Internet Safe Buying TipsTIPS FOR BUYING A SADDLE SAFELY ON THE INTERNET AND AVOIDING SCAMS
by Cori McGraw, founder, High-End Used Saddles, LLC
The internet has fast become an efficient resource for connecting buyers and sellers. However, so many people have written to me asking about potentially fraudulent saddle advertisement/scams that I felt the need to post some tips here. In fact, I wrote a piece for Horse Family Magazine sharing some tips for buying a saddle safely on the internet. In the interest of protecting us all from these scams, I would like to share my thoughts on how to stay safe in your online purchasing and how to spot and avoid potential scams.
Here are some tips to avoid being taken in scams by fraudulent sellers:
- Avoid wire transer deals. I don't recommend ever paying for a saddle by wire transfer (Western Union, etc.), nor do I recommend doing business with a seller who insists on this kind of payment method. Such payments are difficult to trace. Insisting on payment by wire transfer is a common feature of saddle scams. If a seller insists upon wire transfer as the only acceptable form of payment, I would strongly recommend walking away.
- Proceed with caution with saddles offered dramatically below market value. This harkens back to the old rule of thumb, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." While there certainly are occassions where someone will sell a saddle for below market value just to ensure a fast sale, a caution sign should pop up in your mind if you see a saddle advertised far below fair market value for its age and condition. Given the high cost of buying a top brand saddle new, it is unlikely that a legitimate seller is going to advertise a high-end saddle at a giveaway price. (There is a strong market for high-end used saddles, so a seller would not need to list a saddle at a fire sale price to move the saddle.) I can think of one ad I've seen that I identified as a fraud, for example, that was listing a 1-2 year old Butet for around $1700. (A 1-2 year old Butet would normally sell for over $3,000.) This particular ad pops up from time to time in different places, and I have heard that a number of people have been scammed by it. Usually scam artists trade in the fact that the "hot deal" will cause your heart to beat faster and get you so caught up in the excitement of the great deal that you may overlook their demands for suspicious payment methods like wire transfer, etc. Better to pay fair market price from a legitimate seller than to lose your entire purchase price to a scam artist in the quest to save a buck.
- Speak to the seller personally. Get a phone number for the seller and ask questions about the saddle over the phone. Some scam artists are not even horse people; they copy other people's ads and photos and just change the contact/payment information. Such sellers may try to avoid phone contact all together. If the seller is unwilling to talk to you by phone, proceed with caution. Many scam artists never even have the saddle in their possession. Ask questions that the person would need to have the saddle in front of them in order to help determine for yourself whether you think they actually have the saddle in their possession. You might ask, "What is the serial number?" or "What is the measurement of the flap from the stirrup bar to the end of the flap?" or "What type of horse is this saddle most likely to fit?" (If this info is posted in the ad, ask a different question.) An honest seller will be happy to answer these questions as best they can or get the information and call you back. Also, don't underestimate the old-fashioned gut feeling test. What is your gut feeling after speaking with the seller? Did they seem helpful and willing to answer all of your questions, or did you get a strange vibe from them? You should come away with the feeling that the seller is helpful, happy to answer your questions, and able to talk horses quite comfortably.
- Consider the seller's tone in communications. If the seller's tone in communications (whether on the phone or through email) takes on a tone that strikes you as rude, insistent, or demanding, proceed with caution. I have noticed that fraudulent sellers have a tendency to get rude or snippy if you don't instantly agree to all of their payment terms or if you try to discuss a more secure payment method. It seems that the fraudulent sellers get agitated if they suspect that you are using reasonable caution, and tend to get aggressive in their demands. (In contrast, legitimate sellers are usually patient about your concerns. They understand your need for reassurance regarding the security of a transaction, and their tone tends to be more along the lines of "I know where you're coming from" etc. You can expect a legitimate seller to maintain a polite tone throughout the course of your communications.)
- Examine consistency of photograph backgrounds. When you view the website of a legitimate dealer, you will typically see consistency in the background in the photos, indicating that the dealer has the saddles in his/her possession, and is photographing them in their own photo set-up backdrop. If you are looking at a dealer website, beware if the photos of each saddles have a radically different background from photos of the other saddles offered for sale by the dealer. This may be a sign that the saddles are not in the dealer's possession. These various photos of saddles may have been harvested from classified ad photos (i.e. 10 legitimate individuals place photo classified ads online, and unbeknownst to them, Fraudulent Freddie steals their photos and creates a fake website where he is "selling" these saddles and wants people to pay him by wire transfer). In contrast, legitimate dealers who have the saddles in their possession will typically photograph each saddle in their own photo set-up backdrop, so you see consistency in the background of the photos.
- When in doubt, put it on your credit card. You can call your credit card company to be sure, but most credit card companies will not hold you responsible if you bought an item and it never arrives. In fact, in case of fraud, they typically remove the charge from your account and retrieve the money back from the seller's account. This is one reason that fraudulent types often will not accept Paypal/credit cards in any form, because they don't want Paypal or the credit card company to be able to reach back in to retrieve the money after the fraud. Legitimate sellers are not worried about this, and so are willing to accept Paypal and/or credit card. Paying with a credit card can take some of the anxiety away with respect to whether or not a listing is legitimate.
- (If the seller balks at taking Paypal/credit card due to the high fees charged to sellers, which is a legitimate frustration for sellers, you can always offer to cover or split these fees, which are typically 3% of the purchase price, and see how they react. A legitimate seller would be thrilled to have those fees covered, while a fraudulent seller will shift to another excuse as to why a traceable payment method such as Paypal/credit card won't work for them. These days, sellers are just as worried about fraudulent check/money order payments as buyers are about fraudulent item listings, so usually Paypal/credit card is considered the most secure for all parties at the table if you can find a fair way to handle the 3% fees.)
- Ebay tips. If you decide to try your luck on ebay for saddles, I recommend watching the eBay market for a couple of weeks first to practice identifying potentially problematic sellers and sharpen your eye for legitimate versus suspicious listings. To protect yourself again fraud on ebay, bear in mind a few tips:
- Scrutinize the seller's amount of feedback. 0 feedback could mean the seller is brand new to eBay, or it could mean that the person is a scam artist trying to capitalize on a big ticket sale. (Scam artists pull a scam, then re-register with eBay under a different screenname each time so you don't see the negative feedback from the last scam. Hence the 0 feedback.) Incidentally, if you are a legitimate seller with 0 feedback, you are better off buying a few pairs of socks or something on eBay first to build up some feedback rather than listing your $2500 Devoucoux saddle as a seller with 0 feedback.
- Even if there is a history of good feedback, scrutinize the pattern of transactions in their feedback profile. If they haven't been active on eBay at all in recent times (i.e., maybe a year or more inactivity), beware. Sometimes scam artists steal an eBay identity from someone who has positive feedback but isn't currently active on eBay (the scam artist figures the legitimate seller isn't around often enough to notice the stolen identity), and then tries to use their positive feedback to lure in customers.
- Avoid buying from an eBay seller whose listing adamantly and insistently directs you, in underlined bold letters, to email them at some other email address (instead of using the eBay "ask a question" buttons). This could be a stolen eBay identity. (If you were to use the "ask a question" button, they know that your question would go to the person who actually is the true identity, as opposed to the scam artist who is trying to direct you to his personal email.)
- Avoid eBay listings where the seller uses the eBay listing as bait to try to get you to do an outright sale at a suspiciously low price outside of eBay.
- I don't recommend buying on eBay from sellers who will not accept Paypal. Some such sellers will say that the Paypal fees are too expensive (this is a legitimate point- it does cost us sellers about 3%, which can be around $70 to $100 or so, of the purchase price to take your payment on a saddle via Paypal or a credit card as opposed to a check or money order, but most of us chalk this up to part of the cost of doing business). Unfortunately a lot of the fraudulent saddle ads on eBay are the ones that try to avoid traceable payment methods like Paypal. Personally, I don't think it's worth the risk to buy on eBay via payment outside of Paypal/credit card. If you decide to proceed anyway where the buyer insists on a check or money order as the only form of acceptable payment, consider paying them with a check from your credit card company. (That way if they turn out to be a scam, you can tell your credit card company, and they will typically allow you to dispute the charge if merchandise was paid for but never received.)
- Ebay has increasingly become a popular place to shop for saddles. Because it's become so popular, the winning bid prices there are quite close to market value (sometimes even exceeding market prices in auction frenzy). Therefore, make a mental note to yourself that it would be highly unusual to come across a screaming deal even on eBay. A good deal is possible, but a screaming deal is unlikely. (Low starting bids are not a cause for concern, but low "buy it now" prices are a cause for concern.) Thus, please, please, please remember not to toss out the advice that "if it looks too good to be true, it probably is" even on eBay. I have often see the same fraudulent listing pop up every few weeks or so on eBay, attempting to lure people in with a deal-of-the-century price on a very popular top brand saddle. The ad is usually reported to eBay and removed within a few days, but in the meantime it is likely that someone may get scammed in the time in between the listing being reported and the listing being removed.
- Also, on more of a practical note unrelated to fraud, bear in mind that most eBay listing do not offer a return policy, so if the Butet you buy there turns out to fit differently than your friend's Butet (which is often the case even when the seat size and flap number are the same simply because the saddles are hand made and there can be significant variance from one to another), you may be out of luck even if the listing is legitimate. (Those sellers that do offer a return policy often must charge a restocking fee to cover the eBay fees, so read the fine print before bidding.)
- Use extra caution when dealing internationally. I have had some positive experiences buying saddles from overseas; there are some legitimate dealers that you can buy from that have a reputation for being good to work with. (Nonetheless, the hidden costs like European taxes as well as customs fees when the saddle arrives in the US can catch buyer unaware on the first time buying from abroad.) That being said, I do think that it makes sense to do your homework on a seller a little more carefully when buying a saddle from overseas. Because it can take weeks for a saddle to arrive from abroad, it may take you some time to determine whether your saddle is really coming or not. If you decide to purchase a saddle from overseas, I would recommend paying with a credit card just to be on the safe side. (And be prepared to pay the foreign taxes as well as US customs charges on top of whatever price is listed in the advertisement.)
- Cashier's check scam: For those of you selling a saddle on the internet, avoid the widespread popular cashier's check scam. This scame involves a buyer, often from a suspiciously distant location, offering to pay you more than the asking price for your item by cashier's check. They typically ask that you wire them the difference once you receive the cashier's check. The scam is that the cashier's check is fraudulent, but by the time your bank lets you know this, you may have already sent the money and/or the item. I get emails almost every day from these scam artists. They are often easy to spot, because often the hallmarks of the emails are:
- The email sounds very generic. Instead of questions geared specifically towards a saddle (e.g., "What is the flap length") they have a generic "boilerplate" email that they can send to the seller of any item advertised in a classified ad, be it a saddle, car, cattle prod, etc. (e.g., "What is the condition and final asking price of your item, why are you selling it, and will you take a cashier's check?"). Listen for the "canned" ring to the sound of the email.
- The use of unusually broken/irregular language. Many of these scams originate in foreign countries. They often involve unusually glaring grammatical and/or spelling errors.
- They seem inappropriately eager to buy the item in their first email. They are typically ready to buy the item before they have requested the basic information a buyer would need to determine whether the item is right for them. In contrast, most real buyers will initially email you for photos and/or to ask a few specific questions, and then discuss making a purchase in subsequent communications once they have first obtained the relevant basic details.
I hope these tips will help keep you safe as you enjoy hunting for the right saddle for you. These days most of us do buy things over the internet, and following these tips can help ensure that your online shopping experience is a positive one.