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Buy.com users fight back

Customers angry about Buy.com's refusal to honor a posted price that the retailer says was a typo are accusing the firm of using "bait and switch" tactics.

Customers angry about Buy.com's refusal to honor a posted price that the retailer says was a typographical error are sowing the seeds for a consumer revolt with Web sites that accuse Buy.com of using "bait and switch" tactics.

The problems started last weekend, when Buy.com, which promises the lowest prices on the Internet and offline, advertised a 19-inch Hitachi monitor for $164.50. Word spread on the Internet about the deal, and hundreds of customers began putting in orders. However, on Monday the company changed the price on the monitor to what it normally retails for--$588.

After frantic consumers began calling to find out if the lower price would be honored for orders placed over the weekend, Buy.com issued a statement saying that price had been a typographical error and canceled most of the orders. Buy.com did agree to sell the 143 monitors it had in stock at the lower price to the first customers who ordered.

But those whose orders weren't fulfilled have a litany of complaints about the company's response. Many say Buy.com has given conflicting answers about the status of their orders and has randomly chosen those who will receive the bargain-priced monitors. They also say charges for the monitor should not have been posted to their credit cards if the company did not intend to fulfill the orders.

Buy.com executives could not be reached for comment.

The problem comes as e-commerce takes off, but observers say customer service online has yet to catch up. Though firms continue to develop technology to improve it, analysts and others have said customer service online still has a long way to go.

"The general consensus is that the company is not handling this adequately," said Mike Heroux, who joined with other students at the University of Washington in Seattle to post the Boycott Buy.com site. The Boycott Buy.com site, along with the Beware of Buy.com site, offers an outlet for disgruntled customers to tell their story, compare their experiences, and get information about where to complain.

"The purpose of this site is to give those who were swindled a chance to speak out and take action," says the mission statement on the "Beware of Buy.com" site.

But it isn't clear whether Buy.com's handling of the matter is tantamount to "bait and switch" on the Web. Legal experts say companies are not liable for typos if they can prove they made an honest mistake; Buy.com has attributed it to human error.

However, the company has added a section on typographical errors to its sales policy, saying it has the right to refuse or cancel orders placed for products listed at the incorrect price "whether or not the order has been confirmed and your credit card charged." In the event that a charge is posted to a customer's card, Buy.com says, it would then post a credit to the card.

But what the creators of these Web sites really want is the monitors they ordered--at the bargain price. "Beware of Buy.com" urges visitors to sign an email petition so that "together we'll push for our monitors and to end these disgraceful practices."