Online lesson: Always require a signature

When a previously trusted online vendor suddenly disappears, Roger Grimes learns a valuable -- yet costly -- lesson

After engaging safely in online commerce for over 10 years, it finally came back to bite me. One of my hobbies is underwater videography, specifically filming ocean fish and sharks. The nature of saltwater and delicate camera equipment means that part of this hobby includes spending way more money on repair than you would for a land-based camera. At least once a year, moisture ends up causing damage beyond my limited repair skills.

Over the past few years, I've come to rely upon a "reputable" online camera repair site located in Fayetteville, Ark. The site comes up early and often if you search on camera repair. They have a 800 number and an online repair form that requests the vital information and creates an all-inclusive form to include in the camera box that you ship to them for repair. In the past, the company would receive my camera in a few days' time, take a few days to repair, and ship it back, all at a reasonable price.

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So when my video camera broke during my most recent scuba adventure in Key Largo, Fla., I knew what to do. I went online, created a request, and printed the form. I shipped my camera using Federal Express Ground service and included insurance. In a crucial oversight, I didn't require the recipient to sign for the package to be released. For some crazy reason, I thought that including insurance forced that requirement. It doesn't.

Anyway, to make a long story short, according to Federal Express, my video camera arrived at the vendor's address over a month ago. And since then, I've received no reply from my selected servicer. To make matters worse, no one responds to e-mail anymore, and the 800 number is a perpetual busy signal. The PayPal part of the company's site says "No longer accepting payment." Yep, I'm screwed!

What was I thinking, shipping my camera to a distant site without requiring a signature? Lesson learned.

Well, I used Bing.com to find the sheriff's department phone number in Fayetteville. After hearing my complaint and the mailing address, they said it was a Washington Country problem and transferred me to the sheriff's department there. I explained my dilemma and was told that my complaint was entirely a civil matter and that I would have to hire a lawyer to even find out if the vendor was still in business.

My video camera is maybe worth $500 to $700. Hiring a lawyer would probably cost at least a few hundred dollars, and any possible legal action would offset the cost of my loss. Pretty much, I'm out a camera. Lesson learned.

So in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to express my thankfulness that this is the only bad online transaction I've had in more than 10 years. I also want to caution readers to always require a signature when shipping equipment or other valuable goods to distance recipients. But lastly, this particular incident gets right to the heart of the risk of any online transaction we make with a distance party.

If I have a problem with a brick-and-mortar local seller, I can always show up in person and get my grievance heard and probably satisfactorily resolved. I've also learned that I would have probably been better off using the vendor's official repair process or their recommended repairers. I may have been spending a little more money, but then the vendor has probably vetted their selected repair person or would stand behind the injury themselves.

Lesson learned, and it didn't even take malware or Internet hackers to do it.

This story, "Online lesson: Always require a signature," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in security at InfoWorld.com.

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