Scams are disguised as a sales pitch. Be warned
ONE OF THE THINGS WE LOOK FORWARD to when traveling abroad is the chance to get our hands on gadgets we?ve been eyeing for a significantly cheaper prices than those offered here. Due to exorbitant import tax rates here, you?ll probably find the gadget of your dreams in countries like Hong Kong or Singapore with a price tag 20-30 percent less than what it is being sold for at home.

Of course, there?s a downside to gadget-shopping overseas, and that is being prey to scams played on unsuspecting tourists, something I learned the hard way.

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was asked by a friend to purchase a camera that was out of stock here. Armed with only the model name and color preference, I set out to check the numerous electronics shops near my hotel to find the best price for the camera.

I went inside a store called Happy Rich Audio & Video to ask because it looked clean and it was brightly lit, with all the shiny gadgets spotlighted behind rows of glass cases. A friendly man armed with a calculator sat me down, and when I gave him the model of the camera I was looking for, he brought out the display unit from the shelf, and tapped a price on the calculator. When I saw the price, I was stunned. It was way below my friend?s budget, it was almost a steal!

I got ready to pay for it until the other shoe dropped. First, he asked if I minded waiting for it as the color I wanted was not immediately in stock and they needed to get it from their other office. I agreed, and while waiting, he kept showing me other gadgets, saying that if I bought it together with the camera, he?d even lower the price. I refused politely, and as he sat down again, he asked me in passing if the friend I was buying the camera for could read Japanese.

I wondered why he needed to know that and he explained that the camera I was getting was cheaper because he had gotten it straight from Japan and that the default language was in Japanese and could not be changed. He then took his calculator again and said that if I wanted the international version, I would have to fork over an amount way more expensive than what he had originally offered me.

Still, the price he was offering was still within my friend?s budget range, and I said I?d return tomorrow after consulting my friend over the price.

After I left his store, I checked other stores and got the same song-and-dance number. I figured I?d return to the original store the next day and get the camera then since the guy seemed friendly and accommodating.

When I returned the next day, I told him I was ready to make the purchase and could he please get it already from the office so we could inspect it. He refused and asked that I pay for it first before bringing it out. No way was I doing that, and when I didn?t, he screamed at me and said that he wouldn?t sell me the camera unless I bought the other items he had been offering me and accused me of wasting his time. He said that he couldn?t sell me the camera and that I should leave. I was stunned (and in near tears). Was he allowed to do that?

I brought out my phone and Googled other camera shops around the area and came across a blog by photography enthusiast Roland Lim (http://rolandlim.wordpress.com). It was an entry warning of scams perpetuated by store owners like that of Happy Rich who probably get rich and happy scamming gullible tourists like me.

He also listed recommendations of reliable camera stores, and with that information in hand, I set out to the first store in what was becoming the mythical search for the silver 20 mm pancake lens Panasonic GF1.

When I got to the first store a block away from Happy Rich called Echo Photo and Audio, it was tiny, dim and crammed between two nondescript shops. I went inside and asked the grandfatherly man behind the counter if he had the camera in stock and he said yes, and tapped a price on the calculator. It was not the super-cheap price of the initial quote given to me nor was it the exorbitant ?international? price version.

I asked him if it was the international version and he shook his head and laughed. He invited me to sit down and said that there was no such thing and I was being scammed. He said, ?We are honest here!? And he brought out the camera I had been searching for, opened the box and showed it to me, without any ceremony and without making me pay for it first.

He tested the unit for me, recommended some accessories but did not force me to buy them, and the whole transaction took 10 minutes, painless and a snap. I?d never wanted to hug a complete stranger so bad.

I left the store successful and happy to have stuck it to Happy Rich?s face. After all, it was their unsecured Wi-Fi that I used to find Echo?s location. That?ll teach them.

Buying electronics abroad can net you huge savings, but only if you know how to go about it, the way I do now.

Do your research

Everything is accessible on the Internet. Check out online prices from the official site of the device you?re looking to buy. Dig deeper and search through different blogs for first-hand experiences both with stores in the country you?ll be visiting and the gadget itself. This will make you an informed consumer and protect you from a scam disguised as a sales pitch.

No gadget, no pay

Who cares if it?s in some office or some other location than the store you?re currently in? Don?t hand over your money/credit card first without seeing the actual unit. If they refuse, then run out of there, fast.

Accreditation

Most countries have accreditation services, where they give shops a Department of Tourism stamp of approval. This means that the shop subjects itself to inspection by the department and is then listed under accredited services. Stores like these usually have a seal from the department on their display windows.

Chain stores

If you can?t hold your ground with sneaky salesmen, then go the electronics chain store way. These stores are usually located at the mall, where the prices are fixed and discounts are not entertained.