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Buying DVDs Online: How To Avoid A Fake

If you frequently buy DVDs online, you've probably had this experience. You find a great deal on a new release. It's described as factory sealed, direct from the manufacturer, and brand new. But something doesn't seem right. Maybe the price is just too low, you can't find the title in any stores yet, or buried in the shipping details is a suspicious reference to "repackaging the disc."

These are just a few of the tell-tale signs of a pirated, copied, imported or otherwise illegal DVD commonly referred to as a "bootleg." The MPAA estimates that DVD piracy costs the industry about $3.5 billion each year, despite numerous efforts to limit the replication of DVD movies (Variety.com, Nov. 3, 2004). On Ebay and other online marketplaces, bootleg DVD auctions often outnumber legitimate DVDs and many buyers don' t know the difference.

Why avoid bootleg copies?

First, they're illegal. While the MPAA may not come after you for buying one, you're better off staying away from these sellers altogether. Second, pirated copies are typically of a lower quality. While digital media does not lose its quality when copied, bootleg DVDs are often created using cheaper discs and equipment, or they don't have chapter selection menus, special features, or the same audio standards such as Dolby Surround sound. Finally, DVD piracy is destructive to the industry. Many films barely generate enough revenue to cover the high costs of shooting a film. If DVD piracy continues to grow it can only hurt the quality of entertainment we enjoy.

Spotting Fakes: 8 Ways to Avoid Bootlegs

1. Is the title out on DVD yet?

This may seem obvious, but its surprising how many bootlegs are sold when an official copy hasn't been released yet. DVDs are typically released 2-8 months after a movie was in the theaters. So if you find a DVD for a movie that's still playing down the street, it may be a bootleg. Some older titles have never been released on DVD. For example, Disney's Cinderella was just released on DVD for the first time ever this October. How can you find out? Search on sites like www.videoeta.com to find out when a DVD will be released or check a major retailer with a huge selection like Amazon.com.

2. Is the price too low?

If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. New releases selling for $7 or less on auction sites are almost always bootlegs. Typically a title that's been released within the past month will sell for $10-20 on most auction sites and retail stores.

3. Is the seller reliable?

Whether shopping on a retailer site or an auction site, check for some kind of buyer feedback. Ignore hand-picked customer testimonials and look for a third party rating service (like shopping.com, epinions, bizrate, etc) but keep in mind that these ratings take a long time to build and may not indicate the store's reliability. For example, Walmart's Shopping.com listing only has 268 reviews (as of 10/7/05). A site's "About Us" page should have information about why you should trust the store. If it's absent or unconvincing, you may want to shop elsewhere.

4. Is the seller international

In 2003, nearly 44 million pirated DVDs were seized in 13,000 raids in the Asia/Pacific region (MPAA). Still, tens of millions more reach the US and are typically sold online or in flea markets. If a seller is located overseas or mentions shipping from overseas, be careful. They may be selling a legal asian copy but are unlikely to have legal Region 1 (for US and Canada distribution) studio releases. The easiest way to identify this is in the packaging and shipping details.

5. Are there suspicious terms in the packaging and shipping details?

Tell-tale signs of a bootleg may be cleverly hidden in the packaging or shipping details of a listing or site FAQ.

Cover art has Asian characters. Bootlegs produced in the Asia/Pacific region will often be intended for local and worldwide distribution and may have bilingual cover art.

DVD is "removed from case to save on shipping" or "sent in a protective sleeve." This may be the most commonly used trick to deceive customers and dodge policies. It's effective because most customers don't think twice about it. How much would a seller save by shipping a DVD without the plastic case? If they use USPS First Class mail they save $0.69 by shaving 3 oz off the weight. If they ship by Priority Mail they probably use a flat rate envelope and save nothing. Now look at the price. On Ebay most DVDs in this condition sell for $1-7 with many auctions going unsold while fully packaged new releases sell for $8-18. As if that weren't enough, imagine a high-volume Ebay seller spending all day removing security seals and plastic wrap from every DVD they sell!

In reality this is a trick to get you to buy a bootleg, which the seller acquires in disc-only format, sometimes packaged with a copy of the cover art that can be inserted into a DVD case. Major studios only produce and distribute DVDs packaged in a case, complete with disc, inserts, security seals, and plastic wrap.

No security seals on edges of case. ?Security seals" are the rectangular labels on the top (and sometimes side and bottom) of DVD cases that show the DVD title or the words "Security Device Enclosed." These are a major sign of authenticity since most bootleggers don't bother with them or don't have the equipment to convincingly recreate them. If these are missing, the DVD may be a bootleg or it may be an authentic copy that has been resealed after being opened, viewed, and/or returned.

No chapter insert. Chapter inserts are the paper cards sometimes included on the inside left cover of the DVD case. It may have a chapter list for the DVD, a proof of purchase tab, coupons, or other ads. Again, bootleggers don't bother with these.

6. Is the DVD listed as "region free" or "will work in any DVD player?"

Major U.S. studios use region coding to control release dates in different parts of the world. Some independent movies, Anime, Chinese films, and public-domain classic films will be legally released in region-free format. However, a large portion of bootlegs are made in this format because they are distributed worldwide, because the bootleggers think the flexibility will be a selling point for their product, or because it takes more effort to restrict the DVD to a certain region than to publish it as region-free.

7. Is there a prominent mention that the DVD is "DVD-9" format?

DVD-9 refers to the layering and storage capacity of the disc. Most official releases are made in DVD-9 so you will probably not find any prominent mention of this on the DVD cover. Many bootlegs advertise this fact prominently to distinguish themselves from lower quality bootlegs.

8. Is the item guaranteed?

Most people who sell authentic DVDs will state this fact clearly. The listings will say it's an "official", "U.S. release", "studio release", "authentic", and "the same as what you would get in a major retail store." Surprisingly, few bootleggers will outright lie in their listings so you often won't find clear promises like this. You'll also rarely find money-back guarantees.

What to do if you think you bought a bootleg

Even if you're positive you got an illegal copy, give the seller a chance to correct the problem. There may be another explanation for the problem you found (for example, if there are no security seals, you may have received a legal but used copy that was repackaged). Give the seller a few days to offer a replacement or refund. If you don't get a reply, initiate a chargeback with your credit card company or PayPal to get your money back and report the seller to the MPAA online at www.mpaa.org or by emailing hotline@mpaa.org. Finally, warn other buyers. Report the problems you had by leaving a negative review or filing a complaint at one of the following sites: www.bizrate.com, www.shopping.com, shopping.yahoo.com, www.resellerratings.com, www.bbb.org.

Easy ways to shop safely

Most bootleg DVD sellers stick to auction sites where they can remain relatively anonymous and avoid spending time setting up a web site or attracting buyers. While Ebay often has the lowest prices on authentic DVDs, you do have to wade through bootleg DVDs to find legitimate ones. Another approach is to find a retail web site with good prices on legitimate DVDs. Shopping comparison sites like those mentioned above can help find sites with the best prices. Once you've found a few sites you like you can save a great deal of time and frustration while still getting prices well below retail stores. And isn't that what shopping online is all about?

Submitted by:

Jon Crowe

Jonathan Crowe is the Owner & Manager of Spotlight Entertainment (http://www.spotlightdvd.com), an Ebay Silver Level Powerseller and web retailer of DVDs and entertainment products for over 2 years. He publishes a monthly newsletter with DVD-related articles and special offers, available at http://www.spotlightdvd.com/signup.asp.




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