Online Shopping HELP This Holiday Season

Supply chain woes and scammers mean you have to be on high alert this holiday. Here’s how.

Social media has never been as good a friend to you as it will be this holiday shopping season. That’s because it will be your first line of defense in disputing online orders — orders delayed by the sluggish supply chain or by incompetent customer service.

I’ve always taught consumers to use the companies’ social media platforms to calmly, professionally and clearly express their frustrations. Your complaint via social media has power — because it’s public. “Companies monitor social media and may reply if they see you’re dissatisfied with their response to your complaint,” said Alvaro Puig, consumer education specialist for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

There are also third-parties who can help mediate disputes between consumers and companies. Besides the Better Business Bureau, I also recommend GetHuman.com. It has an excellent track record in helping consumers “get a human,” someone real and in charge who can resolve their complaints. For lowering or negotiating lower monthly bills on everything from internet charges to utilities, I recommend BillFixers.com.

Puig and the FTC maintain that the retail industry — both in-store and online — must honor a rule (not a law, but a rule) as it relates to mail, online or telephone transactions and the delivery of products ordered in those transactions. The FTC calls it the merchandise rule. The commission breaks the rule down into four categories: shipping dates, delays, more delays and refunds:

  • SHIPPING DATES. A shipper must ship your item within the time it says it will. If not, it has to ship your order within 30 days of the time you placed it. The clock starts when the seller acknowledges receiving your order.
  • DELAYS. If the shipper cannot deliver your merchandise on time, it must tell you so and immediately give you both a new shipping date AND the opportunity to cancel for a full refund. YOU MUST RESPOND IN ORDER TO BENEFIT FROM THE RULE. That may sound obvious, but you don’t know how many times I’ve mediated a complaint where the consumer just stopped communicating — or never replied in the first place! — to articulate what he or she expected. The consumer just contacted me first instead of initiating his or her own dialogue with the company.
  • MORE DELAYS. If the seller can’t honor the new shipping date, it must notify you with a choice: either another shipping date or the cancellation of your order with a full refund. Again: you must respond.
  • REFUNDS. If you paid by cash, check, money order or credit card, the seller must give you a full refund within seven business days of the cancellation.

Which brings to mind one of my other rules about online shopping: always use a CREDIT card. You have built-in protections with a credit card. Under federal law, you’re never liable for more than $50 of any disputed credit card charge. The law doesn’t even matter anymore because virtually all competitive VISA, MasterCard, Discover Card and American Express cards offer zero liability as a standard feature. If you dispute a credit card charge, you WILL be credited that charge. Trust me. On the other hand, if you’re using your debit card online, you’re exposing your checking account — your cash — to cyber crooks and incompetent customer service. It’s a lot easier (and instant) to dispute a credit charge than it is to beg your bank to help you replenish cash lost from your bank account.

The Better Business Bureau offers these safer holiday online shopping tips:

  • RESEARCH BEFORE YOU BUY. Use BBB.org and online reviews, but be sure those reviews are real. How? By reading my blog about how to spot fake online reviews.
  • DON’T SHOP ON PRICE ALONE. Carly Johnson of the FTC’s Division of Consumer and Business Education put it best: “This year’s ‘it’ game? For a great price in mid-December? From a seller you’ve never heard of?” Verify the retailer or e-tailer you’re shopping.
  • BEWARE OF FAKE WEBSITES. Check the URL, look for bad grammar, check the age of the domain and search for contact information and a physical location. 
  • MAKE SURE THE WEBSITE IS SECURE. If the URL doesn’t start with “https:” …with that ‘s’ after the ‘http’…and a small lock icon on the address bar, that site is not secure for card transactions.
  • PROFESSIONAL PHOTOS DON’T MEAN THE OFFER IS REAL.
  • AVOID IMPULSE PURCHASES FROM ADS ON SOCIAL MEDIA. The BBB says scammers can track your buying behaviors and launch phony offers disguised as legitimate products or services from legitimate companies right on your social media platforms.
  • BEWARE OF FAKE SHIPMENT TRACKING INFO. If you receive an unsolicited link to track a shipment, do not click on it. Make sure it’s coming from the company who sold you the product or from its authorized shipper, then go directly to the retailer’s site or the shipper’s site and type in the code to see if it is real.

The two most important things you can do online this holiday shopping season is 1. start early and 2. use a credit card. Let your credit card and these suggestions protect your purchases.

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