How to Avoid the Biggest Web Shopping Annoyances

Score One for the Little Guy

San Francisco blogger Thomas Hawk rallied readers when a camera purchase turned sour.
Photograph: Thomas Hawk
When Thomas Hawk ran into strong-arm sales tactics from an online retailer, he didn't just get mad--he leveraged his popular Digital Connection blog and the power of the Web community to get even.

Hawk's tale, which has become something of a blogosphere legend, started in November 2005 when the San Francisco investment banker (Thomas Hawk is his pen name) ordered a Canon EOS 5D from New York-based Price Rite Photo for $2900. Shortly thereafter a company representative called, ostensibly to confirm Hawk's credit card and mailing information, but also to aggressively pitch pricey accessories. When Hawk declined the add-ons, the salesperson said the camera was out of stock--even though the Web site had indicated that it was available. Hawk canceled the order. "When I told them I was going to write on my Web site about how badly I was treated, they threatened to have me arrested and told me that I didn't know who I was dealing with," Hawk says. Price Rite's sales rep, Hawk adds, said he'd face a 15 percent restocking fee if the order was canceled.

Hawk says he couldn't believe he was hearing all this from a merchant that had high ratings and glowing user reviews on reputable shopping sites, including PriceGrabber.com (which powers PCWorld.com's pricing engine) and Yahoo Shopping.

It turned out he wasn't the only unhappy Price Rite customer. The New York state attorney general, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, and the Kings County (New York) district attorney have all received complaints alleging that Price Rite used hard-sales tactics and bait-and-switch advertising. In a June 2005 complaint to the New York Better Business Bureau, a woman from Pennsylvania said that Price Rite charged her credit card $700 and sent her a rock instead of the camera she ordered.

Despite the threats, Hawk wrote about Price Rite in a blog entry that was picked up by a member of the social news community Digg.com.

The story struck a nerve. Digg.com users posted Price Rite's aliases, phone number, and address; some also posted warnings about the store, including a link to Hawk's blog, on other sites. Hundreds of digital camera buyers began posting similar complaints on Hawk's blog--and in a matter of days, PriceGrabber, Yahoo Shopping, and other comparison sites dropped Price Rite from their listings.

In December 2005, Price Rite Photo owner Edward Lopez sent Hawk a letter of apology, saying the phone sales representative involved had been fired and offering to sell Hawk the Canon EOS 5D for the originally advertised price of $2900. (Price Rite has not responded to telephone and e-mail queries from PC World about Hawk's experience.)

Hawk declined Price Rite's belated offer. "Companies need to have good business practices and treat their customers well," he says. "If they don't, a customer like me is going come along and write about their experience, and it's going to get around."

Tom Spring is a senior reporter for PC World.

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