Last Updated On: November 7th, 2023
With millions of sports cards graded on an annual basis, it’s not uncommon to hear of poor customer service and a multitude of mistakes occurring through the grading process.
Even a premier grading company with a tiny error rate — due to technology or humans alike — could mean thousands of defects or problem orders.
For example, an error rate of .1%, or 1 in 1,000, equates to 15,000 problems per 1 million cards graded. And rest assured, collectors are keen to share their stories on card forums and social media as soon as they happen.
The good news is that a .1% error rate means most orders will be completed successfully without hiccups. This post is about the times it doesn’t go according to plan. We’ll discuss issues collectors can anticipate before they happen, including:
- poor customer service (the most common issue)
- grading mistakes e.g. fakes passing authenticity checks
- sports cards damaged during grading or shipping
- basic Quality Control problems
- Outright loss or theft of cards (this story will terrify you)
Let’s dive in and go over some tips to be prepared for as many issues as possible.
Table of Contents
We don’t know the true defect rate for PSA, BGS, or any other grading service as they are not in the business of publishing their mistakes for everyone to see. Rather, we hear stories from collectors similar to “bad beats” from poker players (and who can blame them).
The issues we’ll discuss below span from minor annoyances like crappy customer service, quality control defects that can be absorbed without much trouble, and even complete monetary loss. While we won’t categorize them, it’s a good reminder that not all outcomes have the same net impact.
Issues with Card Grading
1. Customer Service Challenges
Providing high-quality customer service seems to be a challenge for 90% of companies. They really suck at it.
When’s the last time you called a customer service department and walked away impressed? Probably one in 10 times at best.
Companies do a horrible job prioritizing customer service at scale. If they start out with five customer service reps to handle 1,000 orders a month, they’re definitely not growing that team to 5,000 reps to handle 1,000,000 orders. The team will max out at 400 reps instead, and it shows in the quality of service received — beginning with poor response times to customer inquiries.
Poor Response Times
Rather than ramping up customer service departments to maintain high-quality service, most companies — including graders — will seek operational efficiency (aka absorbing more business with the same, or less, team members).
Companies seek to cut costs by implementing superficial “frequently asked questions” pages, burying customer service phone numbers behind searchable knowledge bases, and prolonging wait times and response times via phone or email by days (usually business days to avoid replying to you on weekends). Nothing can be more frustrating than the story that follows.
I recently received a 34-card grading order from PSA which returned to me with one of the cards having a chipped slab that now required reslabbing.
PSA gave the card a Gem Mint 10 grade, and the slab appeared to be in fine condition after reviewing the PSA scans when grading was completed. Unfortunately, the slab’s corner was most likely chipped during shipping back to my home.
Not only did this result in a damaged slab, which is an issue we’ll discuss more in the Damaged Cards section, now it required more time to talk with customer service and wait to have the slab reholdered and returned to me.
Under most circumstances, a slab damaged during shipping isn’t really a big deal. But here’s how things unfolded to make matters worse:
- August 25th: Initial inquiry to customer service about the damaged slab.
- 8 calendar days later: no response from customer service, follow-up reply sent.
- 10 calendar days later: no response, 2nd follow-up sent: “Any update on this ticket? 2nd follow-up.”
- 8 calendar days later: no response, 3rd follow-up sent: “Hello? Do you guys even look at tickets anymore?”
- 5 calendar days later, September 25th: customer service finally replies “our sincerest apologies . . .” bla bla bla, please utilize the customer request center and complete a form.
- 3 calendar days later: request granted, slab can be shipped for reholdering.
It took 31 days to get a reply from PSA (after 4 total emails) which boiled down to “sorry” and to submit a form through their CRC for actual support. What!?!
Fortunately once the form was submitted, PSA finally approved a reslab request (at no cost) a few days later and finally got it done. This was just one example of poor customer service that made a relatively simple problem much more frustrating than it needed to be.
It’s no surprise poor customer service is the most common issue faced as it is usually necessary to contact the grader when problems arise. It also doesn’t help that card grading is a subjective service, with no shortage of problems and mistakes to begin with.
2. Grading Mistakes
Most grading mistakes fall into three categories:
- Inconsistent numerical grades
- Cards deemed Altered fresh out of a pack
- Fakes and trimmed cards going undetected
Let’s go through some examples.
Inconsistent Grade Scores
In general, a service like card grading will result in inconsistencies with how different graders perceive the quality of a card to be — again, it’s subjective.
Ever watch Major League Baseball and notice how umpires miss calls? According to Sports Illustrated:
On average major league umpires get about 93% to 94% of calls correct. The very best top out at 96% while the worst come in around 91%.
Sounds familiar to the defect rate we talked about earlier, right?
When receiving a final grade score, some tolerance should be allowed for the nuance in grading, at least until all grading is purely technology driven. What you’d expect to be a margin of error that is within the boundaries of reasonable is anything but.
So what constitutes a reasonable ‘miss’ for grading? Is it one whole grading point? For example, a card that looks to be a PSA 9 Mint comes back as a PSA 8 NM-MT instead. What about two whole points?
Instagram user @dbcollectibles23 had a 2021 T-Law Optic Red Mojo rookie card come back from grading as a PSA 8, only to crack and resubmit the same card to receive a PSA 10 the second time around. The difference in value between the grades is absurd.
While no PSA 8 sale has been recorded recently, a PSA 9 Mint T-Law goes for $120, and a Gem Mint 10 grade jumps to $375 as of September, 2023. The PSA 8 would likely sell under $75, which makes this a multi-hundred dollar error by PSA. In the same grading order, the IG user would crack and resubmit a Jose Adolis Garcia card that went from PSA 7 to PSA 9 Mint.
The moral of the story: there are no guarantees your card(s) will come back with the grade you expect — at least the first time around. That said, there are some guarantees in the event you purchase a card that is overgraded, or downright fake.
Cards Deemed Altered Fresh out of a Pack
One of the more egregious issues with card grading — outside of losing your cards entirely, which is a story you don’t want to miss — is when a pack-pulled card comes back as having been altered. Any card considered altered is automatically in the penalty box and worth severely less than it would be with a numeric grade. The reason is that many collectors do not want a card that is considered trimmed, colored, or modified in any way.
Imagine pulling a card in a group box break, only to submit it to BGS for grading and receive an altered designation back in return. It’s a confusing result, and yet another inconsistency with grading companies. Here’s Blowoutforums user jgyankee23’s inquiry:
One of the cards in the sub, the best card actually (Bowman Draft auto of prominent prospect), got rejected and wasn’t graded due to BGS’ determination that it was altered. I have video, since I hit it in a break, of the card being taken from the pack in a group break. It wasn’t altered in any way. Although I offered to show them the video, BGS won’t even refund the grading fee despite the fact that it was not altered. Not even sure why they think it was. They won’t tell me. Has anyone had this happen? Should I ask Topps for a replacement?jgyankee23 via Blowoutforums
Further down in the thread, user Dsizzle31 shares a similar story, stating “I sent in a Brendan Rodgers 2015 purple refractor auto a couple years ago. It came back altered. I sent it in again on my next submission and it got a 9.5.”
If a grading company detects a card as altered even fresh out of a pack, it could signal something is particularly off about that card straight from the factory when compared with other examples of the same card. This would be fine, even if somewhat debatable and unfortunate. But what’s particularly strange is the inconsistency when submitting the card back to the same grading company, only to get a completely different result. WTH?
Fake and Trimmed Cards Deemed Authentic
Most of the issues we have covered so far revolve around submitting cards for grading and getting inconsistent results back that can have huge impacts on value.
How about when graders authenticate a fake card by mistake? Or a trimmed and altered card? Of all the issues with card grading, this one is more of a problem for collectors who are looking to buy already-graded slabs.
As we mentioned earlier, many grading orders will complete successfully without any problems. This post is not intended to bash card grading companies (even though there is a ton of room for improvement), but actually put a spotlight on issues collectors can encounter through the process.
Knowing that fake or altered cards can make it through grading is one of the scariest, and costliest issues for would-be buyers.
Check out several examples of the famous 1952 Topps Mantle card altered, trimmed, and flipped for thousands of dollars in profit.
If you really want to be spooked, there are also examples of high-end ’90s cards (e.g. Star Rubies, PMGs, and Rave inserts) which have been counterfeited and graded by the biggest grading companies in the hobby. PSA fortunately offers a financial guarantee for some protection, as does CGC in the event they make a horrendous mistake. BGS, and SGC, however, side-step warranty or accountability.
Pro Tip: When targeting high-end cards, or cards known to be counterfeited in the marketplace, be weary of deals that are too good to be true, or at the very least not protected by services like eBay’s authenticity program. Fortunately even marketplaces like MySlabs accept PayPal goods & services, which you can use to buy sports cards and receive buyer protection.
3. Damaged Cards
It’s undeniable any process which requires some form of handling — whether by humans or technology — will result in the occasional collateral damage.
Damage issues with card grading include those that occur during grading, or after grading upon shipment.
Damage Incurred During Grading
Your cards can be damaged during grading beginning at any point from when they are taken out of a Card Saver, as they’re being authenticated, and even when they are encapsulated. Take for example, Brendan, a user at Elite Fourum who recently wrote about an email they received from PSA about a card that “incurred damage during our sealing process . . . .”
Pro Tip: Take high-quality photos or scans of cards you’re sending in for grading so that you can dispute any damage incurred while in the grading company’s possession. Also, ensure the monetary value you enter on card grading submission forms is the actual value of the card, and what you would be happy to receive as compensation in the event your card is damaged, lost, or stolen. No takesies-backsies.
Damage Incurred Upon Shipment
Earlier we discussed the poor customer service example where a card that gemmed incurred damage to the corner of the slab during shipping.
The good news is that the card pictured was reslabbed at no additional cost. The (potential) bad news is if the crack in the slab occurred across the card surface rather than the corner, it would have been necessary for the grading company to reassess the card grade — this has obvious downside implications in the event the card incurred real damage.
4. Quality Control Issues
Even when grading goes smoothly, the card slab can have scuffs, particles on the inside, or incorrect labels or slips sliding around the day you receive your grading order.
Most grading companies perform quality assurance verification steps during the process, but there are no guarantees they’ll catch every problem.
Particles Inside Slab
A common issue with encapsulated cards is rather benign, but annoying. Take a look at what Blowoutforums user Blongley calls the “1/1 Luka lint card“:
The Luka is encased in a PSA slab, and was not inspected thoroughly during the Quality Assurance stage “for imperfections with the holders and labels. If any loose material is spotted inside the holder, a mislabeling is detected, or any other changes are required, the card is returned to the Sealing Department.”
CGC grading also includes Quality Control as step 7 of their process:
A CGC Cards Quality Control Specialist carefully inspects the card, label and holder. All of the certification details are reviewed for accuracy, and the holder is checked for any defects or contaminants.CGC Grading Process
Pro Tip: If you spot a defect with your graded card slab, report the issue with the grading company ASAP. For example, PSA requests “that in all instances, you as the customer have 5 (five) days from the date your item is delivered to report any perceived quality assurance issues to PSA, preferably here, through the Customer Request Center.”
BGS Slips Shuffling
BGS is notorious for creating slab labels that can shift around with a gentle shake. We’ve already covered this topic as a reason for reholdering a slab, as many buyers hate the idea of a defective slab even if it’s just a cosmetic snafu.
5. Loss or Theft
Any collector would happily accept a BGS label that shifts (or the 1/1 Luka lint rookie) if they had the choice between that, and a lost or stolen collectible.
We saved the worst for last with one horrible card grading experience that includes terrible customer service, complete loss of a multi-thousand dollar Pokémon card, and no attempt from Beckett (BGS) to make it right. The following case is from personal experience, and frankly, is one of the primary reasons we decided to write this post.
The Charizard pictured was sent in as part of two orders in one box which was delivered to Beckett’s grading service in July, 2020. It was mailed using USPS registered mail with a declared value of $17,000 for the whole package.
BGS received the package, and confirmed the inclusion of the first order in the package: a 17-card basketball (non-gaming) grading order. What they did not confirm, is the receipt of the single gaming card order (the Charizard) submitted for a regrade to obtain subgrades.
The Charizard submission form is included below, which only included the one card:
To make a long story short, BGS claims the card was not in the package, that they video record unboxing of all deliveries but refused to share it with me, and stopped replying to my calls, emails, and escalations to management entirely. Even a Better Business Bureau complaint, along with a formal complaint to the Federal Trade Commission didn’t get BGS to own up to their mistake — either that they lost the card during the pandemic volume backlog, or that it was possibly stolen by internal staff.
That’s a $7,000 loss at the time the card’s value was declared, and sent to BGS. Over the course of the following year, BGS would finally complete the basketball card order in July, 2021, while continuing to deny the existence of the Charizard. Meanwhile, the lizard card boomed to over $60,000 in October, 2020! It last sold for $15,600 in August, 2023, according to CardLadder. Talk about a monumental mistake, and horrible service (even horrible sounds like a drastic understatement).
Pro Tip: when putting together a higher value grading order, don’t make the mistake of taking pictures alone. You’ll want to record video of the cards being secured, and sealed into the shipping box. Place the shipping label on the box and record all six sides to show its shape and form entirely before shipment.
Recorded video will serve as irrefutable evidence of what was put inside and how it was sent to the grading company so that it becomes their responsibility from the moment it leaves your hands (or the shipping courier’s responsibility as middleman).
Along the same lines, be sure to protect the shipment with enough insurance coverage.
Summary & Helpful Tips to Avoid Major Problems
While the sports card industry relies on grading companies to deliver a valuable service, it’s possible to experience issues with card grading like inconsistent grade scores, card loss or damage, subpar quality control, and horrible customer service when it’s really needed most.
There are simply no guarantees. Follow the tips mentioned throughout this post and summarized below to CYA:
- If you spot a defect with your graded card slab, report the issue with the grading company ASAP (e.g. PSA wants to hear from you within 5 days of delivery)
- Be weary of fakes in the marketplace, including deals that appear too good to be true
- As a buyer, take advantage of services like eBay’s authenticity program, and PayPal goods & services for buyer protection
- Take high-quality photos/scans of cards sent for grading so that any damage incurred can be disputed successfully
- Record high-quality video when packing your grading submission to serve as evidence of the contents included in the package
- Buy adequate shipping insurance coverage to cover your collectibles in the event of loss or theft on the way to the grader