Over the Internet, by telephone or by mail, consumers now range far beyond their local shopping malls. The advantages of catalog and online shopping, in terms of selection and convenience, are obvious. But there are dangers as well. With a few precautions, however, you can shop safely.
Although many companies also accept checks and money orders, most online and catalog sales are made by credit card. There are advantages to using a credit card. Most importantly, it is easier to dispute charges you paid to a seller with a credit card if the goods are not delivered or they were misrepresented.
Keep in mind that seeing a picture or reading a description of an item is not the same as inspecting the product in person. Since many catalogs contain enlarged pictures of items, check the text of the advertisement to be sure of the actual size of the item.
Be aware that it is more difficult to judge the quality of the product when you cannot handle it or see it or test it in person. The quality may be lower than it appears in the ad. This is particularly true of off-brand merchandise. Find out if the same product is sold locally so you can see if the quality meets your expectations.
Check the company's policy on returning merchandise, particularly if you are buying an item, such as clothing or shoes, that may or may not fit as you expect.
The performance of the product may not match the ad's claims. Weight-loss, curative, nutritional and body-enhancing products are especially notorious for misrepresentations. The more outrageous the claim, the more likely the product will not live up to it.
Make sure you will receive everything that is pictured. Often several items are shown in the photograph but only one or two of them are actually sent to you. Double-check the text of the ad before ordering to see if it lists exactly what you are paying for; don't rely on the picture alone.
Be realistic! Someone who offers a product for a much lower price than everyone else may be selling a cheap knock-off that you will be disappointed with.
Under federal law, you must receive merchandise you ordered from a catalog within a reasonable time after placing your order. If the seller cannot ship on time, you have the right to cancel. If the seller advertises a six-week wait, that is a reasonable time. Generally, if the seller does not state a delivery time, 30 days is considered reasonable.
If your shipment is delayed, the company must notify you of the new delivery date and allow you to cancel the order if you choose not to wait the extra time. If you have already paid for the product with cash, check or money order, the seller has seven days to refund your money. If you bought on credit, the seller has one billing cycle to adjust your account.
If the seller is unable to ship within the promised time period the products you ordered, the law requires the seller to notify you of your right to cancel the order. The company must send you a postage-paid business-reply envelope or provide a toll-free number so that you can cancel your order or inform the seller that you still want the product.
If the company informs you that it cannot promise you a definite shipping date, you should cancel your order. Even if you consent to an indefinite delay, you still have the right to cancel the order if 30 days pass and you have not received the order.
When you enter your credit card or other personally identifying information, check to make sure you are using a secure server. Look in the location bar for "https://" instead of "http://." The "S" means secure.
Understand how online auctions work: the auction generally does not verify or stand behind the merchandise being sold or the veracity of representations made about the merchandise. However, a respectable online auction will make an effort to look into alleged abuses. You should report your complaint.
Be extremely cautious about clicking on ads you see on the Internet, even on well known sites. Websites that sell advertising space do not generally endorse advertisers or the claims they make or the products they advertise.
The Internet is largely unregulated. Crooks can set up sites that look like they sell products or collect money for charities when in fact all they do is collect credit card numbers, take the money and run. When buying from a company you never heard of, look for a physical address on their website and try to obtain some independent information about the company before making an order.
The best way to protect yourself from a host of scams and swindles is simply never to respond to unsolicited offers. This means that you should never purchase something offered by SPAM - an email from a stranger or a company you never heard of.
You should also be skeptical of telemarketers, strangers who call you with offers. Even if the caller identifies with a company you trust and an offer you find interesting, be skeptical. Hang up and call the company yourself, using a number you find for yourself, to make sure you are talking to the real company.