Buying expensive items abroad and shipping them back to the United States can be a perilous adventure.
Consider Alvin Markovitz, a Los Angeles doctor who bought a large handmade silk rug for $11,000 in Srinagar, Kashmir, while traveling in India. As is invariably the case with luxury items, the vendor wanted complete payment before shipping the rug to the United States.
Markovitz paid in two installments, the first half by a pair of credit cards in Srinagar and the second half by cashier's check from home.
In India he also paid to ship the rug by air freight to the United States, and he paid for insurance from an Indian company.
Several months later the rug had yet to show up.
"I wrote the seller, which I had been told was a reputable store before I made my purchase, and just got a form letter saying I should contact the insurance company," Markovitz said.
"I contacted the airline that was supposed to transport the rug, and the airline said after its investigation that it had never received the rug in New York en route to Los Angeles.
"The airline received papers for the rug, but not the rug. I don't know if it was a scam, or if the rug was lost or stolen at an intermediate stop on the flights from India, but I was utterly frustrated and out an awful lot of money."
After a good deal of correspondence and prodding, a Los Angeles-based investigator for the New York insurance company that represents the Indian insurance company in the United States called Markovitz to inform him that he had recommended payment of his claim.
"At this point I don't know what I'll get or when I'll get it," Markovitz said.
Several smaller and less-expensive items, also bought in Srinagar from a different store and shipped home, did arrive in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that most of the people handling such purchases are honest, there are still horror stories. The bottom line is that you're at the mercy of the vendors, making it very important to make sure you are dealing with a well-regarded store.
"You'd be surprised at how often stores are not as capable of handling the details and responsibilities of shipments as they say they are," an airline spokeswoman said. "Scams are a possibility, although most people are reputable. Travelers should check with their hotels, airlines and local tourist offices about stores before making expensive purchases."
Credit card purchases and insurance are also protection.
Don't be impressed if a vendor says that your merchandise will be shipped on a U.S. carrier. "Vendors are likely to tell American travelers their purchases will be shipped on the American carrier serving that city, but several airlines probably serve a foreign gateway and the store may not really know on which day of the week your item would go out," the spokeswoman said.
John Hemphill of Hemphill-Harris, a Los Angeles-based tour operator, said: "If the promises sound too good, be cautious. But your only option is not to buy. You should ask what your recourse is if the merchandise doesn't arrive within a reasonable time, and what the refund policy is if the item turns out to be of lesser quality. This is particularly relevant with jewelry that someone buys overseas, and then has reappraised in Los Angeles."
Travelers do, however, have options on how their purchases are sent home. If they're sent by surface transportation (train or ship) the cost is less than by air, but it takes longer.
Depending on the size of the item you can take it with you by paying for excess baggage. A less-expensive method is to send it by air freight, which means that it probably won't go on the same flight with you.
In either case you should get insurance, the spokeswoman recommended. "Travelers should realize that items sent by air freight involve a change of planes at intermediate points such as at Frankfurt, West Germany. Containers might sit around for a while, depending on a variety of circumstances, before being loaded onto a plane bound for the United States. Meanwhile, the containers are under the control of baggage handlers who work for the airport or other authorities, not for the airline."
Another option for oversize items is to personally deliver the items to the airline. "Travelers can advise the store that they'll take care of getting the item to the airport," the spokeswoman said. "In some situations the traveler can arrange to pay for the car and driver, who might work for the store, in lieu of paying the standard shipping charges through the vendor."
Travelers then would know that their purchase has at least reached the airline. This, of course, takes extra time, which isn't always available and which may not be how you want to spend it.
Another possibility is to buy at stores that are sanctioned or run by the government. "If travelers buy from government stores in India they are 100% sure of getting their merchandise or full recovery through insurance if it is somehow lost in transit," a spokesman for the Government of India Tourist Office in Los Angeles said. "Prices are fixed, the quality is good, and there's no risk of non-shipment or having items of lesser quality substituted."
If you don't get the correct merchandise, inform the appropriate foreign government tourist office. Also inform travel agents and tour operators involved, as well as your airline. Such pressures and prodding may help your cause.
You can send unsolicited gifts under $50 free of duty (except for textiles, according to U.S. Customs) as long as recipients don't get more than one such package a day.