Here Be Dragons: Navigating the Terra Incognita of International Book Sales
I thought that after that experience I was the wiser for it, until I fell victim to another thief. This operated out of Indonesia, a country that (I have since learned from my fellow booksellers on numerous sites) is a hotbed of international book fraud, along with Nigeria and the former Yugoslavia. This particular thief, working out of a Bandung, West Java address, bought and paid for a few small items, and kept up a lively correspondence with me on Islamic literature in English. Like other career criminals, I have discovered, he had a good story. He was so pleased with his first order, that he was placing a large second order, a gift of books for some of his friends that were completely unavailable in Bandung. Could I please gift-wrap the package, send the invoice to him separately by mail, and being in a terrible hurry, send the whole lot express? He knew that would cost a lot more, but it was worth it to get the gift to his friends on time. And could he please use his brother’s credit card?
Now, there are two little voices that work inside the heads of booksellers, not unlike Smeagle/Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. One little voice says, “This is such a nice courteous young man, buying books for his friends. He doesn’t have a lot of money, it’s true, but such good taste in books. And this is such a good sale!” Meanwhile, off in another corner of the brain the other little voice is saying, “There’s something that doesn’t smell right about this transaction. I’m suspicious, but of what?” It is actually hard to accept that you are being ripped off by somebody who has gone to the trouble of establishing a relationship with you.
The sweet little trusting voice won out, but not entirely. I pulled the books from inventory, gift-wrapped them as requested, but decided to insure the box and created a customs slip with a declared total value, instead of marking the package as a gift.
I ran the credit card, which cleared with no problems. The box was sent express mail. And, in a few weeks’ time, I received my second chargeback notice, this time from my merchant account bank.
Having gone through this exercise already, I knew what the process — and the outcome — was likely to be and vested considerably less emotional coinage to it. There was, of course, no response from my onetime correspondent to my emails. The funds were deducted from my checking account. But this time I went to the post office and asked that they track the package and, if they found it undelivered, return it to me. And this time, my merchandise was recovered, a little banged up but largely intact.
Apparently book thieves not only want to get their books for free, but they don’t want to pay duty on them either. By putting a customs declaration on the package, I actually saved it from being stolen. It sat undisturbed in Bandung until I asked for its return. I got off easy that time, just out the $50 Express Mail postage and packing instead of losing $1100 worth of books as well.
This second brush with near-disaster led to more self-scrutiny. I really had to ask myself what it was about me, personally, or our business practices that was allowing us to remain vulnerable to fraud. I had to consider whether my optimism about a sale and a “relationship” was making me my own company’s worst enemy. Confidence games only work, after all, if the mark gives her confidence to the thief.