Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A new home delivery scam?

From the blogger who brought you stories of stolen courier packages and bad behavior by a postal worker caught on security camera, I now offer you an even more sophisticated home delivery scam warning.
Oh dear God, the process should NOT be as difficult or as financially perilous as it seems to be.  But with the astonishing expansion in on-line shopping, there's bound to be a corresponding rise in attempts at hustling the consumer. 

Microsoft clip art.
I have no proof of what is happening in our latest case, but I smell a proverbial scam here, and it's one I haven't encountered before.  Let me explain.

Intrepid suburbanites that we are, my husband and I decided to order a major home appliance through a national distributor.  On such a big-ticket item, I would gladly have paid a substantial premium to deal with an actual brick-and-mortar staffed by real people, but this is a specialty item and it was not for sale in any Texas store.  Nor was it available through any Texas online retailer that we could find.  And the mark-ups on such commodities are now so low and the risks so high that no third-party retailer is motivated to get involved in a non-standard transaction by placing a special order on a consumer's behalf.  That would be like the retail equivalent of asking for a travel agent to help you book an airline flight.  Ain't going to happen. 

So we were left with no option but to order the item directly from the national distributor, whose tone was unusually ominous when warning us to carefully inspect the package, open the package and inspect it for damage prior to signing for it.  That set off my warning bells big-time. 

There's more hinging on your simple signature than you might first assume.

Microsoft clip art.
So our item arrived, unexplainably after dark (and it's summer time, so the sun doesn't set early).  It arrived well after the ground courier's normal business hours.  The driver would not allow us to remove the shipping box from the truck without first signing for it.  My husband was able to open the top of the box to inspect for damage but the driver would not allow him to pull out all the components and inspect them one by one.  This is understandable - until that signature is rendered, financial responsibility for the very-expensive item remains with the courier, and they are not going to let anyone erode their value by ripping open sealed plastic and yanking off pieces of tape because then they are left with a stigmatized and devalued "opened box" consumer item.  About a third of the value evaporates just by opening the package, even if the item is high-end.

So we signed for it and guess what?  It appeared to have been factory sealed as a blatantly-defective item to start with.  There was no evidence that any damage occurred during shipping - the inner and outer boxes were immaculate, without dents or punctures.  My guess is that the factory screwed up but packed the item for retail anyway, gambling that the loss could be passed to someone else down the line.

You may be wondering... why would they even try this stunt?  All the consumer has to do in a case like this is dispute the credit card charge if the distributor won't replace the defective item.  It's open and shut. 

The answer may lie in the fact that the shipment is apparently insured by a third party.  This is pure speculation on my part, but I think it may boil down to a case of retail musical chairs.  I think everybody in the distribution chain is hoping to pin an expensive mistake like this on the underwriter.  If the consumer discovers the damage prior to signature, all they need to do is refuse to accept the item and it goes into an insurance claim.  The distributor then gains the potential to pass it off as shipping damage and recoup what would otherwise be their loss which was passed to them, in turn, by the manufacturer. 

But I suspect that the courier is wise to this scheme, which is doubly why they won't allow the recipient to inspect the interior of the package prior to rendering signature.  Why should they allow themselves to get stiffed when it is really the fault of the manufacturer? 

The result is a retail Mexican stand-off of sorts:
  • You can't sign for the package before you inspect it.
  • The courier won't let you thoroughly inspect it prior to signing.
  • The supplier won't confirm or deny a non-transportation-related non-disclosed factory defect prior to shipping.
  • The factory certainly isn't going to volunteer any information either.
Wikipedia's depiction of Mexican Standoff involves a display by some Steampunkers.  Coincidentally, my new appliance will be somewhat steampunkish... if I can ever manage to acquire it. 
About which you may be wondering... why even bother?!  Why try to circumnavigate the impossible when there are so many other consumer appliances readily available on the market?

Well, if I can ever get the damned thing into my house in one piece, you'll see exactly why in a future post. 

Anyway, where it stands right now is that the distributor has pledged to give me "one more chance" to inspect a replacement shipment.  And this time, I'm not going to do it via delivery truck.  I'm going down to the courier office and I'm going to open it in front of the regional manager, filming the whole miserable process if they will concede to me on that point.  If insurance fraud is really what is being attempted here, the courier should welcome a filming, because that would work to their advantage as well as mine. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 to see how this mess turns out. 

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