Monday, August 01, 2011

Beware of a New Type of Fraud in the Vintage Community

Imagine this scenario.  You've purchased one or two things that you're happy with from a seller of vintage clothing on a well known internet shopping site. Oh, maybe there were one or two issues with the items the seller didn't mention, but she has 100% positive feedback, so it must have just been an oversight.  One day, you receive an email from the seller offering you a sneak peek of some new items that have just arrived that you can purchase before they are listed for sale on the site.  You would feel flattered and special that the seller remembered your taste and that she is allowing you the first chance to purchase those items, right?

If this has happened to you, read on and beware of the latest type of fraud in the vintage market. 

1970s Hermes skirt at Couture Allure.
I listed this 1970s Hermes wool and leather skirt on my website a couple of weeks ago.  Last week, I received an inquiry about this skirt via email.  The potential buyer wanted to know if I had placed this skirt on consignment with another seller (we'll call her Seller X) and why it was so much more expensive with Seller X than on my website?  After some discussion between the buyer and myself, here is what I found out had happened.

Seller X, who has a very popular vintage clothing shop on a major internet selling site, had stolen the photo of the Hermes skirt from my Couture Allure website.  She then cropped my watermark off the bottom of the photo and emailed it to the buyer.  Seller X stated that the skirt had just come in to her "showroom" on consignment and she was offering it to the buyer as a "private" sale.  Seller X made no mention of the moth damage to the Hermes skirt.  In fact she told the buyer it was in "perfect" condition.  Seller X also told the buyer the skirt could be altered to add an additional 2" to the waist so it would fit her (the skirt cannot be altered).  Seller X told the buyer her special price would be $800 (nearly 3 times the price on my website!)  All this while the skirt was in my possession and listed on my site with an accurate description and at a fair price.

You may be thinking that it was possible that Seller X had an identical Hermes skirt in her possession.  Yes, that is possible, but read on.

Luckily, the buyer had been searching extensively on the internet for a specific vintage item during the previous week and had stumbled upon my site.  She was puzzled to find several of the same photos on my site that had been sent to her by Seller X.  In fact, Seller X had stolen images of 6 vintage items from my site and offered them to the buyer as being in her possession.  The photos of the 6 items were identical to mine, except the tops had been cropped to remove my distinctive mannequin topper and the bottoms had been cropped to remove my watermark and copyright.

The chances of two sellers having 1 of the same item are pretty good, but 6?  Impossible.  Seller X had stolen my images and turned around and offered the garments to the buyer at much higher prices.  Supposedly, if the buyer had said yes, Seller X would have then purchased the items from me and sold them to the buyer.  In fact, Seller X  had emailed me earlier the same day that the buyer contacted me asking for a discount if she purchased 4-5 items from my site!

You know what?  I sell to dealers all the time.  If another dealer has the right clientele and can buy an item from me and then sell it at a profit, that's great.  But selling vintage is a lot of work.  It takes time to have an item cleaned, take pictures, inspect for damage, take measurements and to write an accurate description.  If a dealer buys from me, it is expected that she will take her own pictures and write her own description.  But Seller X was attempting to profit by stealing my work, and that is not right.  In fact, I'd call that fraud.

I wrestled with whether or not I should tell you this story, but it is my belief that an educated customer is a happy customer and I wanted to enlighten you about this type of fraud so you don't fall victim to this practice.  What can you do to protect yourself?

-  Be wary of offers of "private" sales.  If a seller is sending you unsolicited photos or suddenly has photos of several different options of a hard-to-find item you are looking for, compare those photos to the ones on her selling site.  Is the mannequin the same?  Is the background the same?  Is the styling consistent?  Or have you received random photos that are of various sizes, with different mannequins or poses, or that seem cropped in an unusual way.

-   Check the seller's feedback.  Quite frankly, it is nearly impossible for even the most honest seller to maintain a 100% positive feedback over several years time.  We all make mistakes and things happen.  Go through several pages of feedback and check for "false positives."  An example would be a positive feedback with mention of issues not disclosed in the listing.  Is is a common practice for unscrupulous sellers to promise a partial refund only after positive feedback as been left.

-   Be wary of a seller who states that every single item she sells is in "perfect" condition.  In the vintage market, perfect is rare.  Honest sellers will disclose even the tiniest of issues so you are well informed before you purchase.  In fact, such disclosure is required by all internet sellers by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

-   Never send a personal check, cash, or a money order for a "private" sale.  Always use PayPal or a credit card for your protection.  That way you can file a claim if something goes wrong.

-   Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Note:  I will not disclose the names of the seller or buyer so please do not ask.  Any comments including speculation or references to the seller in question will NOT be published. My purpose in telling you this story is for your education and protection.  The incidents described here are true and from my personal experience.