When special orders equal special headaches

Brian Livingston finds that some e-tailers operate with particularly unique interpretations about what qualifies as good customer service.

3 min read
A consumer who ordered a fancy espresso machine on the Internet has found that problems with special-order items can double your headaches.

Susan Galletti, an executive of a construction-management firm in Pennsylvania, found what she considered a good price on a Briel espresso maker at an e-commerce site named DreamRetail late last December. "I was notified that it was out of stock," she says, "but the Web page said that twelve more were due in soon and it listed the shipping date as Jan. 21."

As a result, she approved a charge of about $400 to her Visa credit card and waited for the order to arrive. She was surprised a couple of weeks later to find the amount on her Visa bill, even though the item hadn't yet shipped.

When the order still hadn't arrived several days after Jan. 21, Galletti sent an e-mail to DreamRetail asking them to reverse the charges. When she received no reply within two days, she says, she called Visa to dispute the charge herself.

This would be just another tale of slow delivery times--a common complaint of Internet shoppers--except that Galletti says the president of DreamRetail, Peter Meier, personally called her at home as a result.

Far from smoothing over matters, she said, Meier criticized her for "a $25 fee that Visa charged his account for putting the item in dispute."

Lessons learned?
Perhaps there's something to be learned here about good customer relations.

Meier says he remembers the incident well. "That particular product comes out of Portugal," he explained. "Where we have things that take weeks to order, we actually go back to the customer and say we have to charge their card."

A check of DreamRetail's records shows that one of its 25 customer-service representatives had spoken with Galletti by phone on Dec. 28, according to Meier. "Briel shipped the product about a month later on Jan. 30th," Meier said, several days after Galletti had canceled her order, "which caused a lot of extra work and expense on our end."

Visa International regulations require Internet sites, unlike brick-and-mortar stores, to wait until products have shipped before initiating any charges. Meier says he interprets Visa's rules as disallowing such charges "unless you talk with the customer first."

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. A few days after Meier's personal call, Galletti e-mailed DreamRetail again because her disputed charge hadn't yet been reversed. A woman soon wrote back, promising "to put the credit through right away." Galletti says this eventually resulted in another call from Meier, angry that the credit had gone through twice, costing him another fee.

The moral? Scrutinize any "special order" procedures that an e-tailer may have. And don't say anything to authorize credit card charges before shipment, if a customer-service representative calls.

A Wired Watchdog update
In my June 8 column I wrote about Yuzoo.net, a Web site that advertised Pentium computers, laptops, and flat-panel monitors for $100 each. I reported that the Internet Billing Co., which Yuzoo had selected for credit card processing, had questioned the site's legitimacy and refunded more than $27,000 to consumers who'd placed orders. Police in Orangeburg, S.C., are investigating two individuals connected with the site.

Around the time that story appeared, a new site entitled Wholesale Electronics sprang up using e-mail announcements and Web designs almost identical to those associated with Yuzoo. Products such as 61" Toshiba wide-screen TVs--which normally sell for at least $2,000--were offered for $209, payable through PayPal instead of credit cards.

After inquiries by a reporter, PayPal Vice President Vincent Sollitto said in an e-mail that "all of the funds in the account are being held by PayPal, pending resolution of suspected fraud." Sollitto added that PayPal was unable to reach the account's owner, who has not yet been publicly identified.

Brian Livingston's Wired Watchdog column appears at CNET News.com every Friday. Do you know of a problem affecting consumers? Send info to tips@BrianLivingston.com. He'll send you a book of high-tech secrets free if you're the first to submit a tip he prints.