easy way to keep track, if you are later in a dispute.
We also recommend that you actually read the itemized list on your credit card bill to be sure you aren’t additionally charged any unauthorized fees, even after receipt of product.
Following these few common sense steps can ensure that you get the best deal on your equipment without sacrificing choice of retailer. Small retailers can offer great service and prices, and should not be denied competition against the large .com outlets out of fear. The bottom line is that you do your homework and use good judgment when shopping on the internet. Don’t be blinded by an unbelievable deal.