Advice for Protecting Yourself When Shopping Online
Are you skeptical about shopping online or ordering items through mail-order companies? Well,
there is no reason to be paranoid, as long as you follow these precautions.
1. Always use a credit card. You do not forfeit your rights as a consumer if you pay by cash, but you forfeit the most practical way to enforce those rights. Credit card companies offer procedures for refunding your money if there’s a problem with the product or its delivery.
2. If a product does not arrive as promised or works as advertised, and the vendor will not fulfill
their obligations or comply with your reasonable requests, your best recourse is to inform your credit card company.
Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you have 60 days from the occurrence of the problem in which to report the details,
3. No credit-card company guarantees it will solve every problem or issue a charge-back for every disputed purchase, but the clout of the creditor is often the heaviest weapon you can wield.
4. Get a no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee. It is common for hardware vendors to back
their wares with a 30-day return-for-refund period, although even the most honorable companies may offer less than 30-day guarantees for certain product categories such as notebook PCs. This is a result of consumers taking advantage of vendors by “borrowing” or using products without paying for them.
5. Double-check the details of any money-back guarantee. Many vendors refuse to take back opened software packages, though others, especially those specializing in software, are more accommodating.
6. Clarify whether your refund will include shipping charges.
7. Steer clear of restocking fees. Restocking fees, often 15 to 20 percent of your total purchase
price, can take a big bite out of a money-back return policy. Be sure to ask about the existence and terms of any
restocking policies before you buy.
8. Avoid credit-card surcharges. If an advertisement offers a discount on cash purchases, think
twice. It’s another way of saying that the vendor imposes a surcharge on credit card purchases, inciting you to
violate the No.1 rule of mail order shopping, always use a credit card.
9. Know the details of the warranty and service policy. Learn at whose discretion on-site service
is offered for problems that don’t lend themselves to phone support, whether you must install replacement parts
yourself, who pays for return shipping for major repairs, and whether a loaner system is available during downtime.
10. Clarify delivery terms. Mail order and online merchants are obligated to ship products within
the time period they specify. The agreed-upon time may be precise (e.g., two days) or vague (e.g., between four
and six weeks), but must be finite. If the vendor can’t deliver within that time, it must inform you in writing
of the delay and recommit to another date.
11. You have the right to cancel your order if the delay is unacceptable to you, but you must
reply, silence on your part is deemed acquiescence. There’s no reason for a canceled order in this case to involve
any refund, as a vendor cannot bill you until it ships your goods. Nevertheless, it’s smart to contact your credit
card company at least once a week after ordering to verify that there has been no advance billing.
12. If you ever encounter an early charge, contact the vendor immediately. If it cannot provide
a shipping invoice or air-bill number that you can track, have the charge removed until you’re certain the goods
have been shipped.
13. Accept no substitutes. Before you finalize an order, especially on a PC, have the vendor
send or fax you a detailed list of components. Do not settle for a spec sheet that leaves component choices open.
If you do not get things spelled out, you’ll have little recourse if you do not get what you thought you had ordered.
14. Pay no more than advertised. Pay less, if possible. Give extra points to a vendor who volunteers
to pass along lowered component costs since an ad was printed, or to meet a verifiably lower price from a competitor.
Do not fall for the classic bait-and-switch scheme, in which a product is advertised at an enticingly low price
but the vendor says it’s sold out and pitches a more expensive product in stock.
15. If the product is available, but the vendor says component-cost fluctuations have driven
its price up, it’s your call. Legitimate component increases are not uncommon, but many vendors are willing to
shave their profits and honor their advertised prices rather than pass along their problems to you.
16. Get all sale terms in writing. It is nice to hear all the right answers to your questions
over the phone, but memories of cordial conversations mean nothing if you’re trying to prove yourself in a dispute.
17. For every rule above, you should get the vendor’s position stated in writing. For every vendor
that balks at providing this information, there’s another who’ll be happy to send you documentation of its policies
by mail, fax, or e-mail.
18. Keep track of all your correspondence. This includes copies of your credit card receipts
and confirmation letters, along with the advertisement that may have inspired you to call a particular vendor.
Each time you telephone a vendor, note the date and time, the purpose of the call, and the name of the person with
whom you spoke. If anything should go wrong later, the data you’ve collected will help you reach a resolution.
19. When things go wrong, get going. This advice applies when shopping as well as for post-purchase
problems. If a vendor strikes you as irresponsible, unresponsive, or unprofessional during your initial inquiries,
there’s no reason to believe it’ll do better after you buy.
20. If you follow all these rules and still encounter problems, your first move should be to
inform your credit card company.
21. You can follow up by filing a complaint with the local Better Business Bureau.
22. If you can prove fraud, contact the Postal Inspector of the city in which the vendor has
it’s headquarters. The U.S. Postal Service has legal authority to pursue fraudulent mail-order marketers.
23. Finally, never return a product, in dispute or otherwise, without obtaining a Return Merchandise
Authorization (RMA) code from the vendor. Whenever possible, keep possession of the product until your complaint