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The balance between consumer protection and individual responsibility in the field of coin collecting has been a focus of mine since I first received a overgraded coin from a mail order dealer. At twelve years old I knew the coin I received was not very fine at all, but really just a fine knocking it's Krause catalog value from $20 down to $8. In my mind I was cheated out of those $12. I could have returned the coin, the dealer was an advertiser in one of the monthly newsstand publications and I am fairly certain my money would have been refunded. But, I did not return the coin. The disappointment I felt created a motivation to forget and move past this transaction, and this dealer, as soon as possible.


In the following decades I have heard this story repeated many times with only the particular details changing. The names of the dealers, or publications, the coins, and dollar amounts would vary but the core story remained the same. Choice BU coins that are really AU sliders seems to be the most recurring form of this story.


So, why does this go on? The simple answer is that grading subjective and that publisher generally only enforce a return policy. If a buyer believes a coin to be overgraded he can always return it, and this is true. The last twenty years have afforded me some opportunity to invoke certain return policies. Yet, returns are not that common. Complaints to the publishers are even more rare. Once I delivered a complaint about a third party grader in person at one of the ANA conventions and I was told there had not been any other expressed concerns. Besides the natural reluctance many feel toward returning a purchase, there is also the matter of ignorance: some collectors may not be able to tell that their $89 Choice BU Morgan is really an cleaned $20 AU coin. It is my belief that some dealers take advantage of these factors to run a business model with very poor ethics.


How can you protect yourself? The best way to protect yourself is with knowledge and common sense. Learning to distinguish between the different grades, spotting fakes, and damaged coins are all worthwhile skills that will enable you to avoid, or at least return, questionable material. The marketplace has even provided a couple of shortcuts in this regard. There are many dealers who will sell coins properly graded and who will seek to be honest and ethical in every transaction. Companies like PCGS, NGC, ANACS, and ICG have also narrowed the subjectivity and grading and help to avoid some of the extreme abuses.


Should more be done to protect consumers? No one is expected to question whether a gallon of milk is actually 2% milk fat or if a gallon of gas has the appropriate octane rating; so why can it be so hard to buy a coin? Aside from whether an object is real or fake, there isn't a whole lot that is concrete about a collectible coin. Grading is subjective, and while there are some standards, it's not a very easy thing to enforce since the standards to vary and change over time. The same can be said for acceptable levels of cleaning and many of the other characteristic that add value to a coin. Like any profession, there are some bad apples amongst dealers.


My advice is take a few minutes and at least find dealers that other collectors have recommended. People like to share good experiences and there are many wonderful people out there who will treat their customers with the highest standards. When you do run into a bad apple, be sure to get your refund and file any appropriate complaints. When you run into great deal, be sure to spread the word.

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