How to buy a digital camera without being robbed.
Dishonest companies have always existed, but for some reason the digital camera market is full of them. Don't fall victim to them when hurrying to buy the latest and greatest camera mail order or on line. Tale after Tale of Woe has been posted to the various camera newsgroups, don't be the next victim. Some of the low price leaders on internet sites are scams. There is a sucker born every minute, don't be the next one.
I will outline some steps to follow, and things to watch out for. I don't track camera prices, and I can't tell you which company is "good". Use the tools given here to be a smart shopper and make your own decision.
Step 1. Know what you want.
Before you go shopping, you need to know exactly what you want to buy and what it is called. If you call up and don't know the model numbers for the camera and the lenses and accessories that you want, and know which you need, the salesman will do his job and try to sell you something. This is the sales persons job, and is how they make money. If you aren't sure what kind of memory cards you need, or what kind of batteries or what accessories are included in the box, you can be sure that some salespeople will try to sell you something expensive or something that you don't need. It is YOUR job to find out AHEAD of time what you need and what is included.
Step 2. Know the prices.
You need to know the prices for the items that you want. If you aren't sure, ask on line in one of the newsgroups. If you don't you are just asking to be taken advantage of. Salespeople will try to sell you the same batteries and charger that you can buy for $20 at your local Wal-Mart for $100 if you let them.
Step 3. Research the company.
Use the free on line tools available to you to research the company. I've given a detailed step by step at the end of this page. Remember, a lot of the low price leaders listed on the various price comparison sites are actually lowball "comeon" prices; you can't actually buy goods for those prices. At the very least, you should check www.resellerratings.com for the company that you are thinking of buying from, and also do a newsgroup search on deja news.
Take advantage of the lessons learned by others! The reason that the slimeball companies can exist is that people don't check, they are attracted by the low prices. As P.T. Barnum said, "There is a sucker born every minute", don't be one, do your basic research.
Read the section at the very end about how to research a company.
Step 4. If you can't follow Steps 1 to 3 completely, you may very well be ripped off. Use a larger reputable "safer" company instead if you can't follow these steps.
If you aren't able to completely research what you want, you run a very good chance of being ripped off. You may want to consider sticking with some of the bigger reputable discount houses such as CDW, B&H photo, Adorama or State Street Direct. They have fair prices, and will not actively attempt to rob you. They may still recommend accessories that you don't need, of course, that is their job.
Common tricks to watch out for.
* Inflated shipping charges. Companies will offer the basic camera at a discount, then make up for it by charging you $75 for "shipping". This the oldest trick in the book and is a very common tactic that you need to be aware of.
* Shipping tricks. Shipping is another way in which you can be defrauded. In many cases, dishonest companies will charge you for "overnight" shipping but will still ship ground, or even just use the postal service. If you pay extra for insurance they will not provide it. A Red flag is that they will not provide you with a tracking number so that you will not discover the problem until you receive your camera; they are counting on you being so excited with the new camera that you will overlook "a few bucks" especially when you consider their impossible return policies. It is VERY common to be told that your order has shipped, over and over, even for weeks, when it has not; these shops don't even have cameras, and don't order any until they have several orders. They are counting on stringing you along for weeks.
* Misrepresented goods. For example, people have ordered a "Nikon telephoto lens" and received a no-name junk lens worth $40 at the price of the real Nikon lens. This is because the lens is just "Nikon compatible" or "made for the Nikon". If you want the real lens, be sure you get it. Other examples of this trick are telling you that there is something special about everyday items. They will tell you that the "camera needs special high capacity batteries for $100" or that the camera needs "special error free memory cards (there is no such thing)" or "special filters". Again, see Step 2, you HAVE to know what you want before you call. By misrepresenting goods, the salesperson can tack extra profit on to your charge by selling you everyday items at inflated prices.
Common items that are misrepresented are batteries and chargers, memory cards, and lenses. You may pay 3 or 4 times the actual worth of the items, while getting a "good" price on the camera.
* You can't actually buy just a camera. Many disreputable companies make their money overcharging for accessories or shipping. If you hold your ground and insist on just the camera, they will take your order, but will never ship you a camera! After a week, you start to worry and call, you will be told that the camera went "out of stock". If you call again and pretend to place an order 10 minutes later, the sales person will tell you "sure, that is in stock"! In reality, they will NEVER send you a camera at the super attractive price unless you overpay for something. Some shops will even hang up on you, or you will be accidently disconnected if you insist on buying just the camera. Then never sell just the camera. Ever.
* The partial order trick. Even if you do agree to buy some overpriced items, the dishonest places will not ship you a camera! You will open the box to find out that the camera is "backordered" but your overpriced/ misrepresented accessories are there in the box. You may never actually get a camera! In some cases, you may get a camera, but never get your overpriced items. They have to make money some how.
* It shipped, I swear! No, we don't give out tracking numbers... guess what, your camera didn't ship. They will apologise later, promise "overnight" shipping to make up for it, and then not ship again. Believe it or not, they can string people along for months this way. When it finally ships (if it ever does before they fold), they will send it ground. There are a few shops that always use ground shipping regardless of what you pay for, they will tell you that what you really paid for was "expedited handling"
* They have to call to"verify" you. A common tactic for rip off houses is to have to call you on the phone, under the pretense of verifying your address or credit information, even if you bought on line. This is really so that the sales person can have a crack at selling you some overpriced or misrepresented goods. If this happens, this should be a red flag that something might not be right. Don't confuse this with reputable shops that will call on backordered goods to verify that you still want them, this is actually a sign of good customer service.
* If you try to buy just a camera, shipping will suddenly take "4 to 6 weeks". This is done to get you to cancel your order, and most people will. If you don't cancel they will not ship you a camera anyway, so you might as well. If you are willing to pay hundreds extra, you can have your camera the next day of course, but you will pay more than down at the local store.
* When they call, they will try to indimidate you into buying something. "Why don't you want to buy the batteries you will need? You know you need them, the camera will not work without them. Are you that inexperienced? The warranty with the camera is no good, you need a longer one. The manufacturer told us not to sell the cameras without these." "You will lose your pictures without an error free card" or "5MP cameras require special filters", the manufacturer told us not to sell the camera without them; you have to buy them.
* The restocking trick. Although you can usually dispute charges with your credit card company, you will find restocking charges hard to dispute because the camera company has a record of having shipped you something. One common trick is to send you known broken or used or misrepresented goods, then charge you 15% for "restocking" the goods. This is often used in conjunction with "you can't actually buy just a camera" and the "broken goods" (see below) tricks. One company in particular will send you a broken/open camera if you insist that they send it out, or if you try to cancel your order. (rumor was that it was always the same camera, and that it was pretty beat up).
* Known broken goods. Many of these companies only buy grey market import items from overseas. That is because they are not authorized dealers, and can't even get USA goods. This means that when they get a bad camera... they can't return it! And they can't get it repaired. Are they stuck with it, no! What they do is send it out over and over again until it "sticks" with someone. They combine this with the restocking trick and the return trick to make it impossible to return the items.
* The unbundling trick. Some places will "unbundle" some of the accessories that are provided with the camera by the manufacturer such as software, cards, chargers, cables, cases, lens caps, straps... anything that is loose, then try to sell them back to you at inflated prices. They will tell you that there is something special about the lens that requires "special software" or a "special cap" or sell you a "USB connectivity" pack which is just the software that would be included with the camera normally. They will try to sell you the battery and charger for $100 if one was included. They will remove the included flash card and try to sell it to you.
* They will charge your card right away. Some shops routinely will not ship for up to 2 months. They will promise you second day air if you call, but nothing will ship.
* You can't cancel your order. If you try to cancel your order, they will put you on hold forever (hours), accidently disconnect you, transfer you to voice mail, verbally abuse you, call you stupid... anything to not have to refund your money. The only way to get your money back from these shops is to do a credit card chargeback, and then you have to watch out for the "restocking trick" above, and probably be subjected to a little swearing at you on the phone.
* No itemized bill. To make it harder to figure out how you have been overcharged, the disreputable will not provide you with an itemised bill, hoping that you will not remember what price was agreed on. This is a red flag.
* Service contracts. Many dishonest shops will try to sell you a service contract through "Bills service shop in Jersey" or "their own service guy" or some such. These contracts often aren't worth the paper that they are printed on. If you were to actually send them your camera, you might not see it for 6 months or more, and it would not be returned fixed. There are reports of cameras being sent in for over a year and then being "lost" or returned unfixed. Unless you want to take them to court, they are not going to fix your camera.
* The rebate trick. If a manufacturer offers a rebate, some dishonest shops will advertise the price after the rebate, and will also advertise the rebate, without telling you that the rebate is included in the price. Even if asked directly they will not always tell you that the rebate is included in the price. This has been common with the Nikon Coolpix cameras ever time Nikon offers a $100 rebate.
* Grey cameras. Some shops will sell so called "grey" cameras, often without telling you beforehand. Selling grey market cameras without informing the buyer has been a very common thing lately. Grey cameras are cameras that are intended for sale in other countries, and may not have the accessories or warranty that the goods intended for sale in your country has. The main problem with grey cameras is the warranty. Tipoffs that your camera is "grey" include xeroxed or missing English manual, menus in Japanese, Different accessories (for example the Nikon cameras in Europe sell with a smaller flash card, and a set of rechargable batteries and a charger), or missing warranty card. You may not find this out until you need service on the camera, Some companies (including Nikon) will refuse to service grey market cameras even if you offer to pay for the repair. Many/all of the sites advertising low prices on the internet are actually selling grey market goods.
In the USA, for example, you may order a Nikon 995 or 5000 from a shop with a low price, and not realize until later that you have a camera with a Red rubber grip that is intended for sale in Europe, and which will not be serviced by Nikon USA even if you offer to pay for it.
Be sure to ask about grey market goods, and inspect your purchase right away. Don't take promises of "third party warranty". It is quite common for these places to offer you a warranty from "Joes Camera Shop", "sure, they are an authorized Nikon repair center" (there are only two real Nikon repair centers in the USA), many of these are not worth the paper they are written on, these shops don't have the skills or parts to repair your digital camera.
In addition, lately some shops have been telling a "white lie" about wether or not their cameras are "grey". If you ask "does this camera have a USA warranty" they will often reply "yes". Later on you will find out that what they meant was that the warranty is through their own shop, and good luck getting any service.
* The Mystery Bundle Some shops offer a special bundle of accessories with the camera, often adding on $300-$400 to the price. This is generally some filters, add on lenses, a flash card and maybe some batteries. Each one of these things is horribly overpriced, but you will not realize it because of the bundling. A common example is a filter set of 3 filters (Usually "Crystal Optics", buy it yourself for $20, they are junk), "add on lenses" which are invariably the "Crystal Optics" set which are pure junk, and an "extra high capacity flash card", generally 32MB worth about $20 at Wal Mart, and some batteries (worth $11 from Wal Mart). Lately these "bundles" have not even been matched to the camera, for example the wrong filter size is sent and the add on lenses do not even work and vignette horribly, (people are selling the Minolta Dimage cameras with Crystal Optics wide angle and telephoto lenses that do not work with the camera).
* Return tricks Many dishonest shops will attempt several things to first get you to not return items, and second to attempt to not accept returns. Note that if a shop does not have a posted return policy, the law in most states says that the merchant can set whatever policy they want. There is usually no law that says that merchants have to accept returns or provide a minimum level of service.
First, they may insist that you have to return the entire order. So when you get that cheap charger that does not work, or that add on lens that can't be attached and vignettes, they will insist that you "have to return the entire order including the camera". This is done to discourage people from returning items.
Second they may tell you to return the items, then will reject them because you "didn't have an RMA number". They will not tell you that you need one before your first return attempt. They will make it VERY difficult to get an RMA (60-120 minutes on hold is typical). You may get "disconnected" at the last second.
Third, your return will be "lost" if you don't insure it and require a signature. Be sure to insure your returns and always require a signature. They may still "lose" your items anway.
* How dishonest shops make money. The dishonest sales person knows all the tricks. If you are a "sucker", they will attempt to "nick" you on all these counts; they want to make as much money from you as possible, the less informed you are, the more they will try. $20 here and $30 there on every order really adds up for these sales people First on the camera, which may be grey market, then they will try to sell accessories at higher than list price, or add on "special" accessories that you "need" like battery/charger sets worth $30 for $100, generic camera cases worth $5 for $65, $10 filters for $50. They may ever tell you that the camera will not even operate without the special accessories! They will sell you a "Nikon" lens that isn't made by Nikon or a filter that you can't use or is the wrong size. They will then sell you a service contract from a no-name shop for $300 if you are really falling for it, or grossly overprices special "error free" memory card or special "high capacity" batteries or an AC adapter (cheap generic instead of the real one) that you will never use. Finally, they know that you want that new camera right now. They will try to hit you for $75 for overnight shipping (although they may not actually ship overnight) or special "rapid handling".
* Honest shops. The sales people at good shops will also talk to you on the phone, this is good customer service. They may also make recommendations as to what you should buy. Just because someone tries to help you or sell you something, this does not mean that they are being dishonest. This is where you need to have done your research to see if you are dealing with a good shop or not before you call.
* The big ad. "Yeah, but they have a giant ad in a photo magazine? How can they be crooks". Well, this is the dirty little secret of the photo magazine industry. As long as an advertiser has money, they can place an ad. Some of the worst offenders have several page ads in some of the magazines. Usually the more marginal the magazine, the more likely that they will carry the ad... they need the money! Photo magazines can't make these people mad, they would lose a third of their advertising if they cracked down on these places. This has been a problem for YEARS, and I'm not sure why it plagues the photo industry particularly. Besides, most people don't complain to the magazine... Yes, sure their ads look legitimate, as does their web site; they want you to buy; that is how the scam works.
* Yeah, but they have the camera and nobody else does yet! Hint: no they don't. Not unless they are one of the big dealers like B&H. If B&H, who probably buys millions of dollars of cameras does not have it, how can these guys? You would be surprised how many people fall for this in their haste to get a new camera. The first few weeks before and after a new model is released are the worst. They are hoping to stall you using one of the techniques above.
Keep these thoughts in mind when you shop.
Many of the super attractive prices advertised are actually below dealer cost. Dealers CAN'T sell you a camera at those prices and make money. They JUST PLAIN CAN'T. They HAVE to make their money somehow. They are either going to have to sell you something else at an inflated price, overcharge for shipping, delay your order for months until they can buy the camera cheaper, send you a refurbished or grey market camera without telling you, or just plain cheat you somehow. Why do they advertise the low prices? Because people fall for the low prices every time, over and over, without fail, suckers line up to be taken. Internet sites that purport to list the lowest prices as a service without actually verifying that the items can actually be purchased, and photo magizines that accept advertising just because someone can pay for it just add to the problem. These price listing sites are NOT regulated at all and have no way of verifying prices.
How can these shops exist anyway?
They exist because the "low price comeon" works! To be blunt, people are dumb when shopping for cameras! Even though these shops will NEVER EVER sell a camera alone at those prices, advertising it on the low price watch internet sites it brings people in in droves, over and over, every day without fail. Some people only shop on the camera price, and rarely compare the little things like filters and bags. These are the people that the shops attract, perfectly qualified uninformed "customers" for their sales tactics. These shops don't have to lift a finger, and yet qualified people call them on the phone or "buy" on their internet site. Yes, the shop CAN sell you a camera at a loss if they make money on high markup items like filters, batteries, bags, add on warranties, shipping, selling grey market as non grey, etc. For example, they can sell you a camera at $150 less than other shops, even $150 under dealer price, if you will buy a set of filters that cost them $5 (and I'm not kidding, they pay $5) for $60, some batteries that they pay $11 for at Wal-Mart for $35, a $10 charger for $35, a bag that cost them $9 for $65, an add on warranty that you can buy yourself for $40 for $300. If they can also nick you for $30 on the shipping, and sell you a $10 tripod for $65, then they can really make out on you. In fact, if you buy enough stuff, these shops can afford to order your camera from a legitimate dealer and send it to you; many of them are not authorized dealers and can't order cameras from the manufacturer directly anyway!
These shops exist because people don't shop around for accessories, and don't know what they need. These shops are traps specially designed to prey on these people.
A note about the Better Business Bureau
I commonly hear people talk about the Better Business Bureau (BBB) with respect to crooked camera retailers, and hear many misconceptions about it. The most common public misconception is that the BBB is some sort of governmental agency, and that they can help you when you have trouble with a merchant. Actually, no they aren't and in most cases no they can't. The BBB is a non profit agency, and there are many local branches. Although they are non-profit, they still want to make money so that they can stay operating and pay salaries.
The BBB operates by getting businesses to join and collecting fees from them. They persuade businesses to join by collecting complaints from the public and then approaching the businesses with the complaints. Most businesses want to comply so that they will not have a bad BBB rating and can deal with the complaints. The BBB has no legal powers, and does not "go after" bad businesses or even help consumers deal with bad businesses. In fact, the BBB makes all of their money from good businesses that join, and none from bad businesses. The only "power" that the BBB has is to give a business a poor rating. They have no legal or regulatory powers.
In short, in my opinion if you have trouble with one of these businesses (and watch out, some are using the BBB symbol without authorization) the BBB can't help you even one tiny bit. These bad businesses don't care what their BBB rating is... another sucker will be along in a minute funneled in by the low price watch web sites. The BBB threatening to give them a bad rating has no effect; they don't care! Most of them will have a new name in 6 months anyway.
Whatever you do, ALWAYS use a credit card to make your purchase. Never send a check or money order and NEVER NEVER do a bank transfer. Always use a credit card and check your statement. Ask if the shop is going to charge before they ship too.
Here is how to research a company, step by step.
First, check reseller ratings at www.resellerratings.com. Note that some companies that start with "The" are under the Ts. Note also that some other "ratings" sites collect their information during the purchase, and do not include any information about how the purchase went. Note also that any company can have an occasional dissatisfied customer. You are looking for a pattern. If they aren't listed WATCH OUT. Most of the worst offenders only last for a few months before they throw up another web site.
Second, search the newsgroup archives at groups.google.com for the company name.
Third, search the forums on Phil's DPReview site for your company name.
Fourth, and most importantly, use the web! Use www.google.com to do a quick search for the contact phone number and street address of your prospective company. Why? Because many of the disreputable companies operate under several different names because of the constant complaints. It only takes a week to throw up a new web site that looks good. They will often have several web based outlets under totally different names; many of them only last for a few months. Be very careful if your company isn't mentioned at all on resellerratings or usenet groups; it may have just popped up. There are several (in)famous companies that do this constantly. If there IS no contact information, or only the phone number is given, or no direct line is given, WATCH OUT.
The street address. Note that "suite" usually really means "apartment" or "box". Beware of anyone with a PO box address only. Some "Mailbox Etc." type dropoff points have reasonable sounding street addresses and use "suite" for the box number. If a Mailbox Etc. comes up also with the same address, don't buy.
Their 800 #
Their direct #
and ESPECIALLY their FAX # (for some reason these places do not bother to get a separate FAX number for each of their identities)
Also, if you know how to do it, do a "whois" on their domain name. If the registrant looks bogus (for example I just looked one up that has "111-111-1111_ for the contact phone numbers and all blanks for the address), then WATCH OUT. If the domain was just registered for one year, WATCH OUT. If the contact email is a "hotmail" or "yahoo" or "aol" throw-away e-mail account, WATCH OUT.
Lastly, if you are thinking of buying from a place in New York that is not B&H Photo or State Street Direct, or Adorama, or 17th St photo, especially if it is in Brooklyn, check out the company at the New York Better Business Bureau. (Hint, don't). Don't be fooled by the appearance of the BBB symbol on some web sites, they are using it without authorization.
Do not START your research by posting a message "Is so and so OK" on either usenet or on Phil's site, save this for last. This type of message from, if you will pardon the expression, "clueless newbies" who line up to be slaughtered by the low price sites is so common, that (well me anyway) a lot of people just grow tired of responding and ignore them. After you have done your search, and have seen what others had to say on your topic, then you will be able to ask a better question that is more likely to be answered.
Keep in mind that being ripped off by one of these sites can be very embarrassing for the victim. Often the victim will remain quiet, and it is hard to get information.
Keep in mind that anyone can have a bad experience with any merchant, or have unreasonable expectations. I'm thinking of a recent thread where someone complained about buy.com, which I have used many times, and which is generally considered to be one of the best sites. A couple of bad postings does not mean that a merchant is all bad. Look for a pattern.
The lure of the low price "comeon" is one of the strongest sales tactics ever devised, and people fall for this trick over and over; they just can't resist the apparent low price on the main item. The internet is not as closely regulated as local sales would be, and your recourses available when something goes wrong are more limited. Many states have regulations that prevent low price Come On advertising (such as dictating that the store have at least a minimum number of the item for sale at that price, and preventing merchants from advertising refurbished items as new), but states have difficulty regulating internet sales and you may have no protection. Do your homework before you buy, and you will have a great camera buying experience.