Washington residents like to shop, but our records show they don’t always have a positive experience. Consumers filed 1,452 complaints about retail sales in 2007, securing the industry the No. 3 rank among all complaint categories. Before that, retailers held the No. 2 spot since at least 2001. Despite the lower ranking, that’s still more complaints than we received in 2006. Online shopping, when has its own separate category, ranked No. 4 in 2006 with 1,210 complaints. And that doesn’t count complaints about online auctions, which rank No. 19.
So what are consumers complaining about? Complaint analysts in our Consumer Resource Centers say they frequently hear disputes over refund policies and shipping costs. In the case of online orders, especially auctions, consumers sometimes say the price at the checkout isn’t always the same as the one advertised. But consumers could avoid many unpleasant surprises if they take the initiative to inquire about store refund policies or cancellation rights and if they read the fine print at the bottom of their computer screen before making a purchase.
The Internet is always open — seven days a week, 24 hours a day —a nd bargains can be numerous. But it’s not like mall. You don’t always know who you’re dealing with. And it can be hard to size up a product. So use these common-sense tips when shopping online:
- Know who you’re dealing with. Anyone can set up shop online. Only buy from sites you know and trust. When shopping on auction sites like ebay, read feedback from other buyers. Several Web sites allow you to check out sellers: AuctionBlacklist and Traderlist. Be especially cautious when dealing with sellers in other countries.
- Shop around to find the best deal. Compare prices on rival sites when purchasing online. Be skeptical of “too good to be true” prices. Be sure to check out shipping and handling charges, which can vary substantially.
- Understand delivery, return policies and warranties before you pay.
- Read the small print on customer agreements and legal disclaimers to make sure you're only paying for what you want. You may need to uncheck some boxes to opt out of receiving newsletters or being enrolled in program – especially common with “free trials.”
- Only transmit info on secure sites. Look for https:// in the URL and the yellow lock icon. Avoid transmitting private information over a wireless connection unless you have no other option, and then be sure to manually pick a secure, password-protected connection.
- Choose a secure payment method. Use a third-party payment service such as PayPal, if possible. And pay with a credit card, not a debit card. If the businesses doesn’t ship the merchandise, charges you too much or the item arrives damaged, you can contact your credit card company and ask to have the charge removed. Never wire money.
- Keep records of your payment and order.
Monday's Tip: Choosing a wireless phone plan
Tuesday's Tip: Debt collectors -- legit and bogus -- and your rights
Tomorrow's Tip: Buying a car without being scammed