The State of Texas has brought charges against two of the more infamous electronics retailers on the Net: Broadway Photo and Starlight Camera & Video. The Texas Attorney General is accusing the sites of bait-and-switch operations and other deceptive, overtly aggressive sales tactics.
All I can say is, what took them so long?
In the fall of 2002 I was part of a team of investigative reporters who bought cameras from seven of these shops - and investigated dozens more -- for PC World magazine. That was my first encounter with one of the longest running scams in the electronics biz, which started in Brooklyn storefronts and has now spread across the Net.
A handful of families in New York and New Jersey have been running these stores for decades, and they all operate in the same way. The store advertises expensive cameras at prices hundreds of dollars below retail. When you call to order the camera, the salesperson patiently explains you'll have to pay extra for batteries, memory cards, power cords, manuals, etc. By the time you're done adding "extras," you've paid more than if you'd bought it from a legitimate retailer who sold you the complete package.
If you say "No thanks, I'll just take the camera," you'll find it's suddenly and indefinitely out of stock. If you cancel your order or complain, you get an earful of abuse and even physical threats. Think you can avoid the scam by ordering it online? Fahgeddaboutit. The salesperson always calls back to "confirm" your order before placing it, so he can put the squeeze on you.
And they really don't like having their dirty laundry aired in public. In 2005, photographer Don Wiss got a death threat from an employee at one of these operations after he posted photos of these "stores" -- many of which appear to be abandoned buildings - on his Web site. They also occasionally threaten customers. You can hear the threats left on one blogger's voice mail here [MP3 audio - NSFW].
Worse, a single "store" may have dozens of Web sites with different names and prices, but the same owners, inventory, and modus operandi. When one store gets a bad reputation - which usually leads to it being booted from shopping search engines like PriceGrabber or Shopper.com - the scammers simply shut it down and open a new one.
Now these stores have adopted a new tactic. They've built their own "shopping search engines" and buy sponsored ads on Google that puts them at the top of camera searches.
Take EveryPrice.com, for example. For the first 15 seconds or so it looks like a legitimate (if cheesy) price search engine. But scratch the surface and you'll get slime under your fingernails.
Search for a Nikon D90 camera on EveryPrice you will find more than a dozen Brooklyn stores listed, each one with three or more stars. Look at the six "top selling" cameras on its home page, and the same vendor is listed as offering the "Best Value" for each: Broadway Photo. Color me surprised.
Unlike other shopping search engines, the ratings on EveryPrice don't come from customers. Instead, the site publishes its own ratings. Here's how it explains its rating system, complete with all the original typos and mangled English:
"There are 10 separate Criterias each worth half a star, these rating are based on store policies, features and information. Each criteria will be marked with a check or an X. An X indictaes that the store does not fulfill that criteria. A check Indicates that they Do."
EveryPrice claims to let you compare prices on computers, jewelry, kitchen appliances, and other goods, but in my random search of the site I never found more than one store listed in any other category - making the whole price comparison concept rather moot. Lots of camera stores though.
Clearly the site is just a front for the Brooklyn camera sellers, Broadway Photo in particular. Maybe they should rename it "Every-Price-But-The-Actual-One.com".
This scoop - and the news about the Texas AG - comes via David Michael, author of the Thoughts of Dave blog, which focuses on unscrupulous Web sites (and lists several other bogus shopping and camera sites). Michael says he's been haranguing Google to nix the ads for fake price comparison sites for a long time, but with no success.
BIG CAVEAT: It's important to remember that not every camera dealer in New York or New Jersey is a crook. B&H Photo and Adorama both have fine reputations, and I'm sure there are others. But I'd bet they're outnumbered 10 to 1 (or worse) by the bait-and-switchers.
So buyer beware in spades. Next time you're tempted by a fantastic price on a camera, Google that dealer. Odds are you'll find dirt lurking just beneath the surface.
This story, "Bait-and-Switch Camera Shops Get Comeuppance" was originally published by Computerworld.