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Coin Dealer Ethics - Coins Lost in the Mail

By November 4, 2007

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As a part-time coin seller myself (selling off duplicates, extras, and dabbling in selling uncleaned ancient coins for a few years,) I've seen things from both sides of the dealer's table. This week, for the Coin Dealer Ethics discussion, I'd like to share an experience that happens often in these days of online coin transactions: coins being lost in the mail. I'm going to present this situation from the dealer's perspective this time, since most of my previous scenarios have been from the buyer's perspective.

Probably one of the most uncomfortable things that can happen between an honest buyer and an honest seller is for the coins to go missing in the mail. Both sides feel awkward, wondering if the other side thinks they're trying to take advantage. Consider this scenario:

I sometimes buy freshly dug-up coins from the Middle East and Europe, the lands once occupied by the great empires of ancient Rome and Greece. When purchased wholesale from the "source countries" (such as Israel, where they can be legally exported,) these coins are typically sold in lots of 1,000 or more pieces. Since this is far more coins than any one person can reasonably expect to clean and restore (much less attribute and preserve) I typically recover my cost by selling of about 70% of the lot for a small profit. I run an informal ad in one of the discussion groups devoted to cleaning ancient coins, and people buy the coins in batches of about 10 to 50 coins each, typically for a couple dollars per coin. An extra $2 or $3 is added to the whole purchase for the shipping expense.

The last time I sold off some excess coins this way, everybody got their lots in good time and were very happy, except for one person. Buddy emailed me about 2 weeks after the sale, and asked if I had sent his coins out. He had purchased 20 coins, and hadn't received them yet. He was new to the discussion group where I had posted the coins for sale, so he really didn't know much about me, and he was becoming concerned that he might have been ripped off. His first email read something like this:

Hi, I sent you $42 by PayPal to buy 20 of your uncleaned ancient coins and haven't gotten them yet. It's been 2 weeks. Can you please check to see if they've been sent? Thanks, Buddy.

I checked my paperwork (I track everything when I sell coins!) Buddy's payment had come in via PayPal as he said, for the amount he specified, and his coins had gone out in the mail the next day, 12 days ago. So I sent the following reply:

Buddy, Thank you for your inquiry about the coins I sold you. My records indicate that I sent them out on Tuesday, March 11. The postal service isn't what it used to be, and sometimes they can take awhile, so let's give it another week or so and if you don't have your coins by then, please let me know. Susan.

A week later, I get this message:

Hi, I still don't have the coins you said you sent me. Are you sure they're coming? 3 weeks is a long time, even if you didn't send them Priority. Please let me know what's going on! Buddy.

I sent Buddy the following reply:

Buddy, I am sorry that you haven't received your coins yet! I am 100% certain I sent them to you on the morning of March 11. Could you please verify your address with me, just to make sure we don't have any mistakes anywhere? I have "123 Main Street, Coinsville, CA. 91214," is this correct? Thanks, Susan.

(I have changed the address to protect Buddy's privacy.) Buddy's email response came the next day:

Susan, You have the right address, but are you SURE you sent the coins? I've bought coins before, and they've always come within a few days. What's going on here?! I'm starting to get worried. Do I need to call my bank and stop the payment?

Buddy didn't even sign his name to this one, a probable sign of his escalating concern. At this point, I began considering options:

(a) I could refund his money through PayPal, and rely on him to send it back when his coins finally arrive.

(b) I could send him replacement coins, so that he gets something in good time, and when the original lot turns up he can either buy that one, too, or return it to me.

(c) I could ask him to allow another 7 to 10 days, since mail that goes missing is almost always found within 30 days (according to the clerk I asked at the post office.)

(d) I could wash my hands of the whole thing and tell him that I did my part, I sent his coins, and that my role is finished. Whether he gets them or not is not my concern. I mean, what if he's lying to me, trying to pull one over on me? I know I sent the coins, but do I know whether he is as honest when he says he didn't receive them?

(e) I could refund his money, apologize for his inconvenience (and the post office's failure) and wash my hands of the whole thing by telling him that I'll just take the loss. If his coins ever show up, consider it a gift from me.

What would you do in this case, if you were the dealer? Would you perform one (or more) of the options above, or do something else entirely? Why would you do this? Please share your thoughts via the "comments" link below, and next week we'll look at some of them. I'll also tell you what I did, and how the whole thing turned out in the end!


November 7, 2007 at 6:50 am
(1) Cliff says:

Ahh Yes, the disappearing package routine. I sell plans & manuals for homebuilt aircraft worldwide & have been doing so for about 25 years. We’ve run into this scenario several times & what we do is simply ship another set. We leave it up to the customers’ ethics to return the original order (at our expense) should it eventually arrive. Our cost to do this is about $200 so it’s not fun for us to do it. However, in the interest of good business practice, we do it.

In this scenario I believe “Option B” would be of your best interest and will benefit you more in the long run as a business woman. The old adage of the customer’s always right plays a big part in the overall success of any company. You’ll get back the $42 bucks several times over, believe me.


November 7, 2007 at 6:56 am
(2) Greg says:

As a buyer and not a seller, I agree with Cliff. Take the hit, but in the future send to this guy with a signature reciept.

November 7, 2007 at 7:10 am
(3) Trace says:

As a buyer, I too agree with Cliff because it has happened to me. In my case the seller sent me another coin and sure enough as soon as he notified me the second coin was in the mail, the first one showed up, 4 weeks late. I then notified the seller and paypaled him for the second coin just to be done with it.

November 7, 2007 at 8:30 am
(4) Michael Z says:

I usually insure packages worth over $100. Under that amount, I assume the risk and use option (b). On the whole, it seems to work out reasonably well in the end. I think most people are honest and the insurance mitigates my exposure for the few who are not.

November 7, 2007 at 10:58 am
(5) Cindi P. says:

I sell a variety of items through the mail. I always make sure there is a delivery confirmation that goes with every package. If the package isn’t thick enough for delivery confirmation, I add more bubble wrap to make sure it is. I state in my fine print that I am not responsible for the package once it is in the hands of the postal service. I always encourage my customers to insure for their own peace of mind. You can include insurance in the shipping price as well. Bottom line-I NEVER-EVER send a package without delivery confirmation!!!

November 7, 2007 at 11:06 am
(6) Bill says:

I have learned that the best thing to do in this situation is to refund the money and tell the customer that in the event the coins ever do show up, consider them a gift. In this way, nobody gets ripped off and you will rest easier not worrying about who got took. You made a gift and I’m sure you have given gifts that cost more than $42.00.

November 7, 2007 at 11:17 am
(7) David says:

When something like this happens to me as a buyer, I contact the seller and let him/her know I didn’t receive the package, in a polite and friendly way. Most sellers will replace it, assuming enough time has past. If the lost item winds up showing up, I notify the seller and ask him/her what to do- send it back or buy that one, too. As a seller, when a buyer tells me they haven’t received something, I provide the seller with some of the options you listed and let the buyer make the choice as to how to rectify- put the power in customer’s hands. Yes, I do think there are some who are dishonest- I have had several like this for sure. But you have to assume people will be honest, or we go down a very tortuous path. Insurance is not the way to go, as USPS says they will not insure coins- believe me, I’ve tried to get my money back on lost coins in the mail- one time a package had been opened by an unscrupulous postal emplyee and I received portions of the lost lot 15 days latter in a USPS envelope with their apology- and they STILL would not honor my insurance claim because it was coins. I think delivery confirmation is a cheap way to track and ensure delivery. Signature confirmation is even more assurnace, but that gets costly.

November 7, 2007 at 11:24 am
(8) Manny says:

Insurance, insurance, insurance!!! make it a required part of the transaction and everybody’s covered.

November 7, 2007 at 1:27 pm
(9) Erich H... says:

I waited over a month for a customer to recieve a coin I had shipped him. I could tell from his emails he was questioning my Honesty-which I Guard with my Life. About 2 weeks later I dropped another coin of equal/better quality to him. I had to email him to find out if he got it! He had, but I was soured on him and felt like it was Expected, not a favor. It peaved me and we no longer do business(my choice). It was a 2001-W ASE in ANACS Proof-69 D-Cam. Never had a problem with any customer since. Watch guys that think more of their John Deere than their business. He NEVER thanked me! I have a very strong Positive Opinion of most all coin dealers/collectors but this guy was never taught Manners. Yes, it goes a long way with me. Best to all, Erich H… Swamplands of Paradise(Louisiana).

November 7, 2007 at 1:31 pm
(10) JMBCoins says:

Three weeks is a long time. For $42, I would select option B and eat the cost and ship another set of coins (with a Tracking Number this time). Your reputation is worth more than $42.

I have bought and sold coins on the Internet for about three years. The approach that I have found that works the best is:

1.) I never ship coins Parcel Post. I ship all packages First Class with a tracking number (a.k.a. “Delivery Confirmation” as the US Post Office calls it) and I take all packages personally to the post office (as opposed to dropping in a mailbox). If you use PayPal’s Multiorder Shipping Tool it only cost an additional 18 cents per shipment (free if you use 2 Day Priority Mail).

2.) I offer insurance to the buyer. If they choose not to purchase insurance then they assume the risk. Since I always use Delivery Confirmation, I respond to any buyer’s inquiry with a tracking number that proves I mailed the package. For shipments totaling over $100, I require insurance and automatically add it to the shipping charge.

For the few problems that have occurred, I have responded to the buyer with the address I shipped to and a tracking number to prove shipment. The buyer then follows up with their local post office using the tracking number that I provided. I still have a 100% buyer satisfaction rating and have not had to refund money or ship more coins.

November 7, 2007 at 4:29 pm
(11) Lee says:

I enjoy ancient coins myself but for both parties, security, the coins should have been sent by registered mail requiring a signiture upon delivery. The cost of insurance and registration is small compared to the loss and mistrust by both parties.

November 7, 2007 at 5:47 pm
(12) John says:

I have bought and sold coins over the internet for many years. Whether I buy or sell I ALWAYS use insurance and sig. confirmation. I was always up front that I would only ship priority mail with Insurance to protect them and myself. So far I have never been burned either way.

November 7, 2007 at 7:31 pm
(13) Ben says:

I sell a few coins on ebay and automatically insure all shipments over a few bucks (for US buyers, foreign shipments are clearly marked “at your own risk”). I always use the first class package rate and drop 2-3 packing peanuts in the envelope to make sure it is thick enough for that. I use paypal shipping, print my own labels and get the delivery confirmation. On getting a complaint like this I would check the delivery confirmation, then I would probably refund the money if nothing had been received within 3 weeks. I’ve been on the other end of this too, and lost a very nice coin in the mail (the envelope arrived ripped open, the post office said nothing they could do) Not fun, so I try to be good to my buyers.

November 8, 2007 at 1:06 pm
(14) Jason says:

If I were in this situation, I would offer to send a replacement, with the understanding that one of the shipments would be returned IF/when both show up OR that both would be paid for.

With internet transactions, BOTH parties agree to use the shipping service stated and it is out of both parties’ hands what happens in the shipper’s hands. I experienced this ONCE a few years ago and ever since then have purchased delivery confirmation for U.S. destinations and Proof of Mailing for International destinations. NOTE: using the automated machines within the Post Office OR using Paypal click and ship does not enter you Delivery Confirmation number into the system like a Postal Clerk does. If you send your package with either system and it gets lost or severely delayed, the delivery confirmation does little to help your buyer believe you. If you have a clerk accept your package, the delivery confirmation tracking information is available THAT night and clearly shows that you sent what you claim to have sent.

November 8, 2007 at 7:06 pm
(15) Phillip Russell says:

Whenever you mail an item such as coins you should ALWAYS place them in a padded envelope or small box. Items sent in envelopes go through machines that are designed to sort FLEXABLE items, coins don’t bend,around 1 1/4″ rollers, thus unless they are in the envlope with at least a large piece of duct tape they are likely to be removed from the envelope by the machines. The machines are now vacuumed instead of being blow out with air (thanks to 9/11) thus loose items are more likely to be destroyed than be recovered.
Bite the bullet and resend the coins, delivery confirmation, Priority mail or first class.

November 11, 2007 at 11:09 am
(16) charles says:

In the interest of making a customer for life, I would replace the coins. He should respond appropriately, if not, reconsider doing business with him again. Charles

November 11, 2007 at 2:51 pm
(17) Sandy B. says:

I would probably take the hit in the interest of customer relations and hope he’s an honest man.

November 15, 2007 at 9:46 pm
(18) l41nd14l says:

I always use delivery confirmation, 1st class. Big bubble. I want to suggest when packing use tape or staples or something to hold the coin down tight so it doesn’t rattle around and give someone a hint of what it is. I haven’t yet had the problem, but I suppose I’d go halfway – refund, but if you get it, send me something (only if it was more than a few dollars, else gift it)

November 17, 2007 at 6:43 pm
(19) Bob says:

I agree 110% with Manny, insurance, insurance, & insurance as part of the cost of shipping to the buyer.

April 4, 2008 at 12:40 pm
(20) wh says:

Option B it is. One other thing you should have done was assure Buddy when you replied to his first email that you would take care of him in the event the package is permanently lost but would like to give the PO some more time to deliver the package. That would have kept him calm and kept tensions from escalating.


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