Camera Fiasco: A Cautionary Tale

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I’m experimenting with my new Canon SLR and 70-200mm lens.

What follows is the story of how not to buy a camera online.

Go to
www.pricegrabber.com and search for “Canon Digital Rebel XTi”.  Select a company that has a reasonable customer rating and has been rated more than 10 times.  Abe’s of Maine, based in Edison New Jersey, is just the ticket.  Don’t check to see if they’ve bolstered their ratings by posting fake positive reviews.  Don’t look for real reviews buried amongst the fool’s gold saying things like “I tried to return a defective camera and was told to deal with the manufacturer.  The manufacturer told me to deal with Abe’s of Maine because the camera was new.  Don’t buy from Abe’s of Maine because they don’t service what they sell” or “they sold me a lens for $250 over the phone that I later found sold for only $70 at reputable companies.  When I tried to change my order they told me that they couldn’t change it once it had been entered in the computer.”  Another nice one is “Don’t buy from Abe’s of Maine because they’re just another low-life company that lures you to their website with cheap prices and then aggressively tries to sell you overpriced accessories.”  Other common complaints include unwillingness to accept returns and rudeness. 

As you might have guessed, I had a bad experience buying a camera and lens at Abe’s of Maine.  I actually bought two cameras – one for myself and one for Tom because his limey credit card doesn’t work for online purchases in the US.  The original cost was $726 per camera kit.  We planned to have the cameras shipped to Joel’s apartment in New York city, thus negating all state sales taxes and avoiding international shipping charges. 

When you place an online order at Abe’s of Maine, I would learn, they send you an email instructing you to “verify your credit card information” by phoning a special number.  When you phone this sucker number (yes I am a sucker) you don’t talk to someone in customer service or billing.  You talk to a salesman who’s only job is to try and up sell and push service plans and extended warranties.   This should have been a major tip off.  I can imagine a room full of sharks a la Boiler Room just waiting for a “whale” like me to call.

That first call went something like this:
Shark: You’re going to be very happy with your camera.  Do you have any questions?
Whale (unknowingly exposing his underside to the Shark’s jaws): Well actually, I was wondering about upgrading the lens…
Shark: Have you heard about our special promotion?
Whale: No.
Shark: Right now we’re having a sale on the Sigma Zoom Wide Angle – Telephoto 28-70mm f/2.8(-4?) Digital Glass Lens, the best all purpose lens you can buy for this camera.  Because you’ve bought 2 cameras I can give you special “repeat customer” discount.  I can package the Sigma lens with the Canon for only $900 per unit instead of the sale price of $950.
Whale (hesitating because he’s looking up the lens on pricegrabber to see if it is a good deal)…well, I’m not sure…
Shark: You can’t go wrong with this lens.  I’ve got 10 years experience working with Canon and I can guarantee you that you won’t find a better lens for this price.
Whale (has found what he thinks is the lens on pricegrabber for ~$300):  Can you beat $900?
Shark: let me see what I can do, hang on (puts Whale on hold for a minute).  I can get you the whole package for $849 because you’ve bought two cameras.  What do you say?
Whale: Well, I’m actually buying one of the cameras for my friend.  I’m not sure if he’ll want this lens.  Can I change the order later?
Shark: Sure, you can change the order right up until it ships.  Give me a call back later tonight or tomorrow morning and you’ll be fine.
Whale: OK, I’ll get the lens.

It went on like this for various other accessories, such as lens cleaning kits, filters, carrying cases, tripods, etc.  I fell victim to a filter set that they sell on their website for $140 and he would give me for “only” $70.  Then there was a big push to sell a 5 year service plan for only an extra $400 per camera.  When I refused the price kept dropping.  I knew I didn’t want a service plan.  Extended warranties and service plans are for suckers, right?  (Add $70 filter sets and Sigma lenses to that list).  He was so persuasive that I felt like I had to negotiate.  He wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Every excuse not to get a service plan was easily rebuffed.  I would say something like:

“I live in Canada so I won’t be able to have it serviced at your store” to which he would respond:
“No problem, you can have it serviced at any authorized Canon service centre, anywhere in the world.”  I actually felt like I had won a battle when I finally got off the phone without getting a service plan.   If my suspicions hadn’t been aroused by the fact that I was talking to a salesman in the first place, surely you would think the aggressive service plan push would.  You would think.

Instead I felt pretty smart.  I felt like I had bargained hard and been rewarded by a good deal.  I was proud of myself.  I was on a roll.  I had bought two 2007 KLR650s for around dealer cost, and now I could add a nice SLR camera and lens package to the list.

Later that evening, I told Tom about the Sigma lenses.  He did some research (imagine that), and found a review of the lens that was less than favourable.  We would later learn that the lens they had actually sent us was not the “Sigma Zoom Wide Angle – Telephoto 28-70mm f/2.8 Digital Glass Lens” (~$300, not favourably reviewed) but the “Sigma Zoom Wide Angle – Telephoto 28-70mm f/2.8-4 Digital Glass Lens” which retails for about $70 and is probably not any better (and maybe worse) than the plastic Canon that was originally included in the camera kit (for $726).  Tom favoured the “Tamron Zoom Super Wide Angle SP AF 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II LD Aspherical [IF] Autofocus Lens”, which goes for about $450.  For some reason we decided that $950 was the most we’d pay for the Canon SLR and Tamron lens.

I called back later that night to modify the order and was surprised when I was told that the salespeople could not modify orders.  Apparently only customer service could pull off such a complicated operation, and they were only available between 9 AM and 3 PM.  I had been lied to, but for some reason I still thought that there was a reasonable explanation.

The next morning I phoned customer service before going to class and was told that the order had not shipped, and that I could modify it.  I told them to hold the order until I had time to make the changes.  By the time I had a break at lunch, I had been sent a second email from Abe’s of Maine.  Apparently I had to phone to verify me credit card information.  This time they actually did want to verify my credit card.  I said I wanted to modify my order.  “Yes of course, I’ll verify your credit card first and then transfer you.”  I asked several times if I could modify my order after confirming my credit card and was repeatedly told that it was no problem.  Eventually I agreed and they phoned my credit card company and then phoned me back using the phone number the credit card company had on file.  Credit card confirmed.  I asked to modify m
y order and was transferred.

Immediately I ran into trouble.  The Abe’s guy said “that order has already shipped.”  Knowing that this was impossible, I kept insisting that there must be a mistake.  After all, I had just finished confirming my credit card 30 seconds ago.  They certainly wouldn’t ship an order without having first confirmed the credit card.  The Abe’s guy’s story changed to “it’s packaged on the shipping dock and there’s no way for me to access it right now.”  This was, of course, complete bullshit.  He said that I could try the lens for 30 days and send it back if I wasn’t satisfied (I would later discover that there is a 15% restocking fee for returned items, and that they reserve the right to refuse any return.  Moreover, you have to ship the items back at your own expense, plus pay their shipping costs.)  He kept saying things like “why would you want to exchange that lens, it’s the best lens.” 

I was getting frustrated, but still managed to stay calm, insisting that there was an error instead of accusing the guy of outright lying to me.  I asked to speak to his supervisor, to which he replied “I am the manager here”, which was a load of crap.  I felt powerless in the face of the lies flying in my face.  I was especially powerless because I had already given them my credit card information. 

I knew I was at this lying idiot’s mercy.  I’ve been in this type of situation before, namely when  I was screwed by a rental car company in San Diego.  After countless phone calls, letters, and even a signed receipt that was different than the one the merchant provided (they filled it in after I left with made-up charges!), the credit card company sided with the merchant in the end.  Once a company has your credit card information, they can pretty much do whatever they want.

Knowing that I would need the Abe’s of Maine guy’s cooperation I tried a different tactic.  I explained that I wanted to “upgrade” to a higher quality lens.  “Upgrade” was a magic word.  All of a sudden anything was possible.  Sure he could exchange the Sigma lenses for the Tamrons.  I asked if he could do it for $950 (which was the price that Tom and I had somehow arrived at the night before).  The best he could knock off $30/unit bringing the total price down to $1067 from $1097 (which actually was a reasonable price).  But this was more than I wanted to pay.  Thinking that since he had basically admitted that the order had not yet shipped and that he has access to it, I asked if he could please just put the original plastic Canon lens back and charge me $726 instead of $849.  He laughed, said he’d have to make sure it hadn’t already shipped, and hung up.

Joel has already alluded to the “Rosa” story in one of his posts.  There is actually a good reason that we came up with this story.  Once it became apparent that Abe’s of Maine was a dodgy business, Tom and I didn’t want to buy anything from them.  This was partly out of principle, partly out of fear of getting a defective product.  We knew we’d be in New York City and that the Abe’s of Maine retail store wasn’t that far away in New Jersey.  We wanted to return everything without having to mail it back to the warehouse or pay the 15% restocking fee.

How do you deal with a company like Abe’s of Maine?  They obviously don’t care about negative customer reviews.  They wouldn’t care if you called the better business bureau.  The only language a company like Abe’s of Maine understands is the language of greed.

This became all too apparent when I phoned the retail store and asked if I could return items ordered online there.  The answer was no, the online business and the retail business are completely separate.  I would have to mail the items back to the warehouse.  When I said that I have since realized that the Canon Digital Rebel XTi didn’t meet my needs and that I wanted a Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II Digital SLR ($6,849.99) instead, everything changed.  Sure I could drop by the store and make the exchange. 

We came up with the Rosa story to attempt to Abe’s of Maine at their own game and fool them into giving us a refund.  We would visit the Abe’s of Maine retail store in Edison, NJ with the cameras & lenses in their unopened original packaging.  I have just been stood up by my finance, Rosa.  I am in New York City for my stag, as are my friends (who have accompanied me to the store for emotional support in this trying time).  One of my friends has come all the way from London for the stag and wedding (now called off), and another happens to be a lawyer who may or may not be registered in the state of New Jersey but who would spring into action if his services should be required.  I had bought the two cameras for the honeymoon.  Now that I was one my own and “free of that insufferable woman” I wanted a good camera for myself.  But I had to square away the finances with the Ex, so I had to have the original purchase refunded on my MasterCard first.  Then I would put the $6,849.99 Canon Mark II on my VISA.  I would make sure ahead of time that this card would be declined.  Damn the bank, they never process my payments on time.  I guess I’ll have to phone the bank to sort it out and come back later for the camera.  So long suckers.  Mwahahahaaa…..

In the end, we had a fun outing on the New Jersey Turnpike and exchanged the Sigma lenses for the Tamron lenses at the Abe’s of Maine retail store for a total price of $1097 with surprisingly little hassle considering what I’d been though on the phone.  Huh.

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March Break 2007

I intended to accomplish a lot of trip preparation over March break.  The plan was for Tom to come over from the UK and join me for 10 days modifying our new KLR650s.  We thought we’d be able to finish in a few days with time to take the bikes on a trial run.  Before we could start the mods, we needed to drive down to New York City to pick up all the motorcycle parts and gear that we’d had shipped to Joel’s apartment.  Adam came along for the ride so we had a reunion of the SJC golf team.  Joel has already written about this trip here.

I was shocked at how much stuff we had ordered.  Our gear filled up most of Joel’s apartment.  I wondered how we were going to fit it all in the car.  In the end we got everything in and even managed to successfully pull off Mission Escape the Empire.

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Our gear filled Joel’s apartment.

The day after we got back from NYC, Tom picked up “The Odyssey” from Kahuna Cycles (where I had already purchased both bikes).  Luckily it was a warm day for March in Toronto, and Tom was able to ride the ~40 km back to my place without freezing off any of this body parts.

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Tom’s first few metres on his new 2007 KLR650 (aka The Odyssey).

Tom left today, and we fell way short of our goal of fully kitting out the bikes.  In hindsight we were hopelessly optimistic.  It was shocking how little we actually accomplished.  This isn’t to say we didn’t work hard; on the contrary we worked long hours (often until 2:00 AM) almost every day.  What we didn’t account for was how time consuming it would be to do the mods.  Even things that seemed simple at the outset often quickly evolved into major operations.  On one occaision it took us over 2 hours to put in 8 bolts.  On another we spent an entire day toiling with the bikes only to realize that all we’d accomplished was to put on a bash plate, a shift lever, foot pegs, and a centre stand.

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I hope that wasn’t important…

The underground parking lot (aka “the bunker”) of my building was damn cold.  We would work for awhile and then warm up in the lobby.  At one point we decided it would be much easier to wheel the bike into the well-heated lobby itself while we worked on.  If you turn the handlebars, the bike can fit through the door.  We were almost finished installing a new head lamp swith and turn signal switch when Adam, coming to pay us a visit, managed to draw the conceirge’s attention to our luxurious new working environment.  He had gone down the visitor elevator (which only goes to P1) and then proceeded to walk down through the parkade all the way to P3 where we we working.  This was highly suspicious behaviour to the folks monitoring the video surveillance, and the conceirge came running down to confront Adam.  Later we would find out that is was standard operating procedure to call the police first and ask questions later for such a breach. 

Just as Adam found us in the lobby working on the bike, the conceirge burst into the lobby only to find a motorbike inside the building surrounded by parts and tools.  This was not cool.  The bike would have to go back outside.  And we would have to back to working in the refrigerated bunker and freezing our arses off.  Thanks Adam. 

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Working in “the bunker”.

We realized just how slow we were when we had Junior from T.O. Cycle (who was my teacher for a basic motorcycle maintenance course) help us with some of the mods.  I had one lesson left out of 4, and Junior graciously agreed to let me take my KLR into the shop and show Tom and I how to do replace the front rotar and brake pads as wells as the rear suspension.  Junior made it look easy.  We got more done in a couple of hours than Tom and I could have accomplised in days.

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The Odyssey and Rosa outside T.O. Cycle where Junior has been a fantastic help.

With Tom back in the U.K., it will fall to me to finish the mods on both bikes.  It will be tough to find enough time outside of medical school to do this in the two months and 10 days remaining before June 1st, our planned departure date.  This week reinforced a good point: trip preparation takes way longer than you can possibly anticipate.

Car Crash

I woke up the other day to the sound of screeching tires followed by a loud bang.  From my balconey I could see that a minivan had collided with a sedan in the intersection of Bay and Wellesley.  There was radiator fluid on the pavement, and a piece of the car’s bumper was lying in the middle of the road.  Both drivers were able to walk after the accident.  The police arrived within a minute, followed shortly afterwards by a tow truck.  From the pictures below, can you decipher what happened?

Crazy Blizzard




On Thursday Toronto got hit with one of the most intense blizzards I have seen in a long time.  It was by far the worst storm of the winter.  The high winds and heavy snow combined to make it feel like a snowmaking machine was aimed right at your face.  The ambient temperature actually wasn’t that cold, but the wind chill was nasty.  I thought my hands were going to fall off after being outside for 30 seconds without gloves to take these pictures.  There was even thunder and lightning – phenomena that I’ve never experienced in association with a winter storm before.

Within about an hour of the storm’s brutal and sudden arrival, traffic flow had ground to a halt.  For many people a commute that normally took an hour took 4 hours or more.  I was glad I didn’t have to drive anywhere.

Ottawa

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I haven’t had time to write an entry for awhile, mostly because I was madly cramming for a midterm exam that I wrote on Wednesday.  Before I began studying, I drove to Ottawa to visit my brother, who is in Ottawa doing a co-op work term for law school.  It was great to see Cailean and we had an enjoyable weekend watching movies, shopping, hanging out in Chapters, eating out, and even doing cultural things like visiting the Museum of Civilization and the National Gallery of Canada.  A highlight was a fantastic exhibit of the “lost” Nabatean city of Petra (in Jordan) at the Museum of Civilization.

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Petra captured my imagination and is now on my list of places to go before I die.  This list already includes: the Galapagos Islands, The Andes, any active volcano, Machu Picchu, Salar de Uyuni, the Amazon rainforest, Angel Falls, The Big Island of Hawaii, Costa Rica, Baja California, Antarctica, the Sahara, the Great Pyramids, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Victoria Falls, the Serengeti, Tibet, Mongolia, Mt. Everest, the Outback, the Great Barrier Reef, Tokyo, Rome, Prague, and of course the moon.  I realize that I’ve probably forgotten many places and that this list will grow.