By P.H. Tuttle
After patiently enduring the collector’s version of every child’s mailbox vigil for the magic decoder ring, the new addition to your display finally arrives. You open the box, and rather than the joy and satisfaction that you had been anticipating ever since you made the purchase, you find disappointment instead. There’s a problem. Oh crap! What do you do now?
If you purchased the item from a friend or a reputable dealer who honors an iron-clad guarantee of satisfaction, you are almost certainly just fine. However, if you left the relative safety of known associates and established businesses to hunt bargains in the militaria equivalent of a third-world back-street market, well, there might well be good reason for the hair to be raised on the back of your neck. Sure, there are, indeed, bargains to be had and hidden gems to be discovered in such places, but not without some degree of risk.
You wonder if that ad offering $500 daggers for $275 really was too good to be true, or perhaps the incredible “buy-it-now” deal you found on eBay at 3 a.m. was not so incredible after all. Oh no! You’re hosed. Or are you?
Influence the Outcome
At this point, you may actually have more power to influence the outcome of the transaction than you think. The sellers you find in those places are a diverse group. A good number of them are decent folks, and because of their own moral code or just good business sense, they will be glad (or at least willing) to make the deal right.
There are also the crooks – if you have been snared by one of them, you may still have some options. The rest of the sellers fall somewhere in between. Often the way they handle your issue will depend on a number of variables. Your goal should be to proceed in a manner that will make as many of those variables as possible work in your favor.
“Before you kick in the door, try the handle. What do you have to lose?”
The biggest mistake that a lot of buyers make is to assume that the seller has purposefully done them wrong. Based on that assumption, they initiate contact in an aggressive and accusatory manner. If the seller really is a bad guy, then he is used to this, and it has no effect on him. If the seller is one of the good guys, or especially one of the “sometimes good guys,” then you just declared war on someone that you need to be your ally.
When you don’t really know who you are dealing with, it is always best to start out friendly and without any “fighting words” (fraud, crook, bait-and-switch, SOB, etc.). Give the guy a chance to make good and see what develops.
If this doesn’t work, then you can always escalate. If you start out at “DEFCON-1,” you have severely limited your options and greatly reduced the probability of an easy resolution to your problem.
As one who has been the seller in a few eBay transactions gone awry, I have noticed that a number of folks tend to immediately leap to the conclusion that there is some sort of fraud or conspiracy afoot. From a seller’s perspective, that gets real old, real quick.
Some buyers are just jumpy because previous misadventures have made them well aware that venues like eBay are indeed the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” that Obi-Wan tried to warn us about. A few are obnoxious crusaders who envision themselves as the white knights of the internet, honor-bound to root out and catch “bad guys” in the act, then expose them for all the world to see. There is no happy settlement with them – even if you bend over backward to resolve the problem (real or imagined). In their mind, you only did so because you were “caught,” and must still be shamed before the world.
The rest of the problem buyers are just nuts of varying flavor and intensity, many of which would not comprehend an item description if you sat them on your lap and read it to them in theatrical voice, with a pop-up book furnishing the illustrations.
Because many sellers have been burned by a few of these problematic buyers, it is important for you to make a good first impression. If you come across as a good guy, it will probably go a long way toward achieving the outcome that you want. On the other hand, if you open the dialogue with accusations, threats, payment chargebacks, foul language, leaving nasty feedback or posting unfounded accusations at online discussion forums before even contacting the seller, well, even the best sellers are not so inclined to be helpful.
“I’ve always believed that if done properly, armed robbery doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience.”
Be aware that many part-time sellers do not have big cash reserves to back up returns. Some of these sellers are good guys, but the funds from your purchase went directly into the checking account to cover rent, groceries, the electric bill, his latest militaria purchase, etc. More than a few have sold off parts of their collection to help them through bad times.
This has always been true to some extent, but with politicians here and around the world relentlessly pursuing economic policies that amount to nothing less than a legislative reenactment of the last scene from the movie, “Thelma & Louise,” it is increasingly likely that your seller might have sold his item to pay some bills.
In that case, he may not have the money to give you right at that moment. Giving the seller a reasonable bit of time to get funds together, or even proposing an exchange for other items that you would be interested in, will build good will and may be the key to a successful resolution. Just be aware of the time limits on filing PayPal disputes or credit card chargebacks. If you have any remaining doubts as to the seller’s intentions, don’t let yourself get manipulated into waiting too long to pursue those options.
These mechanisms are good tools for buyers to use against sellers who flatly refuse to correct a bad transaction in which they are legitimately at fault, but keep in mind these are the nukes in your arsenal – something that should be the last option, not the first. An unexpected PayPal dispute or credit card chargeback will not immediately get your money back to you, but it will immediately remove those funds from the seller’s bank account.
This can cause a domino effect of bounced checks, penalty fees, and all manner of headaches if there was not a surplus of funds in the account to begin with. A seller who would otherwise have been inclined to be helpful will likely contest a surprise dispute. Even though the buyer generally wins in the end, a contested dispute can significantly increase the amount of time that the buyer must wait before it is finally resolved. Also, a buyer who casually files disputes without first pursuing a friendly resolution will often later find himself blacklisted by the seller, and everyone else in the seller’s circle of friends and associates.
“It is easier to cope with a bad conscience than with a bad reputation.”
If chargebacks and disputes are the nukes in your arsenal, this is the poison gas. Used carelessly, it can do more damage to you than it does to your adversary, so you will want to be quite certain of which way the wind is blowing before you even consider this.
Online discussion forums such as Wehrmacht-Awards, GermanDaggers,
USMilitariaForum, and others are places where a great many in the collecting community gather to share information. If you sense that things are not going well in your transaction, a carefully worded post inquiring about other members’ experiences dealing with a specific seller can yield a lot of good intel for you, and might give you a better idea of where you stand. This will permit you to tailor your efforts accordingly. If a seller really is a bad egg, just doing a quick search on the forums will probably tell you all you need to know.
Posting something that suggests or just outright accuses a seller of malfeasance, however, can have some unexpected negative effects, especially if you are just speculating. First, if the seller becomes aware of it – and he will – you can pretty much guarantee that negotiations are over, and you have a new enemy. Second, if it turns out that the seller simply had not answered your emails or calls because (for example) he was away for two weeks digging wells for starving children in Africa and has the photos to prove it, well, then, you really look like a schmuck.
If your seller remains unwilling to help after all other diplomatic efforts have been exhausted and he is not vulnerable to chargebacks or PayPal disputes because you used a payment method that does not provide recourse, then the use of an online “name-and-shame” campaign may be your last hope.
The “real-deal” bad guys are not bothered by this, of course. It might force someone who does still put some value on his reputation to choose what is more important: This refund or his reputation. There are no guarantees that he will make the right choice, but at that point, any hope of forcing a resolution is worth pursuing.
“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
In my own dealings as a buyer, nearly all of my bad experiences have resulted from deals where I thought I was somehow beating the system. I ignored all of my internal alarms because I thought I was “getting a Rolex for the price of a Timex.”
Using common sense will help you avoid most truly bad sellers. If a deal goes awry with one of the other guys, just a bit of common courtesy and diplomacy can be the difference between an easy solution among friends and full-scale war. It might even build good will and better friendships. That is a great benefit to all concerned.
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