Jan 16, 2006

Camera dealers feel the Web’s wrath

Source: The New York Times
Written by Michael Brick

The last best address leads to a metallic gray warehouse by the waterfront in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Trash haulers go about and there is a dull buzzing sound in the hallway. Graffiti gives information that white people are devils.

Envelopes marked Price Rite Photo are stacked by a door. No one has picked up the mail since the business quit the premises two months ago, said Robert Colon, the handyman. Telephone calls to the company go unreturned.

The proprietors of Price Rite are a subject of complaints to the state attorney general, the city Department of Consumer Affairs, the county district attorney and the Better Business Bureau. The company is only one of several online camera dealers in Brooklyn that have gained nationwide notoriety for hard-sales tactics and bait-and-switch advertising, but when customers suddenly began rallying against the dealers, Price Rite was the center of attention.

What began late in November with a disputed order for a Canon EOS has led to prank calls and attempts to cripple Web sites, police reports of death threats, intervention by global Internet companies, a new city investigation and, all the while, spirited coverage by technology news Web sites.

The market for digital camera gear, it turns out, happens to have a lot of overlap with the technology-minded, Web-logging set, whose vengeance is served without much pause. “So many people have had the same problem before,” said Danny Start, a computer systems analyst in Birmingham, England, who made prank calls to Price Rite and posted recorded conversations on the Internet late last year. “This time, we all heard about it and thought we’d do something about it.”

Many of the camera retailers documented in consumer complaints operate in the gray market, a broad term describing generally legal practices such as importing products packaged for sale outside the United States. Whether for its immigrant population or its ports, Brooklyn has gained a reputation as a center of the gray market for cameras, especially since an investigation by PC World magazine in 2003 focused on Brooklyn dealers.

The companies promote products on their Web sites and submit offers to online services like Yahoo Shopping, which searches prices on more than 100 million products from more than 100,000 merchants, according to Yahoo.

Complaints submitted to investigative agencies describe tactics like promising low prices but canceling orders or making threats when customers decline to add batteries and other accessories to their purchases.

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