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Consumer Diary: Bonsai Order Scam

Digital ads for beautiful bonsai trees – with no explicit notice that for $60 you’ll purchase 5 packets of seeds – not 5 little trees, and you’ll try to grow your own trees: Not what a lot of customers expected. Courtesy image

Consumer columnist and West Hartford resident Harlan Levy has more than 20 years of experience writing stories about everyday experiences that anyone could encounter.

By Harlan Levy

This is a tale of trees and a failure of international relations.

Before we returned from our recent superlative trip to Japan – and after an inspiring, peaceful traditional tea ceremony – my wife hankered to bring home a vestige of the delicate cherry blossoms we had seen. So, before our departure, and from a digital ad by a company called Spirit of Japan, she ordered five bonsai trees – or what she thought were trees.

Three weeks later, she received a little padded envelope in the mail smaller than the palm of her hand.

Here’s the small package (5”x6”) of seeds and one of the five seed packets … no trees, as ordered. Photo credit: Harlan Levy

“At first I could not fathom what it possibly was,” she recalled before opening five plastic bags of seeds in the package. She immediately wrote the seller to complain.

“I was under the distinct impression that I had purchased five small bonsai trees from you – three little Japanese Sakura/cherry blossom trees and two wisteria,” she wrote. “All that I received were five tiny packets of seeds. Are you serious?”

She continued, “I am an honest person – a mother and grandmother – who had looked forward to giving some of those little trees to my daughter and daughter-in-law for Mother’s Day. Instead, I feel deeply disappointed and deceived. You should at least have the common decency to take this pitiful order back and return my payment.”

Digital ads for beautiful bonsai trees – with no explicit notice that for $60 you’ll purchase 5 packets of seeds – not 5 little trees, and you’ll try to grow your own trees: Not what a lot of customers expected. Courtesy image

In fact, the photos on the website had only displayed artfully sculpted actual bonsai trees in attractive little pots. No seeds were shown, nor was the word “seed” even mentioned anywhere.

“I have neither the desire nor the gardening ability to try to grow trees from a little packet of seeds,” she wrote. “On top of that, I certainly never, ever, EVER would have paid $59 for a mere handful of seeds!”

Digital ads for beautiful bonsai trees – with no explicit notice that for $60 you’ll purchase 5 packets of seeds – not 5 little trees, and you’ll try to grow your own trees: Not what a lot of customers expected. Courtesy image

Angry at being duped, she searched for online reviews of the company and found scores of other customers with similar reactions. “They also believed that they were ordering actual bonsai trees, not just seeds,” she wrote, adding, “Many noted that they had made an effort to plant the seeds anyway, but invariably they had no luck. The seeds would not actually sprout.”

After waiting a few days in vain for a reply, she decided to challenge the charge with PayPal, through which she had made the purchase.

Two weeks after filing a copy of her original written complaint, plus links and photos to back it up, she got a reply from PayPal requesting more details. Exasperated, she decided to call rather than writing yet again.

“If I wanted seeds, I would have ordered one packet, not five,” she told Jasmine, a soft-spoken PayPal customer service rep with a distinctly Japanese accent. “I really feel they have taken advantage of me, wouldn’t you agree?”

Jasmine seemed to be sympathetic, but said no details my wife had sent appeared in the online record of the case. So my wife spent nearly an hour repeatedly sending them along with the photos.

Digital ads for beautiful bonsai trees – with no explicit notice that for $60 you’ll purchase 5 packets of seeds – not 5 little trees, and you’ll try to grow your own trees: Not what a lot of customers expected. Courtesy image

She also sent Jasmine eight similar customer complaints, all noting that the merchant had never responded to them either. Finally, after putting my wife on a very lengthy hold while she researched the Spirit of Japan website, Jasmine came back on and told my wife she did not agree. She felt it had been clear that these were just seeds, not trees, not to mention that actual bonsai trees would have cost considerably more.

My wife, incredulous, continued to protest. “Who even grows bonsai trees from seeds anyway?” she eventually exclaimed.

“I do,” Jasmine replied. It turned out to be her favorite pastime. She had a large collection, all grown from the ground up. But being in customer service and not wanting to leave a customer as vocal as my wife dissatisfied with PayPal, she quickly offered a very reasonable solution. She would give my wife an online voucher to spend the full $59.95 she had paid for the seeds on anything else she wished to buy through PayPal.

My wife was completely satisfied.

Two weeks later PayPal sent her an update, reporting that Spirit Of Japan had now agreed to refund her payment in full – if she returned the seeds in their pouches in “pristine” condition back to the company in Kyoto, Japan. My wife was not keen to do that.

“It would cost at least $25, if not more, to send the seeds back,” she said. “And why would I want to? I already had my money back.”

She called PayPal and was assured the return was not necessary.

One head-shaking detail about her dealings with PayPal amazed her.

“I’ve only called PayPal twice in my life,” she told me. “The first time, by total chance, I reached one of my best friends’ daughter’s boyfriend, who evidently works in their customer service department. This time I got Jasmine, the only person on earth who actually raises bonsai trees from seeds! She wasn’t only unsympathetic to my plight, but also to my lack of gardening skills!” [Ed. Note: Not true. She planted all the vegetables on our deck this year, and together we planted all our tulips on our front walkway.]

Lessons: Don’t take no for an answer. Stick to your guns (but don’t use them). Also, read ads very carefully and reviews even more so before ordering, and question a seller about any ambiguity. Finally be careful ordering from Asian sellers. Returns may be impossible.

NOTE: If you have a consumer problem, contact me at [email protected] (“Consumer” in subject line), and, with the power of the press, maybe I can help.

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