Matt Alper launched Copshoes.com three years ago from his living room in San Antonio, Texas. His idea was to sell specialized shoes and boots to police, firemen and security personnel. Now, three years later, he’s moved into his own warehouse, he has 11 employees and 10 percent of his total sales come from outside of the U.S.
“We’ve learned many lessons about selling internationally,” said Alper. “The two primary issues are credit-card fraud and shipping. Any U.S.-based ecommerce business that sells internationally deals with them. It’s not just us.”
U.S.-based ecommerce merchants who sell products internationally quickly learn these lessons and take appropriate precautions. Ben Boxall is president of VR3 Wholesale, a Los Angeles-based importer, wholesaler and retailer of aftermarket automotive products. Boxall’s company sells its products through several ecommerce sites (Vr-3.com, Vr3wholesale.com and Roadmasterusa.com) it owns and operates.
“We export roughly 1,200 orders a week outside of the U.S.,” says Boxall. “And we’ve learned many credit-card fraud precautions. For one, there are certain countries that we simply will not ship orders to because we’ve received too many fraudulent cards from them. These countries include Latvia, Nigeria, Czech Republic and many others.”
“Second, we individually review each order over $250. We call every customer who placed that order unless it’s a repeat customer who’s previously been approved by us. For our company, we’ve found that fraudulent orders are generally greater than $250 each.”
Boxall continues, “We have other checks, too. We never ship to a post office box. We always compare the credit card billing address to the shipping address. And, we have what I call our ‘too-good-to-be-true rule.’ That is, if an order arrives that’s too good or simply doesn’t look right, we’ll refund the credit-card charge and reject the order. That probably cost us some legitimate business, but it also prevents us from losing money from stolen credit cards.”
Lessons from various countries
Copshoes.com’s Alper will not ship to Venezuela, Indonesia or Nigeria, among other countries. “I once shipped goods to Indonesia that were, as it turns out, purchased with a stolen credit card,” says Alper. “I got so angry that I called the Indonesian embassy in Washington, D.C. It was unbelievable. They told me they couldn’t help because the Indonesian national broke no Indonesian law since it was a stolen American card. So I learned a lesson there.”
Alper agrees with Boxall that an experienced merchant can frequently detect fraudulent orders. Alper says that sudden orders from a single country will raise concerns, as will large purchase amounts and orders with multiple quantities of the same product.
But credit-card fraud is not the only concern for merchants who sell internationally. How to ship the products, many experienced merchants say, is the other primary issue.
Mark Romero is co-owner of Siamese Dream, a California-based retailer of clothing and gift items. Romero launched the business in 1998 as a brick-and-mortar operation, and he created Siamese-dream.com, its ecommerce site, in 1999. The business has five employees in addition to Romero, and roughly 7 percent of overall sales are outside of the U.S.
“We’ve shipped products to 19 different countries,” says Romero. “We’ve found that sending these via the United States Postal Service works best. It’s far cheaper for us than using, say, UPS or FedEx. And, we’ve found the shipments seem to clear the overseas customs process better using USPS than the other carriers.”
Many merchants agree USPS is less expensive for smaller international packages than private carriers such as UPS and FedEx. But, these merchants say, there are drawbacks. For one, merchants cannot track an international package using USPS, but they can track it using private carriers. Second, the USPS coordinates its international shipments with the postal services of recipient countries and, depending on the country, the local postal service may be unreliable.
“You learn,” says Copshoes.com’s Alper, “which countries have good postal services and which do not. Canada, England, Greece and others are quite good. But China’s postal service, for example, is terrible.”
“Lots of international customers don’t understand how expensive shipping can be,” said Romero. “It can be a material portion of the purchase and we are careful to find the least expensive shipping option for them.”
Alper has installed a shipping calculator on his site to assist his international customers determine the shipping cost. He uses the USPS for his international shipments. “The USPS is by far the cheapest, but the lack of tracking can be a problem. Also, if a package is lost, you are frequently dealing with local, overseas postal services. That can be a real hassle.”
VR3’s Boxall agrees that, for smaller packages, the USPS is the cheapest. But for cartons and pallets of goods, Boxall says that he uses UPS. “The UPS provides very helpful information for international shipments,” said Boxall. “I’d encourage merchants to visit both the UPS website and the USPS site. They have lots of advice to help with overseas shipments.”
Boxall also relies on his order-management software to help manage international shipments. Says Boxall, “We use Interapptive’s ShipWorks software to manage all of our orders, including international ones. It’s incredibly helpful. It sorts between domestic and international orders and it automatically prints shipping labels and customs forms — saves us tons of time.”
For ecommerce merchants who ship with the USPS, Boxall offers this advice. “You can negotiate volume discounts with the postal service for certain types of shipments. Many folks don’t realize that. Also, we use boxes and forms supplied by the postal service, which reduces our costs. Because of our volume, the postal service has even agreed to customize boxes for us with our VR3 logo for no additional cost. “
All three merchants have learned valuable lessons about international sales in addition to credit-card fraud and shipping matters. “Toll free numbers don’t work overseas,” says Copshoes.com’s Alper. “Selling products in local currencies can increase your profit margin,” says VR3’s Boxall. “Make sure the customer realizes he’s responsible for import tariffs and customs’ fees,” says Siamese Dream’s Romero.
The three merchants also agree that, in the end, the extra effort is worth it. “It’s far too big of a market to ignore,” said Matt Alper. “It’s profitable business for us, international customers tend to be repeat buyers, and it’s a segment of our business that we hope to grow.”
Credit Card Pro Offers Fraud Prevention Steps
John Waldron is co-owner of e-onlinedata, inc., a credit-card merchant-account provider. e-onlinedata assists thousands of ecommerce merchants with domestic and overseas credit-card transactions, and he offers the following advice for merchants who wish accept credit-card payments from international customers.
- Ask customer for fax verification. For suspect orders or large orders, ask the customer to fax the front and back of his credit card as well as a form of identification. This is better than a phone call.
- Call your credit-card processor. Your credit-card processor has a staff to assist you with questionable orders. Rely on their expertise.
- Analyze the order, and be skeptical. Why would a customer purchase, for example, 10 routers? Likewise, why would an overseas customer request overnight shipping?
- Overseas banks are different. Many overseas banks don’t support the card-code verification system, and they can’t verify billing addresses. Be aware, therefore, that these fraud-prevention steps may not help you with cards that have been issued from such banks.
- Do a BIN look-up. The first six digits of a credit card are called the bank identification number, or BIN. They tell you which bank has issued the credit card. Go to All-nettools.com/toolbox,financial, and enter these six digits. If the issuing bank is located in a country that is different from where the order is originating, you should investigate further.
- Purchase fraud-detection tools. Many credit-card banks and payment gateways offer effective fraud detection tools that are incredibly inexpensive. Use these tools.
Credit-card Fraud Issues
Credit-card fraud occurs when a thief steals a credit-card number (or, purchases a stolen credit-card number) and uses that number to buy legitimate goods and services from an unsuspecting merchant. The merchant will not get paid for the merchandise, but he’ll have to pay the credit card fees and he’ll lose the merchandise because he’s shipped it to the thief. This type of fraud happens every day, and everyone agrees ecommerce merchants selling products internationally are especially vulnerable. That’s because many developing and Third-World countries do not and cannot properly police these thieves and, moreover, the market for buying and selling stolen credit-card numbers is largely outside of U.S. boundaries.