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Error hampers Amazon's free shipping

A system error this week caused the e-tailer to charge thousands of customers who were promised free shipping and discounts. over the past week charged thousands of its customers for "free" shipping and did not apply discounts they were supposed to receive, the e-commerce giant said Thursday.

The company began notifying affected customers Wednesday, promising to issue refunds to their credit cards, Amazon spokeswoman Patty Smith said. Customers should see the credit on their next credit card statements, she said. The problem affected only a portion of Amazon's customers who placed orders requesting free shipping or using gift certificates between Friday and Tuesday, Smith said.

"We regret that due to an error, you were charged for Super Saver Shipping," Amazon said in its e-mail to customers. "We apologize for any inconvenience this may create, and would like to issue a refund for the full cost of shipping that you were charged.

"Thank you for shopping at hope to see you again soon."

Smith blamed the problem on a system "error" that has since been corrected, but she did not give further details about the glitch. Amazon became aware of the problem earlier this week, she said.

"For whatever reason the orders were not reflecting the free-shipping promotion or gift certificates," Smith said.

Pete, an Amazon customer from the Washington, D.C., area, said an order he placed on Monday for a kitchen pot rack was among those hit by the error. Although Amazon confirmed his request for free shipping, it neglected to deduct the shipping amount from his credit card, said Pete, who asked that his last name not be used.

Amazon's customer service department told him Wednesday they would credit him for the charges, he said. Later that day he posted a message about the problem on the discussion boards of bargain-hunter site FatWallet, where about 30 other posters responded that they had experienced similar problems with Amazon.

"I felt bad if a lot of people were affected and they didn't know about it," Pete said. But he added, "It seems like (Amazon's) handling it well."

Amazon initiated its free-shipping discount in January. After competitors such as matched or bettered the offer, Amazon dropped its minimum order required to receive free shipping, most recently to $25.

Earlier this week, Hotwire acknowledged a billing glitch of its own. The online travel company said it double charged hundreds of its customers over the weekend. eBay had a similar problem this summer, when it double billed some of its customers.