On Open Box Special Surprises, and what to know before returning your new camera.

If you are looking for a good deal on electronics, you should consider heading to one of the big electronics stores in the weeks after Christmas. .Not only do they have pretty good specials,  but you are also very likely to find open-box specials – returned items that are complete, new products that people bought (or received as gifts), opened, and then returned.  I was interested in a Panasonic camcorder that was on sale for $450, but the open box saved me another $50.  As the proud father of a newborn baby I was glad to save the money… especially considering that once all was tolled – extended warranty, memory card, carrying case, et al – the bill still came out to $700.

Camcorders today are amazing; Just like my still camera this camera accepts Secure Digital (SD) cards, but it also has a 60GB hard drive built in.  They are so easy to use that I was able to take it home and start recording right away.  I got some decent videos of the baby and my entire family.  Later in the evening I connected the camera to my computer to view my videos.  I clicked on the first file, and was a little surprised… there was indeed a baby in the video, but he (or she) was not our baby.

It seems that the camera had been purchased by a young couple from Eastern Europe; they have a toddler and a newborn, and shall we say a lot of imagination in the bedroom.  If you are curious to know how I know this, I assure you that it did not take any sort of deductive reasoning on my part.  It was all there in living colour on my new camcorder, along with the cute videos of my baby and family.  Their adult-themed personal videos were there for anyone to see… at least, anyone who decided to take advantage of the open-box special on a previously used camcorder.

My first instinct was to blame the store.  How dare they sell me a video camera with home made pornography on it!?  I thought about it for a few minutes and realized that maybe it was really not their fault – after all, when most people think of cameras they don’t think ‘Wow, I’d better reformat this before putting it back on the shelf!’

The truth is that nobody here is really to blame, at least not completely.  That does not change the fact that three people who engaged in an act that they (I assume) intended to be private have now shared the sordid details with an unknown outside party.

Let me be clear at this point that I deleted the videos right away, but what if I were the type to post them on-line?  What if I were to sell them (and from what I am told there is always a market for homemade pornography) for profit?  Those videos that were intended (I assume) for private viewing only would now be all over the Internet, and as we all know that is a bell that is impossible to un-ring.

I went back to Best Buy twice and asked them if they would like to comment, and got different answers from different people.  The first Shift Supervisor I asked told me that it was not their policy to check the media on returned cameras, which I respect (I got the same answer from Fry’s in the US).  The second Supervisor told me ‘It sounds like a privacy issue, in which case we should make sure to wipe all media that we are going to resell.  I decided to try for a tie-breaker; the store manager told me immediately that she would not comment, and that I should contact their head office.  (She gave me a toll-free number; when I reached them they told me that they could not give me a direct number for Media Relations but could give me a mailing address for head office)

So with all of the confusion and ducking it would seem the onus is on you as the consumer to protect your privacy.

There is an interesting footnote to the story… I ended up returning the camera a few weeks later (I decided to buy a high definition (HD) video camera).  Before I did I connected the camera to my PC, wiped it clean, formatted it, and made sure that no video of my family (yes, that’s all there were) could ever be recovered from it.  I told the customer service rep at Best Buy, who told me that I shouldn’t have bothered because they do that for us.  This was of course false, or at least contradictory to some of the statements that I had previously and have since received from the store.  Now *I* know that, but what about the unsuspecting customer who would believe her… and a year later finds her private pictures and videos on www.IBoughtYourStolenVideosToResellThemOnTheInternet.com?  I wonder if she would have a legitimate case against the retailer.

Let’s go one step further: let’s assume for this scenario that I am not an innocent consumer, but a malicious hacker intent on infecting the computers of the world.  I buy a video camera with internal memory, and decide I am not happy with it.  Before I return it to the store I plant a virus on it which will infect any (unprotected) computer it connects to.  Of course I could also plant malicious files with such enticing filenames as ‘scantily-clad-wife.jpg.exe’ that would hit the unsuspecting from both ends.  That’ll teach the retailer to sell me a camera that I won’t be happy with, as well as the poor sap who buys their open-box specials!  The unsuspecting consumer then buys what they assume is a bargain, takes it home and after taking a few pictures connects it to their computer to send her family snapshots to grandma.  What happens instead is that her computer is infected with malware that starts sending all of her private information to Kazakhstan and beyond… including the snapshots that she really did not intend to send to grandma who would receive them anyways because one of the data mining viruses planted would send all of those pictures randomly to people on her contact list.  Oops.

If it were me, and of course with the protection I have in place (plus my common sense) it would not be, I would contact a lawyer and sue the retailer.  It would be difficult to trace but if they could it would prove that my first instinct – to blame the retailer – was correct.  It would also prove to me that it is irresponsible for retailers large or small to resell returned products that include electronic media without first checking that there were no incriminating or compromising photos and videos or malicious files.  It might take their geeks (lower-case) an extra five minutes when they check that all of the cables are in the box, and I am sure that multiplied out over hundreds or thousands of cameras across the country it would become a line-item in their budget… but that number would be insignificant next to the legal costs and hassles as well as damage to their reputation should this happen just once.

In the meantime if I should decide to return a camera again (I am quite fond of the HD one I bought but did have to return it at first because it was defective) I will make sure to do my due diligence and make sure that all of my private – if G-Rated – photos and videos are completely removed first.

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