How to complain about online-purchase problems

When a Web vendor fails to live up to its promises about product delivery and availability, your best bet may be to register your complaint with the Federal Trade Commission or other third party rather than seeking redress directly from the company.

It's a booming holiday sales season for online merchants. As CNET contributor Don Reisinger reports, U.S. consumers spent $32 billion online from November 1 to December 18, according to research firm ComScore.

That's 18 percent more than they spent in the same period of 2010. While most online sales go smoothly, there's always a risk of a product you ordered from a Web site not arriving on time, or a product other than the one you purchased being shipped, among other possible problems.

A reader contacted me yesterday about an order he placed on Cyber Monday (the Monday after Thanksgiving) with the MacConnection site. The company advertised a 40-inch Samsung LED television for only $499.99. When he made the purchase, the company promised the TV would ship by December 5. A few days later, the company pushed the expected ship date back to December 12, and later still to December 19.

Yesterday, the reader was notified that the TV was back-ordered. The vendor's e-mail included a link he could use to cancel the order. Yet MacConnection lists the same Samsung LED TV as "In Stock" and ready to ship today at a price of $699.99.

MacConnection lists back-ordered LED TV as "In Stock" for a higher price
The Samsung LED TV offered for $500 as a Cyber Monday promotion is said to be back-ordered, but the same model was listed as "In Stock" for $700. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

When I contacted MacConnection to ask about the status of the reader's order, I was told by a company representative that they were looking into the matter and would respond once they had more information. I'll update this post with MacConnection's response once it arrives.

Where to register a complaint against an online vendor
According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule, vendors have 30 days to ship products when no ship date is specified at the time the order is placed. Further, any vendor that advertises a product "must have a reasonable basis for believing that you can ship within 30 days," according to the rule.

The FTC rule stipulates that vendors must reasonably anticipate demand for the products they advertise: "For each advertised item, is there a sufficient inventory on hand or adequate sources of supply to meet the anticipated demand for the product?" The requirements are more stringent for subsequent delays:

If you cannot ship the merchandise by the definite revised shipment date included in your most recent delay option notice, before that date you must seek the consent of your customers to any further delay. You must do this by providing customers a "renewed" delay option notice. A renewed delay option notice is similar in many ways to the first delay option notice. One important difference: the customer's silence may not be treated as a consent to delay.

Vendors that violate the FTC rule may be sued by the agency for up to $16,000 per violation. The agency's toll-free phone number for more information about the rule is 1-877-FTC-HELP; the mailing address is Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Response Center, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20580.

If you wish to file a complaint with the FTC online, use the agency's Complaint Assistant form. The page for accessing the complaint form also has a link to the econsumer.gov site for registering a complaint against an entity in another country.

FTC Complaint Assistant form
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission site offers the Complaint Assistant form for consumers to use when filing a complaint against an online vendor. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

Other options for disgruntled online shoppers
You've made every effort to contact the vendor's customer-support operation--either using the company's toll-free telephone number or online support page--and come up empty. It's time to seek redress through a third party.

If you believe an online vendor's misrepresentations about a product constitute a crime, you can file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). IC3 is operated by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center.

You can also file a complaint with your state's Attorney General office. Links for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. territories are available on the National Association of Attorneys General site.

The FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service provide funding for LooksTooGoodToBeTrue.com, which provides a link to the Postal Inspection Service complaint form. The nonprofit Consumer Action group provides a complaint form as well as other resources for online consumers.

Finally, the Better Business Bureau promises to contact the company within two days of receiving your complaint via the BBB.org site and a second time if the vendor you're complaining about doesn't respond within 14 days. The BBB states that most complaints are closed within 30 days, although complainants may simply be notified that the company that let them down never responded.

Unfortunately, no amount of complaining will result in the reader getting the TV he ordered last month at the price the vendor advertised and on the promised delivery date. At least his complaint may serve to alert future online shoppers about sites that can't be trusted to live up to their word.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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