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From billing errors to wrong shipments to poor customer service, merchant mistakes are bound to happen. Learn about the process you should follow should you have a complaint against a marketer and about certain agencies and/or organizations that are available to help you.
- The Federal Trade Commission. The FTC is a federal government agency that enforces many federal antitrust and consumer protection laws. You can find a great deal of information about your rights as a consumer by visiting the FTC website.
- NEW! OnGuardOnline.gov Website -The federal government and the technology industry have teamed up to prepare straightforward, plain-language materials that you can use to help computer users be on guard against Internet fraud, secure their computers, and protect their personal information.
- The Federal Communications Commission. The FCC is a federal government agency that regulates interstate, international and in some instances intrastate communications relating to television, radio, satellite, wire and cable. You can obtain more information by visiting the FCC Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau.
- U.S. Postal Inspection Service. To obtain tips on how to avoid being the victim of a fraudulent promotional offer sent by the mail you can view the United States Postal Services Consumer and Business Guide to Preventing Mail Fraud. There are other informational guides found at that site.
- ‘Lectric Law Library. You also can visit the Consumer Rights and Protection area of The 'Lectric Law Library. This site contains the same information as the FTC site, but in a handy format organized by question subjects. The site includes general information and tips on spotting swindles and scams.
- Better Business Bureau. The BBB is a private, non-profit organization developed to monitor and report marketplace activities to the public. BBBs are licensed by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. BBBs can help solve consumer problems. They cannot, however, force a solution or administer sanctions on parties to a dispute because they are a group of private, non-profit organizations. Most BBBs offer mediation and arbitration to help resolve consumer disputes. BBBs work for an ethical marketplace by maintaining standards for truthful advertising, investigating and exposing fraud against consumers and businesses and providing information to consumers before they purchase products and services. BBBOnline found is another resource providing instant access to business and consumer alerts as well as helpful resources.
- U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The CPSC is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from more than 15,000 types of consumer products under the agency's jurisdiction. The CPSC is committed to protecting consumers and families from products that pose a fire, electrical, chemical, or mechanical hazard or can injure children. The CPSC's work to ensure the safety of consumer products - such as toys, cribs, power tools, cigarette lighters, and household chemicals - contributed significantly to the 30 percent decline in the rate of deaths and injuries associated with consumer products over the past 30 years. You can obtain more information about the CPSC.
What to Expect and Look For When Ordering
- Know the Seller
- Shop with companies you trust. If a company is unfamiliar, check its complaint records with your state or local consumer protection agency and your local Better Business Bureau.
- Secured Connection
- Make sure all transactions are Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) enabled and encrypted. SSL has become the universally accepted method for providing secure communications on the Internet. Before entering personal information, be sure the padlock at the top or bottom of your browser is closed and locked.
Keep your eye open for some crucial information that all reputable companies should offer and display:
- Contact Information
- Always look for a physical address for the company, as well as a telephone number. If the only form of correspondence a company gives you is an e-mail address, you may want to shop elsewhere.
- Return/Exchange Policies
- Never expect your order or product to be perfect. What happens if you don't like your new sweater after all? What if you accidentally ordered the wrong size? Always look for a company's return and exchange policy before you place your order. If you make a purchase, you are agreeing to the terms outlined by the company. Also keep your eye open for a satisfaction policy, which is another incentive to do business with a company. Note that many products, like CDs, can't be returned if they are opened.
- Know when to expect your product, and what will happen if it's out of stock. Also know what shipping options you have, and what they all will cost you.
- Additional Charges
- Keep an eye on smaller charges that will creep into your bill: sales tax, processing fees, insurance options and membership dues are just a few of the fees that you may not notice at first.
- Keep Records
- Keep a record of everything from the moment of purchase (order number, etc.), and especially from the moment you notice a problem. Keep records of all stages of a dispute with a merchant. Write down names of all people you speak with, their title and the date and time you spoke with them and what they told you. Presenting these facts later will provide you with a solid foundation. With online orders, print out all order forms, order numbers and policies. Have a record of all important information at the time you purchase it. Sites can change things after you visit them.
- Contact the merchant immediately, and clearly state your problem. Keep a positive attitude, and be polite: Many merchants will immediately fix the problem upon hearing of it. Know whom to contact if you need help, and prepare to send them copies of your correspondence.
Who Can Help
In the event of a dispute you should always contact the merchant directly and present your problem. With the facts presented clearly often the dispute can be resolved quickly and amicably. However, when disputes aren't easily resolved by a simple letter, email or phone call, there is more you can do. If merchants are not responsive to your calls and letters for a product or service problem, you can contact your state and local consumer protection offices, your local Better Business Bureau, your state Attorney General, the FTC, the FCC or the United States Postal Service.
Better Business Bureau
The Better Business Bureau has a dispute resolution division. It provides national dispute resolution services to large corporations and their customers in partnership with the BBB system, develops and promotes BBB dispute resolution programs, and offers specialized training in conciliation, mediation, arbitration and related conflict resolution techniques. You can file a complaint using an online form at the Better Business Bureau website. The BBB recommends you attempt to resolve your complaint directly with the company first. If you are still not satisfied after contacting the company, the BBB will try to assist you. Note that the BBB does not take sides in any dispute, but works to facilitate communication between the company and the consumer and help both sides come to a satisfactory resolution to the complaint. In many cases, dispute resolution, including mediation and arbitration, may be available to help resolve the dispute.
The Federal Trade Commission
You can file a complaint with the FTC by contacting the consumer response center by phone: toll-free (877) FTC-HELP (382-4357). By mail, write: Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20580. Through the Internet, use the online complaint form. Although the Commission cannot resolve individual problems for consumers, it can act against a company if it sees a pattern of possible law violations.
Federal Communications Commission
The FCC regulates television, radio, wire, satellite and cable in all of the 50 states and U.S. territories. Within the FCC the Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau interacts with consumers by responding directly to their inquiries and complaints and by conducting information and education campaigns. To file a complaint go to www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumers.
United States Postal Inspection Service
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is the law enforcement branch of the U.S. Postal Service. Postal Inspectors investigate any crime in which the U.S. mail is used to further a scheme, whether it originated in the mail, by telephone or on the Internet. The use of the U.S. mail is what makes it a mail fraud issue. If evidence of a postal-related violation exists, postal inspectors may seek action against a violator; however, if money is lost to a fraudulent scheme conducted through the mail, Inspectors do not have the authority to ensure you will be refunded your loss. However, postal inspectors base their investigations of mail fraud on the number, pattern and substance of complaints received from the public and therefore are interested in your concerns. If you feel you've been victimized in a mail fraud scheme that in any way involves the U.S. Mail, submit a Mail Fraud Complaint Form to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
United States Attorney General/State Consumer Protection Agencies
As chief legal officers of the states, commonwealths and territories of the United States, these attorneys general serve as counselors to state government agencies and legislatures, and as representatives of the public interest. It is often said that attorneys general occupy the intersection of law and public policy, dealing in issues as diverse as child support enforcement, drug policy and environmental protection. State consumer protection offices also provide consumers with important services. They might mediate complaints, conduct investigations, prosecute offenders of consumer laws, license and regulate a variety of professionals, promote strong consumer protection legislation, provide educational materials and advocate in the consumer interest. State offices, sometimes in a separate department of consumer affairs or the attorney general's or governor's office, are familiar with state laws and look for statewide patterns of problems. View a quick guide to state Attorneys General offices.
The FTC states that a company should ship your order within the time stated in its advertisements. If no time is promised, the company should ship your order within 30 days after receiving it. If the company is unable to ship within the promised time, they must give you an option notice, giving you the choice of agreeing to the delay or canceling your order and receiving a prompt refund. One exception to the 30-day rule: If a company doesn't promise a shipping time, and you're applying for credit to pay for your purchase, the company has 50 days to ship after receiving your order.
Returns / Exchanges
If you order a product, you have the right to assume it is not defective and that it wasn't falsely advertised. If you receive an item and feel you have been slighted, you have the right to return or exchange it for an item of equal value. Most common mistakes can occur with size and color. These are usually resolved easily, and if a company made a mistake, they should allow you to exchange the item. Many times you also may have the option of returning something for a credit slip, which would allow you to purchase something else later. Keep in mind, however, that some items may be sold under a "no return, no exchange" policy. Check before you order; retailers are required to explicitly state their policy.
What If I Just Changed My Mind?
FTC's Cooling-Off Rule is a protection provided for door-to-door sales. It gives you three days to cancel purchases of $25 or more made at your home, workplace or dormitory, or at facilities rented by the seller on a temporary short-term basis, such as hotel or motel rooms, convention centers, fairgrounds and restaurants. Many exceptions exist, however; it does not cover purchases made entirely by phone, mail or online.
If you receive merchandise that you didn't order, you have a legal right to keep it as a free gift. According to the Federal Trade Commission, you don't have to pay for it. Federal laws prohibit mailing unordered merchandise to consumers and then demanding payment. You also have no legal obligation to notify the seller. But the FTC notes that it is a good idea to write the company and let it know you didn't order the item and that intend to exercise your right to keep it for free. This may discourage the seller from sending you bills, or it may help clear up an honest error. The FTC recommends you send your letter by certified mail, and keep the return receipt and a copy of the letter for your records.
If the unordered merchandise you received was the result of an honest shipping error, the FTC recommends you offer to return the merchandise, provided the seller pays for postage and handling. Give the seller a specific and reasonable amount of time (about 30 days) to pick up the merchandise or arrange to have it returned at no expense to you. Tell the seller that you reserve the right to keep the merchandise or dispose of it after the specified time has passed.
Credit/Debit Card Disputes & Protection
The law protects you when you use your charge or debit card to pay for purchases whether electronically, by phone, mail or in the store. The Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) allows you to challenge a billing error (whether for an incorrect amount or for an item you didn't purchase) without paying the charge during the dispute period. To be protected under the FCBA, you must write to the creditor at the special address indicated on the monthly statement for billing inquiries. The FTC advises including your name, address and credit card number, and describe the billing error with a copy of your statement. Your letter must reach the creditor within 60 days after the first bill containing the error was mailed to you. The creditor must acknowledge your complaint in writing within 30 days after receiving it, unless the problem has been resolved. The creditor must resolve the dispute within two billing cycles (but not more than 90 days) after receiving your letter (it's recommended that you send it via certified mail, return receipt requested). Under the FCBA, your liability for lost or stolen credit cards is limited to $50.
Your rights under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA) are similar to the FCBA, but apply to transactions involving debit cards (and other electronic transactions that result in the withdrawal of cash from your bank account). If there is a mistake or unauthorized withdrawal from your bank account through use of your debit card (or electronic fund transfer), you must notify your bank within 60 days of the error. Report your findings via written notice in a similar manner to the FCBA. For retail purchases, the bank has 20 days to investigate the matter, and three business days upon the completion of the investigation to report their finding to you. Under the EFTA, your liability for unauthorized use of your debit card is from $50 to $500, depending on when you report the loss or theft. (If you don't report an unauthorized transfer or withdrawal within 60 days after your statement is sent to you, you risk unlimited loss.) To be certain of your rights, ask your bank about its liability limits.
- Overview and Issues
- Self Regulation
- Industry Guidelines
- Consumer Information
- Copy Review Service