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How to avoid unpleasant surprises when buying or selling online

Ensure that your online transaction goes smoothly by researching the vendor before you finalize the deal; for sellers, Amazon and other big-name e-tailers offer some protection against fraudulent buyers.

According to a recent survey, if you're looking to buy something online, you're most likely to be pleased with the outcome if you make the purchase on

The world's largest Web retailer tops the list of online vendors in ForeSee's Holiday E-Retail Satisfaction Index with a rating of 88 on a scale of 1 to 100. This marks the eighth consecutive year Amazon has finished atop ForeSee's annual holiday survey of online shoppers; the results of this year's survey were released on December 27, 2012.

Overall customer satisfaction with Web retailers has stalled at 78 percent, according to ForeSee's survey of 24,000 online shoppers conducted between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Apple's online customer-satisfaction rating fell four points to 80 percent in the most recent survey, while Dell's score dropped the same amount to 77 percent. J.C. Penney recorded the biggest ratings decline of six points to 78 percent.

It pays to do some presale research
Even when you transact business with a reputable online vendor, you can quickly find yourself on the wrong end of a bad deal. Last week a reader contacted me about a return gone awry.

I placed an order for a juicer on Amazon (but it was from a seller on Amazon)... for around [$3,000]. That same night I tried to cancel the order with no luck. That went on for three days and then on the fourth day they shipped and told me 'Oops, we can't cancel the order shipped'.... I didn't use or even open the sealed box.... They issued me a credit minus 25 percent! Thats [$750] for no reason.... I contacted Amazon A to Z [Guarantee and] they closed my case in less than an hour saying that they refunded the order... [with] a 25 percent restocking fee.

Amazon's return policy promises a full refund for items returned within 30 days, as long as the products haven't been used much and meet other criteria. (Note that the return period for the entire 2012 holiday season extends to January 31, 2013.)

More importantly, the Amazon A to Z Guarantee Protection program covers "purchases from Amazon Marketplace sellers when payment is made via the website or when you use Amazon Payments for qualified purchases on third-party websites."

A potential loophole in Amazon's 30-day guarantee is restocking fees. The Amazon Managing Returns page states that sellers can charge "reasonable" restocking fees: up to 20 percent for unopened items in their original condition and returned more than 30 days after purchase. Restocking fees up to 50 percent are reasonable for "[i]tems that are not in their original condition, are damaged, or are missing parts for reasons other than the seller's error."

Amazon Managing Returns restocking fees
Amazon's restocking-fee policy allows sellers to charge the fee when buyers meet specific criteria. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The real catch is on the Amazon Returns Policy page, which states that not all sellers match Amazon's 30-day full-refund policy. Customers are instructed to consult the seller's return policy on Amazon's Online Returns Center or the seller's profile page.

It's possible the party selling the juicer has a return policy that specifies a 25-percent restocking fee for returns such as the one made by the reader. Unfortunately, few of us are in the habit of researching a vendor's return policy before we make a purchase.

Where to find reliable ratings of online sellers
One of the best ways to determine the reliability of an online vendor is to look for customer complaints against the company. Keep in mind that no company can please every customer every time. As noted above, Amazon has consistently been ranked among the leaders in customer satisfaction among online shoppers. Still, the complaint site Ripoff Report lists 846 items accusing Amazon of various misdeeds: from fraudulent refunds to bait-and-switch offers to bogus merchandise.

A good number of the "complaints" are little more than rants, such as those claiming books offered for sale on perpetuate lies of one form or another. As entertaining as these outlandish claims can be, they don't indicate a vendor's overall trustworthiness.

Despite the rude name, the 287 complaints against Amazon recorded on Pissed Consumer have a less strident tone. They include Amazon sellers who claim their privileges have been unfairly revoked, buyers who returned products other than the ones they bought and then skipped with the refunds, and customers reporting the returned products but haven't received their refunds.

Amazon's Rating a Seller page recommends that you contact a seller before posting a negative rating to see if you can work with the seller to resolve the problem. The Amazon Help site offers sellers tips for improving their seller ratings.

Among the suggestions are to answer customer e-mails within 24 hours of receiving them, monitor the progress of orders in transit, and address delivery problems quickly.

At least some Amazon sellers have some complaints of their own to register. According to Amy Martinez in the Seattle Times, the Washington state Attorney General's Office has received 370 complaints against Amazon over the past three years, 40 percent of which were from sellers who claim Amazon withheld payment from them. Three quarters of those complaining sellers said their accounts were suspended or closed without warning, tying up amounts ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Of course, Amazon is far from the only big-name e-tailer. The Google Merchant Center describes how Google Shopper Seller Ratings are calculated.

eBay invites its buyers to leave detailed seller ratings at the conclusion of each transaction. The site lists aspects to consider when rating, such as shipping time, whether the item matched its description, and the reasonableness of the shipping charges. Sellers are offered tips for improving their rating so they qualify as a Top Rated Seller.

I've never trusted consumer reviews, in large part because they are often bogus. An article on titled "Are Consumer Reviews Trustworthy and Reliable?" recommends ignoring reviews that are too critical or too kind. Look for specific, objective details in the individual reviews, and always check first with people you know and whose opinions you trust.

Protecting sellers from fraudulent buyers
Just as online shoppers need to be protected from unscrupulous e-tailers, online sellers have to guard against criminals posing as customers. The Amazon Payments service offers the Payment Protection Policy that ensures sellers aren't liable for fraud-related charge-backs when certain requirements are met.

To help resolve conflicts, Amazon provides a Buyer Dispute Program that "allows buyers to obtain assistance in seeking the seller's further consideration of their complaint." Note that Amazon offers only to help resolve disputes by "fostering good faith communication between buyers and sellers."

The Selling at site lists refund guidelines for Amazon Marketplace sellers. The guidelines allow partial refunds when products are returned damaged, and recovery of shipping costs when the return is not the fault of the seller, such as when the buyer simply has a change of heart.