DennisBeaverMarch 15, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

If you are looking for a new digital camera, chances are good that you’ll research prices online and make a few phone calls. That’s just what amateur photographer Marsha Kay of San Luis Obispo did when shopping for a Canon EOS 40D in January, 2008.

Marsha’s story is proof of what happens when we either don’t see or choose to ignore warning signs which just don’t make sense.

On a deeper level, it is testimony as to how con artists are so successful by appealing to our search for a bargain — sometimes plain greed, our greed. Criminal success is assured when we allow common sense and normal curiosity to be overruled by a tempting deal.

Let’s not shake on that

Like other quality camera manufacturers, Canon sells high-tech lenses which eliminate blur caused by “camera shake.” Especially where you have a zoom or telephoto lens or just aren’t that steady with a camera in your hands, if you’re going to get a new Digital camera, buy a lens with a built-in stabilizer.

“That feature was extremely important to me,” Marsha explained, “as I have had a tremor in my arms since about age 20, so often pictures I’ve taken turn out blurry because of this shaking.”

Marsha wanted a Canon 40D, which, like all Digital SLR cameras, can be purchased with or without a lens for customers who already own other lenses. The 40D (body only) can be found online at a number of legitimate stores for about $1,200.

She spent hours online, and found the Canon 40D at “Best Price Cameras” for an incredible: $429!

That low price was the first sign that something was wrong. If the same item is offered for sale by other stores at prices which are fairly close, and suddenly one seller has it for two thirds less, it is most likely an invitation to Bait and Switch.

“Best Price Cameras had a package (#14) for $1,219 which included the camera, two stabilized Canon lenses, and other accessories, which was the lowest price anywhere,” she added.

In fact, these prices were too good to be true. I have learned that Best Price Camera did not even have those Canon lenses in stock, and would not have them for two to three months — if ever! But they never told her that.

Bait and switch easy to spot

The salesman Marsha spoke with “seemed to be knowledgeable and polite, telling me the lenses in the package were not that good and you should upgrade to other Canon lenses with stabilizers.”

At that point, unaware she was hearing the beginnings of a classic Bait and Switch, instead of taking a time out, ending the call and researching both Best Price Cameras and his statement about those Canon lenses being of “poor quality,” Marsha placed an order, falling into their trap.

So, let’s stop right at the moment Marsha was told, “These lenses aren’t that good.” This is a typical start of a Bait and Switch, where the customer has (1) fallen for the low, advertised “Bait,” and is next; “Switched” to a much more expensive, and frequently, lesser quality item.

When you hear this, it is time to run! But often, smooth salespeople drag the trusting customer in deeper.

Bait and Switch is a tactic used to “up sell”, and such tactics aren’t limited to camera stores.

Years ago, when I was a Deputy D.A. in the Consumer Fraud Division shopping for a mattress in an Ortho Mattress store with my wife, a salesman gave us the same pitch knocking their advertised, “firm” mattress, trying to get us to buy one much more expensive. It was his unlucky day.

And the $1,219 Web site price? With these “better Canon lenses” the price jumped to $2,800″ she told me, angry and close to tears.

Had Marsha researched the advertised lenses online, she would have found them to be praised by camera magazines. She also would have found something which should have frightened her away from Best Price Cameras. Discounted prices of those two lenses in Package #14 — not the camera, just the lenses — would total $1,600!

‘Tough beans!’

When Marsha received the package from Best Price Cameras, it did not contain Canon Stabilized lenses. It did have vastly overpriced, non stabilized Sigma products. She attempted for days to reach the Customer Service Department, and was always placed on hold, finally reaching “Bill Douglas.”

“No, we won’t take the order back without a 20 percent restocking fee, and unless we give you a Return Authorization Number, you can’t return it to us. And I am not going to give you that number. It tough beans, lady,” the creep told Marsha.

That was when she contacted You and the Law, and I next had a chat with the charming Bill Douglas, who refused to provide an address or to talk with me but did agree to discuss this with Marsha … so, I immediately set up a conference call with Marsha on the line.

He again refused to discuss anything, saying, “It is beyond our seven day return policy anyway.” But it was only day 6.

Marsha has filed a Dispute with American Express, and they told her to keep that camera until a valid return mechanism can be worked out. I just hope that Amex will keep their word and not attempt to collect. If they try to press her for money, you’ll be reading about it.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.