Beware of fraudulent online espresso equipment vendors

Recommendations for buyers and upgraders from the site's members.
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#1: Post by HB »

Recently several members have reported "too good to be true" prices on espresso equipment. The sites I've seen looked like a generic e-commerce package and they sold a range of equipment from consumer espresso machines for a few hundred dollars to multiple-group espresso machines for several thousand dollars. Be careful! An illegitimate e-commerce site will offer unbelievable deals to tempt you into divulging personal information for identify theft or credit card information they use to make unauthorized purchases.

Simply stated, if it's too good to be true, it probably is. Online business is very competitive in terms of pricing. Vendors with higher prices usually don't last because a lower price with similar service is just a click away. Consider the possibility that you have landed on a fraudulent site if the pricing is significantly lower than the mainstream online vendors of espresso equipment.

This thread offers members suggestions on how to judge the legitimacy of a given site (*). Below are steps that I follow:
  • Search engines are your friends. Word of mouth recommendations pass quickly on the Internet. Searching on "<espresso-vendor> complaints" or "<espresso-vendor> problems" or "<espresso-vendor> scam" will lead to public discussions. Keep in mind, however, that finding complaints about company X doesn't mean they're not worth considering. In fact, it may suggest just the opposite - they've been around long enough to generate public commentary. If you find matches, read further. If you find no mention of company X anywhere on the web, either they haven't existed for long, or they never have had a dissatisfied customer.
    • Check the age/origin of the site's domain registration. Search on 'dns lookup' for various registration sites, e.g., DNS stuff. Enter the name of the website; the domain name registration (DNS = domain name service) will indicate the date of registration, owner, and country of origin. Fraudulent websites come and go rapidly. A recent registration is a serious warning flag. Exercise caution if the site is registered in a far away land, if only for the fact that service will be problematic.
      • Check the history of the site using the Internet Wayback Machine. Some fraudulent websites are registered years in advance, but host no content or "parked domain" content until they are repurposed. The Wayback Machine is a snapshot of the site's history that may give you clues about the site's origins. Note that the Wayback Machine's records may lag for months behind the current site content; additionally, website owners can block archiving, so an incomplete or empty record is not definitive proof of a site's non-existence at a point in time.
        • Look for evidence of "scraping" of legitimate sites. Fraudulent sites are often seeded with content from legitimate sites. To check, try selecting portions of product descriptions that look unique and searching for matches on other sites. To give them an air of legitimacy, fraudulent sites will copy content from a legitimate site except for identifying information like the name, heading, footer, navigation area, etc.
          • Verify the 'Contact Us' information. Sites with no address or phone number listed merit closer scrutiny. Open source e-commerce packages have a generic "Contact Us" page with form. If the site you're considering has little information beyond the generic template, exercise caution.
            Scammer tricks:
            • Request for unconventional payment methods #1 (delayed delivery). As the story goes, to offer you such incredible savings, a fraudulent website will only accept direct payment via money order or direct transfer of funds. Credit cards offer more protection against fraudulent charges. Many banks offer "credit cards" directly backed by your checking account; if there is a problem purchase, you may have fewer options than with conventional credit cards with a grace period for payment. Read the terms and conditions of your card issuer carefully. A fraudulent vendor may attempt to delay delivery until the credit card's dispute period has passed.
              • Request for unconventional payment methods #2 (fraudulent payment). In this variation of the previous scam, the fraudulent vendor uses credit card information obtained via identity theft to order products from a legitimate vendor while taking direct payment from you. Later, after the product arrives at your doorstep, the credit card purchase is reported as fraudulent and the legitimate vendor demands return of the ordered product (i.e., you're the unwitting recipient of stolen goods).
                • Request for unconventional payment methods #3 (gift card). The seller asks that payment be made via a gift card, such as those offered by Amazon. They may reassure you that you're covered by a protection guarantee, but that only applies to the purchase of the gift card itself. Once the gift card is given to someone, the card originator's obligation ends. See the FTC's consumer information article How NOT to use a gift card for details.
                  • Not delivered but provides "proof" of delivery. An eBay or similar seller accepts the sale but nothing is delivered to the customer's address. The customer opens a dispute with their payer, but it's closed as resolved when the seller provides a tracking number for the correct date and destination city. Unfortunately, the tracking number doesn't provide an address and was actually mined from existing tracking numbers by the fraudulent seller. Forum members report that payers like PayPal make it difficult to dispute a fraudulent sale if the seller provides a valid tracking number.
                    • Provides "proof" of delivery, but is a worthless item. A variant of the non-delivery scam, except the seller provides tracking number and buyer receives package with worthless item (e.g., bit of fabric). The customer opens a dispute with their payer, but it's a "he said, she said" argument between seller and buyer. Note: USPS treats this as federal mail fraud and also cyber crime; these can be reported to the Postal Inspector General's Office and FBI Cyber Crimes unit.
                    Finally, keep in mind that when dealing with a reputable vendor, a lot of what you pay for is service after the sale. The espresso equipment we discuss on this site has a small, specialized market. While everyone enjoys a bargain, if something goes wrong with the equipment later, you may regret saving a small fraction of the purchase when parts/service/advice are needed. Admittedly I'm biased, but I believe the HB sponsors are among the best vendors on the Internet; you can find them listed under Commerce on the Resources page.

                    (*) REMINDER: Consistent with the Public complaints about customer service section of the Guidelines for productive online discussion, a major goal of HB is keeping the discussion focused on espresso, the barista, and coffee, not service and e-commerce issues. This forum is not for reporting specific websites. Its purpose is offering research strategies by which members can judge for themselves.
                    Dan Kehn