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Problems with Online Shopping

Purchasing goods from the comfort of your own living room certainly is more convenient than actually driving to a store, while offering a virtually unlimited array of choices and the ability to compare prices. While online payment and security technology have come a long way, you still may experience problems with online shopping from time to time. This article covers some of the more common issues, such as getting the wrong item or falling prey to online scams, and ways to minimize these potential pitfalls.

See FindLaw's Consumer Transactions and Online Scams subsections for related content, including Paying Online for Goods, Privacy and Online Shopping, and How Do I Shop Safely Online?

What If I Don't Get What I Ordered?

If the item you received is not the item listed as purchased, the seller is responsible for either correcting the error (at no extra charge) or refunding your money, but online retailers may have different approaches. There may be information about resolving this type of dispute in the "disclaimers" or "legal terms" portion of the customer contract, or you can usually call or email the company for details.

Most online vendors understand that customer service can make or break their business and will try to fix the problem quickly. Some will reimburse you for the cost of return shipping if it is the company's fault; but you may still have to pay for shipping upfront, since they must confirm the error first. However, with online auction sites, the process is less clear because these sites typically only serve to connect buyers and sellers. Sometimes auction sites create an online process for resolving disputes over delivery of goods and may serve as an intermediary in the process.

However, when you buy something online from an individual vendor, perhaps through Craigslist or a similar service, it could prove very difficult to resolve such an issue if the seller is acting in bad faith or otherwise not responsive.

What If I Received Merchandise I Did Not Order?

If you received a product that you never ordered, you have the right to keep it as a gift, according to the Federal Trade Commission. This means the seller cannot demand that you pay for the product. You may, however, notify the seller and offer to return the good if the seller agrees to pay for shipping. 

It is a completely different situation if the good was addressed to someone else but the mailperson delivered it to your address. In that case, you should either deliver it yourself or put a note on the package that simply says "wrong address" and put it back in your mailbox. 

What If My Order Never Arrives?

Federal law (the Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule) requires retailers that process orders by mail, telephone, or the Internet ship items within 30 days. If a seller cannot ship within the promised time, the seller must obtain the buyer’s consent to a delay in shipping or refund payment for the unshipped merchandise. If the seller can’t meet the revised shipping date, it must notify you again by mail, email or telephone and give you a new shipping date or cancel your order and give you a refund. The order should be canceled and a refund issued promptly unless you indicate by the revised shipping date that you are willing to wait. Likewise, retailers are required by law to explain your right to a full refund for undelivered goods.

Likewise, the Fair Credit Billing Act protects you from being billed for items that are not delivered, but nevertheless charged to your credit card. If the online vendor is unwilling or unable to help you, or denies your claim that the item was never delivered, you may write to your credit card issuer's billing inquiries department about the problem. Make sure you send it within 60 days after the bill with the errant charge (specifically, the charge for an item not received) was sent. See the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC's) Billed for Merchandise You Never Received? Here's What to Do for a step-by-step guide on resolving this common problem with online shopping.

If an item purchased through an auction site does not arrive, auction sites typically suggest first contacting the seller, who can provide shipping and tracking information; give you a full refund; or offer to send a replacement.

Sometimes items are shipped but delivered to the wrong address; stolen from the porch; or inadvertently left in a hidden spot (such as an alleyway or by a seldom-used side door). Again, this often comes down to customer service, and major online retailers may be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt in such a situation.

Are There Special Concerns When Buying from Foreign Companies?

Problems with online shopping can be especially difficult to resolve if the seller is located in a foreign country. Before you order, you will want to know how the item is priced and when it is converted to U.S. dollars (if listed in a different currency); whether the retailer will ship to other countries; the likely length of time it will take to fulfill the order; any applicable special duties or taxes.

If there are problems with your order, such as getting the wrong item, most vendors require you to resolve the dispute in their local court. So is it worth traveling to Switzerland, for example, to assert your claim that you were sent the wrong Swiss Army Knife? A safer alternative may be to look for a U.S. reseller who offers the same items.

As a general rule, though, you should approach international online orders with caution.

Are There Any Scams I Should Watch Out For When Buying Online?

In addition to general problems with online shopping pertaining to legitimate retailers, you also need to be aware of the various kinds of scams targeting online consumers. Some suggestions for avoiding scams are listed below:

  • Beware of "Gray Market" Items: So-called gray market goods may be either illegal in the U.S., sold in a way that sidesteps regulations, or unintended for the U.S. market. You may get something that doesn't work properly or which has instructions in another language. Also, gray market merchandise typically lacks a U.S. warranty.
  • Be Skeptical of Service Contracts: Extended-service packages from retailers or third parties usually are overpriced and generally are not a good value.
  • Make Sure You Understand Shipping Charges: A retailer may try to squeeze a profit from heavily discounted items by tacking on an extremely high shipping rate, most of it not actually used for shipping.
  • Know How to Spot the "U.S. Warranty" Scam: Sometimes gray market goods are sold with a warranty provided by a third party, but described only as a "U.S. warranty." This is not the same as a manufacturer's warranty and typically provides an inferior level of protection.

Other online scams include phishing and spoofing and identity theft (which is not limited to the Internet). Consider speaking with a consumer protection lawyer if you are unable to resolve one or more problems with online shopping.

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