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Intro to Effectsblog

March 16, 2014
  • Fake it ’til you make it

    There’s little the guitar gear forum community enjoys more than a good scandal. Top of the list for Pedalgate performances is the case of the altered identity: Unmasking a popular pedal, rated for its boutique tones, as a repainted Far Eastern bargain box available on Ebay for half the price, is guaranteed to turn the internet apoplectic. When it emerges that each butter smooth overdrive with haunting mids is not carefully built from hand-picked parts over many days by a white haired guru with smoldering iron, but in fact, assembled in runs of a thousand in about 45 seconds from jelly bean parts on a pick and place machine in Shenzhen, the race to post the pithy comments begins. The angry, the indignant, the pseudo-scientific, and a curiously large number of lawyers, all compete for space, and much more than their 2 cents. It can be pretty funny and enlightening to read, until it gets threatening, which amazingly sometimes it does. If you’ve never read one of these it’s worth searching a few out.

    Each case has its own merits (and demerits) of course, and there may be some real issues. For example, Country of Origin labels are often carefully regulated by international governments. In the United States, the FTC controls what can be sold with ‘Made in the USA’ labels, and the rules are complex and not at all obvious. Many quite large companies have fallen foul of this legislation and penalties can be very serious. If you are planning on selling products marked as made in the USA, I strongly recommend employing the services of (real) legal counsel, and a trade compliance specialist. Hint: just actually making it in the USA, doesn’t count.

    The general gist of things though, is that taking someone elses product, sticking a new label on it, and selling it on as your own at a higher price must be immoral, illegal, or in some way or other wrong, surely? Except often it isn’t. I’ll bet almost none of the consumer electronics around your house were manufactured by the company whose name is on them. Your computer, phone, TV, refrigerator, microwave, power tools, yes, maybe your amplifier, effects, and even your guitar could have been manufactured by a completely different company. Don’t believe me? I have a sandwich grill on my kitchen counter called the George Foreman. It even has his signature right on the top. Now, he may have knocked out Joe Frazier, but I’m pretty sure no one here believes that the former heavyweight champion of the world is banging away in a shed behind his house knocking out griddle plates. The name on the front doesn’t necessarily tell you who made it.

    If you design a product and take it to a specialist manufacturer to build it for you, this is called contract manufacturing, and it’s common with projects of all types and sizes. Take electronics for example. Many modern components, especially digital ones, are surface mount and extremely small. They are purpose designed to be installed by machines. Hand soldering surface mount parts is difficult, slow, and unreliable. The machinery and facilities to do it correctly cost tens of millions of dollars, but a CM can assemble your boards for a few bucks and make a perfect job every time. It’s the economy of scale. Hand soldering PCB’s doesn’t scale, so you send them out to a CM. Maybe you also use another CM with specialist milling machines for drilling enclosures, and one with coating facilities for painting. You get a high quality, consistent product at a reasonable price. Why would anyone complain about that?

    Ok, so having a contract manufacturer build your product is one thing, it’s still your design and your work: You designed the circuit, laid out the PCB, did the 3D enclosure design, and created all the artwork and output files. The CM is just providing the machinery to make it. What you absolutely cannot do is take someone else’s finished product, paint over their name with yours, and sell it on as your own at a higher price, right? Wrong. Many manufacturers not only don’t care that you take their product and stick your own label on it, they have whole divisions whose sole job is to help you do it. it’s a hundreds of billions, probably trillions of dollars worldwide industry. It’s what Chinese manufacturing was built on. Welcome to the world of the OEM.

    OEM is an acronym for Original Equipment Manufacturer. You may also hear it called private label, or white-box. There’s also ODM, or Original Design Manufacturer, which is sometimes used interchangeably but is slightly different. If you’ve ever looked at something such as a coffee machine, electric drill, or microwave and thought it looked exactly the same as another brand, there’s a good chance it was. OEM’s can grow their business and spread their R&D costs by selling the same product over again to different companies. Sometimes well-known brands have OEM divisions. My home wireless router has an ATT logo on it, but it has a Cisco part #. I have no idea who’s factory it was actually manufactured in. On the other side of the coin are companies with no real brand of their own who mostly only build products for others to put their names on. Ever heard of Westec or Quanta? Probably not, but I bet they made some of your electronics.

    So what does this have to do with effects pedals? I probably get 10 emails a week from overseas companies, some I have heard of, most I have not, offering pedals, amps, guitars, cables, all manner of musical hardware. There’s one or two new ones every week. They have full ranges of pedals, amps of all shapes and sizes. Here’s an extract from a typical email I received a week or so ago:


    We are the best manufactory of guitar effect pedals in china.

    43 kinds of Tones be provided here.

    Distortion, Overdrive, Chorus, Heavy Metal, Fuzz, Flanger, Phaser, ECHO/Delay, Booster ETC.

    Accept OEM & ODM.


    You can’t make this stuff up. Their price list has a full range of analog and digital pedals including digital delays, loopers, reverb and five different distortions, and that’s just their mini line. They also have tuners, flight cases, pedal boards. Prices go from $12 – $26. I can get a mixed case of 50 units for around $500 and they’ll send me free samples for testing. There’s no brand name on them, I can put on whatever I want. According to the literature they also have a ‘shinning surface’, ‘patend design’ and are fire-proof! Yowza! What am I waiting for? I’m setting myself up in the pedal biz right away.

  • Regulatory

    What’s the big deal with Certification?

    Have you ever looked at the underside of a pedal or the rear of a guitar amplifier and wondered about all those little symbols such as FCC, CE, CSA, TUV or UL? Why is it that we typically see those on products from the big players, but not on the boutique devices? What  does ‘This equipment has been tested and found to comply with the FCC Part 15 limits for a class B digital device’ mean exactly? In this weeks’ episode of ‘What’s The Big Deal’, we ask ‘What’s the big deal with …….. Certification?’


    The short explanation is that these are marks indicating that the products comply with various safety and performance standards around the world. The standards vary quite significantly between different nations, which is why we often see many different marks on one product. If the manufacturer is expecting so sell their product around the world, they will often indicate compliance with multiple standards with labels on the device. The European Community has a set of harmonized standards for different types of devices. The CE mark that you see on many products indicates the manufacturer is confirming that their product complies with these standards.

    An interesting thing about the United States is that the majority of the standards bodies are independent groups. There are often few laws requiring compliance to these standards to be able to sell a product. So this largely answers our question about why we typically don’t see these marks on things such as boutique effects pedals: There is no law that says they have to comply. And complying is a significant undertaking. The standards are often complex and difficult to follow. Testing requires hugely expensive specialty facilities with vast arrays of costly equipment and expert test engineers.

    If certification is not compulsory, it begs the question why do the  manufacturers even bother? This usually comes down to a couple of things. In some countries, certain levels of compliance are compulsory, so a manufacturer will at least need to test to those if they expect to sell into those regions. Some standards bodies will recognize tests of other groups, so if you have to do compliance for one location, then some others may come almost for free. Some distributors or resellers may require compliance in order to resell a product, so that might have an influence. Lastly it just makes sense for larger manufacturers to develop and test to standards. It can help with design decisions and quality control, minimize support and legal issues, and most importantly, give the company and their customers reassurance that the product they have made is safe and functions reliably.

    If you are manufacturing a digital device though, one set of rules in the US that you WILL have to comply with is the FCC Part 15. This recognizes that certain digital devices emit radio signals, even though this is not part of their intended operation. We refer to these devices as ‘unintentional radiators’. The radio frequencies that these devices emit have the potential to cause interference with intentional radiators, and its part of the FCC’s job makes sure that your whizz bang digital delay does not trash your neighbors WiFi or cause an international aviation incident over your back yard.

    Recently I was involved in testing some Mission products for FCC compliance so I thought I would share some of the photos from the day.

    Early in April 2015, myself and Missions CTO and designer of the Mission Gemini amplifier, took some Gemini units down to EMT Labs in Mountain View, CA.

    Here’s a Gemini 1 inside the anechoic chamber. The amp is a 50 pound two feet high 1×12 combo. It looks tiny in the photo, which gives you some idea of the size of the chamber. The device under test sits on a metal turntable and is rotated through 360 degrees during the test so they can measure the emissions all the way around. The scary looking red thing is the receiving antenna. This is motorized and raised several meters in height, during the test, again to measure the emissions at different points.

    Anechoic Chamber

    Outside the chamber, here are the results being shown on a monitor. The goal is to stay below the red line, so far we are looking good as you can see.


    Here’s one of the many racks full of test equipment. A decent spectrum analyzer alone can cost $20K. EMT has many millions of dollars worth of measurement gear.


    This is a state of the art 360 degree anechoic chamber used for testing devices such as wireless routers and smart phones. The engineer told us it can take weeks or even months to complete testing on some smart phones.


    Here’s some power emissions testing being done in a room completely lined with metal.


    The door of the chamber is several inches thick with thousands of copper fingers around the frame. It’s lined with hundreds of little space shuttle like tiles for absorbing reflections.

    IMG_2426 IMG_2425

    We had a very informative and productive day at the lab. Thanks to everyone at EMT Labs for helping us out and completing our testing within a day. I’m happy to say we passed all our FCC emissions tests.

    A version of this article was first published in Gearphoria. You can read the latest articles in Workbench Confidential at

  • Practical Electronics

    Building pedals for fun and profit


    When I was a kid learning about engineering and electronics, the magazines that we read in the pre-internet days were full of articles, projects, and kits promising hours of enjoyment and even the proposition of making money from our favorite pastime.


    Electronics kit building kind of fell out of favor during the computer age as the home based technology enthusiasts moved to assembling PC’s, and software development. But home brew electronics has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years in what is now called the maker community. Internet electronics stores such as Adafruit and Element 14 are enabling 21st century geeks to build anything from simple circuits to complex embedded computing projects. These sites provide documentation, tutorials, video channels, and of course, a store, where you can purchase the tools and components required to internet enable your toaster, or feed your cat from the couch.

    Guitar effects pedals are a great way to get started with electronics. The simplest ones only require some basic skills to assemble. The few parts can be easily obtained, and the minimum of tools required can be purchased quite cheaply. Better still is the gratification from plugging it in for the first time and being able to incorporate a pedal that you made yourself into your music. With the skills you acquire, you can graduate from simple to more complex projects; maybe build an entire pedal board of your own effects. Your friends might ask you to build pedals for them too. What you learn can also be put to use with commercial pedals, as you will better understand how they work, and will be able to repair and hot rod old pedals. If you are interested in working at a repair shop, as a guitar tech, or for an electronics company in the future, your portfolio of home built pedals will be a great advertisement for your skills.

    The entry point for guitar pedal self-assembly is the effects pedal kit. A lot of the work such as designing and manufacturing the circuit board, drilling the enclosure, and selecting suitable parts has already been done for you. With a little care and careful following of the instructions, there’s no reason not to have a first time success with a pedal kit.


    Pedal Kit
    For: Beginner to intermediate
    Requirements: Soldering iron, solder, pliers, cutters, small screwdrivers
    Key Benefit: High chance of first time success
    Resources: buildyourownclone, Mammoth Electronics, modkitsdiy


    Get started

    Choose a pedal kit or two from one of the kit suppliers. If you are new to this, start with one of the simpler kits such as a boost pedal. You can move on to more complex circuits such as delays and reverbs later. You can order multiple kits at once if you want, but learn your skills on the easy ones first. Good kits come with comprehensive documentation. They normally list the tools that you will need, so read the docs online first and make sure you have the tools available. If not, order them at the same time as your kits so you’ll have everything ready. It’s very irritating when you are keen to get started on a pedal project and are missing that one small tool or part.

    If you are new to electronics, the essential tool you most likely need to buy is a decent temperature controlled soldering station. A basic one such as a Weller WLC100 can be had for less than $40 and will do the job just fine. Really nice ones with digital temperature readouts from Weller or Hakko are $100-$150 and as much as you will ever need for a home pedal shop. The soldering pencils have interchangeable tips, so you can keep a selection of different sizes. The one that normally comes with a new station will be suitable for most through-hole pedal kits.

    Make sure you have a sharp pair of wire cutters and a pair of those pointy nose pliers for bending and cutting component leads. Don’t forget solder too. There are a whole bunch of solder specifications covering materials, size, process etc. You’ll need rosin core solder. It comes in different thicknesses. 0.031” diameter is a common size, and will work for most pedal projects. Solder is normally sold in reels by weight. A 1/4lb reel will be enough to last a good few pedal projects. Lastly, get lead free, no clean solder. Although not strictly necessary for personal projects, lead-free solder is common now and safer. No clean, means that you can leave the flux residue behind without having to clean it off, and it won’t damage your board.

    If you have little or no experience in electronic assembly, there are some great free video tutorials on the web. In particular check out Adafruit learn, and search Collins Lab on Youtube. These include fun and informative tutorials on components and soldering. Watch these before you attack your first board with a hot iron.

    Now you should have all you need to assemble your first effects pedal. Make sure you have a clean, well-ventilated area to work. Wash your hands before you start. If you like, wear some conductive nitrile gloves. Avoid handling components any more than necessary. Contaminants on the components and PCB will make them harder to solder and can cause reliability problems. Certain IC’s can be damaged by static electricity from handling. Solder is hot and creates dangerous fumes so be careful. Follow the instructions carefully, in particular making sure you insert components in the correct places and the correct way around. Many components look alike and some are polarity sensitive, so take your time to get it right. Solder one pin of a component and then double-check it before soldering the rest. It’s much easier to move or remove a component with only one lead soldered to the board.

    The tip of a soldering iron is very hot, around 700F, and can damage the board, component packages, and wire insulation in a fraction of a second, not to mention your own skin, so be careful the tip does not touch anything as you move it in and out of the soldering area. Put the pencil back in its holder when not soldering. Don’t leave a hot iron laying on a bench or table.

    Once everything is assembled, check through the instructions one last time for any additional notes on connections, power etc (don’t waste all your hard work by blowing up the board with the wrong power supply). Then plug in your pedal and give it a try. There’s a good chance it will work first time. If not, go through the instructions again step by step and look to see where the problem might be. Missed, incorrect, or reversed components are the most common causes and can be diagnosed just by checking each step carefully.

    After your experience with a kit or two, you may want to make a few changes.


    Project Board
    For: Intermediate to advanced
    Requirements: As above plus digital multi-meter, digital calipers, drill and drill bits, hook-up wire, wire strippers
    Key Benefit: Customize with your own parts
    Resources: AMZ, Smallbear, Pedalpartsplus


    Get started

    Sooner or later you may want to experiment further: What happens if I use a different opamp here, or change a capacitor value there? Specifying your own components is the next step. Two of the specialty jobs in building a typical effects pedal are the design of the circuit itself, and the production of the printed circuit board (PCB) on which to install the components. The next logical step from a kit is to order a pre-built PCB and then customize the component and enclosure choices yourself. AMZ effects, is the go-to place for a huge variety of pre-designed PCB’s. The cost is quite low and the projects include clear documentation providing guidance on different options and components.

    You’ll need to get yourself setup with an account on some of the web stores selling components such as effects pedal specialty stores listed above, and some general component stores such as Mouser and Digikey. AMZ provides a list of the components required for each project. Make sure you check carefully the component requirements such as type of capacitors. Many components may have suitable electrical values but different physical layouts, so use the datasheets for your chosen component. Measure the spaces and holes on your PCB to make sure the components will fit. Remember that you’ll also need an enclosure in which to install the finished circuit and don’t forget things such as knobs, battery holders etc.

    If you think you might build more than one of a pedal, it’s helpful to keep a list of your preferred parts and their specifications in a spreadsheet. In manufacturing this is called a BOM (Bill of Materials). Some online stores will let you import a BOM direct into their web store and will build a purchase order for you based on the information. It’s a big time saver each time you need to order parts, and lets you compare different vendors stocks easily.

    Design Your Own
    For: Advanced
    Requirements: PCB Design Software
    Key Benefit: Complete control
    Resources: Eagle, Circuit Maker, KiCad


    Get started

    Designing your own pedal from scratch requires some experience in electrical engineering, but it’s not especially hard or expensive these days to learn from online resources and pickup the tools for low cost or even free.

    You’ll need schematic and PCB design software and there are plenty to choose from.

    Cadsoft Eagle is a very popular tool with pedal builders. A basic version can be had for free. There are limitations on board size and number of layers in the free version, but these won’t come in to play for the majority of basic analog effects pedals.  Element14  includes a host of documents and tutorials.  If you get into complex designs or full professional use later,  full versions of Eagle, at time of writing cost $575, and $1640.

    Altium is known for it’s high end PCB development application called Altium Designer which starts at around $7000 and there’s a yearly subscription fee too. Gulp! Altium Designer is used by many industry professionals for product development. Altium just recently released Circuit Maker, which has many of the features of Designer and is, Gasp!…. Completely free!  The trade off at this point seems to be that it’s designed around a community and apart from a couple of private slots, you have to share your work, so it’s not very useful for completely proprietary projects.

    If you want free and private, other than the basic version of Eagle, there is KiCad, which is an open source tool developed by GIPSA Lab, which is a research institute out of Grenoble in France. Like Eagle, there are Windows, Mac, and Linux versions, whereas Circuit Maker is Windows only. There are also tools now being offered for free by some of the big component dealers such as Mouser.

    I’ve used Eagle for a long time, but I just recently started using Circuit Maker, and I like it so far. I’ll probably end up using both since I do most of my work on a Mac, and Eagle still works fine on that. I had to set up a dedicated Windows machine for Circuit Maker. Circuit Maker has a 3D view of the finished PCB which is a very helpful tool if you are dealing with odd board sizes and very constrained layouts.

    Free to use schematics to get started can be had from the web but remember, if you are going to use someone else’s work, either completely or as a starting point for your own design, check first to see what copyright and any other terms are associated with it. If it’s not clear, ask first. There are plenty of open source designs available to use, but schematics, like other written works are covered by copyright law so check you have permission before using them.

    Once you have a board design complete, you can send it out for manufacture. Years ago this used to be the major challenge for the home or small builder, but these days a large number of board manufacturers have a web presence and will quickly fabricate single, or low volume boards for fairly modest cost. Eagle (or whichever CAD software you are using) outputs a set of files called gerber files. These files can be emailed or uploaded over the web to the board manufacturer who will plug these into their manufacturing tools and then send the finished boards to you in the mail.

    A version of this article was first published in Gearphoria. You can read the latest articles in Workbench Confidential at


  • mixthroughly

    Don’t Goop Me Bro

    Last quarters Gearphoria article is a look into gooping of effects pedals and it’s more legitimate parent, conformal coating. You can read the latest edition of Workbench Confidential at Gearphoria


    I don’t read music gear forums much, but recently I did a little weekend surfing and saw fair bit of comment about the ‘gooping’ of components in guitar effects pedals. Indeed there was even an article on the subject in the last issue of Gearphoria. It got me thinking about what this stuff really is, and how it’s used in various electronics.

    The opaque, glue like substance used to cover up the components in certain effects pedals is in most cases almost certainly potting compound. This is commonly used in components with coils such as transformers, to secure parts in place and deal with vibration issues. Guitar players maybe most familiar with potting compound in pickups, which potted partly for protection, and also to reduce the susceptibility to microphonics, where noise and feedback can be caused by the wires in the coil itself minutely vibrating. Certain pickup manufacturers prefer using wax vs. epoxy for this. I’m not a pickup expert, but I believe the lower viscosity liquid wax can penetrate better into the coils of fine wire. It’s also easier to remove if the pickup has to be repaired. For larger coils, epoxy is a more common choice.

    So, are their sound engineering reasons for using this to cover components on a PCB? Some other components can have issues with vibration. Large electrolytic capacitors for example, can vibrate causing mechanical problems such as noise or even a weakening of the solder joints. However, these can normally be dealt with at the specific component level. If you look inside an AC power supply for example (with the power disconnected of course!) you might see a glue-like substance around the base of some of the large caps. Silicone elastomers such as Dow Corning’s Silastic® are commonly used for this. You only need to apply it around the component in question, though, no need to cover the whole PCB.

    Many years ago I was working for a communications electronics company on a network interface PCB for use by the Navy. The system would be installed on warships and be subjected to hostile environments such as sea air, salt-water ingress, and potentially battle conditions. We covered a large section of the board with epoxy. It weighed a ton, and was impossible to repair if anything went wrong, but at the time with the availability of materials and the unusual environment, it made sense.

    Fortunately, these days we have a much better choice for hostile environments with conformal coatings. Conformal coatings are commonly used now on electronics products that will be installed outside. Think traffic signals, or roof mounted solar panels. The coatings are available in several different base materials, and can be sprayed on either by machine or by hand. They can provide IPC level protection at thicknesses of only around 1000th of an inch. They are also flexible for improved reliability, relatively easy to remove to allow repairs, and often transparent for easier quality control and troubleshooting.

    And therein lies the moral of this tale, if you really do want to go to the extent of protecting the PCB on your effects pedal from the hostile environment of beer spillage and maybe worse at the local dive bar, a transparent conformal coating is the way to go. Many board assembly shops will have conformal coating facilities or can send the boards on to a specialty coating service. Coating can be done with a spray head that covers an entire panel, or with a selective coating machine that dispenses the coating to specific areas. For small run, hand assembled products, you can pick up spray cans from a chemical or electronics supplier.

    Selective conformal coating machines are kinda hypnotic to watch. Well I think so anyway. I’m not sure what that says about me …


    If, on the other hand, you wish to hide your work from prying eyes, then gooping is just way too old school. The technique du jour is to laser etch chip ID’s from your integrated circuit packages.



  • Six Internet Store Scams

    If you run an internet business, whether it’s an auction store selling home built pedals from your garage or a large commercial enterprise, sooner or later someone is going to try to scam you. Here are a few or my favorites from over the years and some suggestions on how to be prepared for them.


    These are all based on genuine cases that have been attempted on me at one time or another. I divided them into two categories: Outright Scams, and Unreasonable Requests. The first is pretty self explanatory. These are perpetrated by people who are not your customers and are just trying to deprive you, and likely many others of product or money. They are aware of exactly what they are doing, and are sometimes part of organized criminal gangs. The second category covers not so much scams, as requests from existing or potential customers that are unreasonable, inappropriate, or even illegal. The latter cases require some care, as the people you are dealing with are your customers and not always aware of the seriousness of what they are asking. Maybe not everyone even considers them unreasonable. Anyway, the key to dealing with all of these either way, is proper preparation, so let’s get started.

    Outright Scams

    • The Advance Replacement

    In this scam you receive an email or call from a customer who has one of your products that needs repair. Often the communication is from overseas. They tell you that they use the product all the time and need it urgently. They ask could you ship an advance replacement? i.e. you send them a new product while you wait for the old one that they return to arrive. They may use a story specific to the type of product, for example for musical equipment they may tell you they are in a band about to leave on tour. At some point they may tell you that they have already shipped the original product back to you and that the shipper has told them it may be several weeks or months until it arrives. They may send you confirmation of the shipping, which will be an official looking document likely in a language they expect you not to speak. The scam, of course, is that they have never had your product, never shipped anything to you, and the shipping document is a forgery.

    In your response, ask for details of the product such as serial #, build date, or details on where the product was purchased from. If it’s a scam, they won’t have these and will have to provide an excuse which will help clue you into the scam. They may tell you that since they already shipped it back, they can’t check the serial #. They may say they don’t recall where they bought it, or it was a gift and they cannot contact the person who gave it to them.  They may just make up the name of a store, or use the name of one of your distributors listed online.

    The best way to deal with this scam is to have a robust returns policy in place, and make sure that it is defined in your terms and conditions of sale. Then you can just refer them to that and you will not have to waste any more time. I cover how to prepare these later in the post. Be polite in any conversation, even if you are 90% sure it’s a scam as you never know where your conversations may end up. Having consistent identifying marks on your products such as a serial # and build date is always advisable, as it allows you to more easily process legitimate returns as well as deal with the fraudsters.

    • The Check Clearance

    In this scam, our rogue customer places an order with you and says they would like to pay by bankers check. You receive the check overnight by courier and it looks very official. You deposit the check, and the cash appears as available funds. You ship the order. Sometime later you are contacted by your bank as there is a problem with the funds.

    This scam takes advantage of varying banking policies. Certain banks, if you have a good history with them, will make funds up to a certain amount available to you immediately after depositing a check. It appears on the bank record as if the check has cleared, but in reality it has not passed through the full process. This is fairly straightforward to deal with. Check with your bank on the clearance period for any deposit you may be concerned about. Make sure to speak with a representative from your bank in person to be sure a suspect check has cleared before shipping anything. Be clear in your terms and conditions of sale on what your check clearance policy is.

    • The Stolen Card

    A potential customer contacts you to ask if certain products are in stock. They are often from overseas.  They may ask additional questions such as can they pay by credit card, and what are the shipping times. In particular they may be concerned about how quickly the products will ship. They place the order and their credit card is successfully processed. Later on you hear from an individual, bank, or your processing company that the order was not authorized by the credit card holder and the card was likely stolen.

    These can be difficult to spot as they can appear like legitimate orders, and the payments can be processed without issue. If you receive a lot of orders that are typically processed electronically, there may not be anything that indicates a problem until after the fact. There are still some things you can do though. Look for unusual patterns in orders such as much higher than normal order value, or products that are not typically ordered together. The scammers will often select high value items for purchase in order to maximize their take, but may not know much about what they are ordering other than the price. An order with several of your highest value items that no one would ever use together is a big red flag. If you process orders manually, you can check them yourself or train your staff on red flags to look for. If orders are processed electronically you maybe able to use software to set red flag conditions that put an order on hold until someone has checked it out. If an order looks suspect, Google the shipping address and see what you find. If anything concerns you that it might not be legitimate, contact your payment processing company immediately and ask them to investigate the transaction.

    Unreasonable Requests

    • The Gift

    An international customer requests that you write a reduced value and/or list a purchased product as a gift on export documentation in order that they can avoid import duties.

    This is a common request, and I suspect this is because most people are not experts in import/export regulations (why should they be) and maybe don’t realize the the possible serious consequences of what they are requesting. At least I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. International export regulations are complex and differ across borders, but most countries have some degree of regulation governing import duties, VAT, and other taxes. Incorrect declarations on customs documentation is often considered a serious offense resulting in fines or even jail time. In the US, imports and exports are controlled by the Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection. 

    If you ship products internationally, make sure you have clearly defined policies in your terms and conditions of sale. Explain that you will always include the correct value of the shipment on customs forms. Keep a link to the terms an conditions on your web store so that you can easily refer customers to it when this question gets asked.

    • The Missing Package

    A package is listed as delivered by the shipping company, but the customer says they never received it. They request that you send them a replacement at your cost.

    In the majority of these cases, the ‘missing’ package normally shows up. Often delivered to a neighbor, another entrance, or collected by a friend or family member. You may want to publish some steps for locating a missing package on your website to help customers out. Again, make sure your shipping process is clearly defined in your terms and conditions. If possible put a tick box on your e-commerce system to make acceptance of terms and conditions a requirement to place an order. If you can, give customers a choice of shipping options including insurance and signature verified deliveries, especially if you are selling high value products. That way they can decide on which delivery method suits them best.

    • Review Ransom

    Someone threatens to write bad reviews of your products or services unless you send them free or discounted products. This can fall into either category originating either from a random scammer, or someone who was not happy with a particular response they received.

    I don’t have a simple answer to this. Thankfully they have been extremely rare in our case and resolved by dealing the specific individual issues. Again, making sure your terms and conditions are clear, and in line with your industry, as well as treating people with honesty and respect will give you the best chance to reduce your likely exposure this one.


    If you have a web site with a community, or where people can leave comments, make sure you have defined terms and conditions for the use of the site. Make sure you have a link to the terms clearly visible.

    If you sell products from a web store, create a terms and conditions of sale document and link to it. If possible, put a check box on your check out page that requires customers to accept the terms to place an order. Include a link to the terms on any confirmation or invoice that you send to them.

    Check out the terms and conditions of other companies in your line of business to determine what is typical for your industry. If you don’t have your own legal counsel, online legal services like Rocket Lawyer have tools available to create terms and conditions documents for a small fee.

    If you have multiple people working with you, make sure you all understand your terms and conditions, and where to find them. Scammers frequently rely on social engineering to get people to comply. By having your processes clearly documented, and referring them directly to the appropriate documents, you can avoid much of the uncertainty that the scammers rely on.

    Put identifying marks on your products such as serial numbers, build dates, or other marks that will allow you to trace a product. Define an RMA (Return Materials Authorization) process and document it in your terms and conditions. Require people to provide the identifying information when requesting to return products. For high value products, you may want to keep a record of which serial number was sold to which original customer in order that you can track it’s history.

    If you provide a warranty on your products, document it and place a link to it on your website. Include details on duration, items covered, and whether the warranty is transferred when the product is sold on. Review warranty terms of similar products to yours to determine what is typical.

    If you sell products via a reseller or distributor, have a resale agreement in place that documents who is responsible for handling returns and warranty repairs.

    Put these tools in place, and you will have a robust system not only for dealing with the occasional scam, but more importantly for handling the hundreds and thousands of legitimate customers, orders, and products that your business will deal with every day.