More about cameras

Shopping for a camera today is not like the old days when your choice was the camera store downtown or the discount store at the mall. The Internet has created an untamed herd of camera dealers, some legitimate, many not. Shutterbug beware!

Bait-and-switch swindles can occur in any industry, but many online camera dealers seem to have made bait-and-switch their routine business model.

While it's true that prices of film cameras are dropping and digital cameras and camcorders just keep getting cheaper, you must still be aware of the very real dangers of shopping online.

Five-star reviews and phony ratings

Smart consumers research a company before making a purchase, and one way to do that is to read reviews and ratings submitted by other consumers. This is something that was almost unheard of prior to the Internet but, like everything else, it has its downside.

The problem is that there are many websites that have very questionable reviews and ratings, and it can be hard to know whether you're reading actual consumer comments or phony reviews submitted by the merchant himself.

Hate to say it, but it's best to look for sites that have a lot of negative reviews. People like to complain, so a legitimate site is likely to have a lot more complaints than compliments.

ResellerRatings.com is an established site that includes numerous reviews of camera stores and allows the store to post a public response to any user. And of course, you should always check ConsumerAffairs.com's camera section.

Although reading reviews can be a big part of your research, be cautious if you see a company with low ratings on numerous websites and high ratings on only a few sites.

For instance, BestPriceCameras.com has very low reviews at ResellerRatings.com, along with over 580 complaints filed with the New York Better Business Bureau.

And yet, the price-shopping website ShopCartUSA has over 4,000 ratings that give BestPriceCameras.com an excellent five-star review. ShopCartUSA did not respond to our requests for comment.

Indeed, many consumers who put their faith in ratings sites now wish they hadn't.

Lin, of Arlington, Texas, made the mistake of relying on a rating website when she bought a camera from USAPhotoNation.com, which turned out to be a Chinese import. Next time I will definitely be sure to research the company itself rather than relying on a merchant rating system, Lin said.

Shopping by price

Youre asking for trouble if you shop based on price alone. Using a shopping or price comparison website can add to your research, but understand that many camera dealers will use a comparison site for the sole purpose of setting you up for the bait-and-switch.

One common scenario involves using a price-comparison website where youll see seven stores selling the product in one price range, then three stores that have the product listed drastically cheaper.

Once you submit the order for the cheaper product, youll likely receive an e-mail asking you to call and confirm the order. Youll then be informed this new camera doesnt include items such as a battery, charger, cables, etc., so you will need to purchase them at an exorbitant price.

If you dont agree to the up-sell, chances are good youll see your order canceled.

BestPriceCameras.com advertised a camera at $519. When I called to place the order, Mike told me that I had to buy the accessories or the camera wouldn't work. He then told me that I had to buy the $999.00 package or he will not sell me the camera, wrote Betsy, of Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Matt, of Cloquet, Minnesota, complained about the treatment he received from ExpressCameras.com.

I ordered the Sony dcr-vx2100 for $999. and when I was sent an e-mail to confirm my order, I called and was bombarded by this guy who wanted to sell me as much accessories as possible telling me that the camera could not work without an external battery charger, said Matt.

ExpressCameras.com has a history of problems with consumers, and in late 2006, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office filed suit against Express Cameras (a/k/a Save Here Distribution) for allegedly violating the state's Consumer Fraud Act and Advertising Regulations.

Gray-market goods

While most of us are aware of the illegal nature of black-market merchandise, the camera industry is notorious for gray-market products.

Gray-market means the retailer acquired the product from a source other than the official licensed USA importer or distributor. As opposed to black-market goods, there is nothing illegal about gray-market products, as long as you know its gray-market.

The problem arises when the store doesnt adequately disclose, in advance, that the product is gray-market. Buying a gray-market camera means the menu display could be in Chinese or the owners manual could be in Japanese, if it includes a manual at all.

Furthermore, the battery charger could require a different voltage and to top it off, any warranty could give you real headaches.

USA warranty

Its easy to find an online camera store that proudly proclaims that all products come with a USA Warranty. While this sounds impressive, its an empty statement that can cause you a ton of trouble.

Lets say you buy a camera from an online store located in New Jersey. You feel safe because the camera came with a 1-year USA warranty. A month later, you contact the manufacturer because the camera has a problem. The manufacturer tells you the camera is not covered by their warranty.

How can this be? Its quite simple. The seller address is in the USA, so the warranty can be nothing more than a document created by the USA seller, or a warranty from a U.S. third-party company. This is why they can legally say the product comes with a USA Warranty, even though it is not a true factory warranty.

Before purchasing any camera, you must ask if the camera has a Manufacturers USA Warranty. If it doesnt say Manufacturer, the warranty can have completely different terms and conditions -- and, very likely, very poor coverage.

Credit card orders

Many complaints arise from a merchant saying they wont hit your credit card until shipment, and instead you find the charge on your statement while the seller says your camera is on back order.

Iin theory, this should not happen because most credit card companies have policies that do not allow a merchant to submit the charge until your order is shipped.

The merchant can process an authorization request upon receiving an order, but they cannot send the actual transaction for clearing until the merchant has shipped the product, said Chris Monteiro, spokesperson for MasterCard Worldwide.

In addition, Rob Tourt, Vice-President of Discover Network Services, said, The merchant cannot send the sales data to Discover until the merchant ships the product.

Further, a Visa spokesperson told ConsumerAffairs.com, Under Visa's rules for mail/phone order and e-commerce transactions, the shipping date is considered to be the transaction date. Cardholders should be charged on the date of the transaction.

If you believe you were charged before shipment, report it to your credit card company immediately. They need to know if their merchant is violating company policy.

Check them out and ask questions

Common sense dictates that if a website is selling a product, there should be a physical address listed on the site. For whatever reason, many camera websites are run from a warehouse or P.O. Box in Brooklyn, New York. The skeptical might speculate that there is a common thread tying many of these stores together.

One such skeptic is Don Wiss of New York, who has chronicled the comings and goings of a seemingly endless series of cut-rate camera stores in Brooklyn. He has assembled an online gallery of some of his most prized specimens.

Here today, vanished tomorrow characterizes many of these hole-in-the-brownstone establishments.

Thus, Rule No. 1 might be to patronize established, well-known merchants with sterling reputations.

How do you know who has a good reputation? Asking professional photographers for their recommendation would be a good start. Those who make their living with cameras and electronic gear usually are very knowledgeable about suppliers and eager to share that knowledge.

In the photography field, many professionals and serious hobbyists recommend B&H Photo Video Pro Audio. It stocks a wide range of products and has salespeople who can answer questions knowledgeably.

Another venerable New York store with a huge stock is 47th Street Photo. Nowhere in ConsumerAffairs.com's huge database of consumer complaints are there any beefs about either of these merchants, at least as of this writing.

In addition, the key to getting a good buy is to ask questions and to listen closely to the answers. Legitimate merchants don't mind answering questions. In fact, the good ones invite questions.

There is nothing more scary to me than a customer who thinks they already know all the answers, so they dont ask. We want our customers to ask every question they can think of, said B&H's Henry Posner.