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Christmas Gift Guide
Tech Industry

Where can e-commerce customers go to complain?

As e-commerce gains popularity, horror stories about online buying experiences are becoming more commonplace.

On Nov. 7, Frank Rimalovski bought a television set online from Amazon.com for $1,000, paying extra money to have it shipped within a day.

When the television never arrived, the New Jersey father launched into a series of frustrating telephone calls during a period of 12 days with sales staff, specialists and others who, according to him, apologized repeatedly for the delay but offered no explanation or solution.

Then at 3 p.m. on Nov. 23, Rimalovski discovered the television had been mailed to another address. With his extended family due in less than 24 hours to eat Thanksgiving dinner and watch football, he threw in the towel and drove to a nearby electronics store.

Two hours later, he was back at home with a 32-inch Sony.

"I was jerked around," he said in an interview today. "They didn't return my phone calls, they didn't call me back, the whole thing was so, so frustrating."

Amazon spokesman Paul Capelli said he was unfamiliar with Rimalovski's plight but considered it out of the ordinary of what most people experience on the site.

"It's not a typical story if it's true," Capelli said. "We have 13 million people who currently shop on our site, and we try our very best to keep every customer happy."

As e-commerce gains popularity, online buying experiences such as Rimalovski's are becoming more commonplace. Problems ranging from missed shipping dates to outright scams ordinarily found offline now apply to the Internet, said Paula Selis, senior counsel in Washington state's attorney general's office.

"Everything that happens with brick-and-mortar businesses is now happening in e-commerce, only it's more difficult to deal with because people can hide behind the anonymity of the Web," said Selis, who works in Seattle.

As with most consumer complaints, figuring out where to go for a redress of grievances can be just as frustrating as dealing with an uncooperative company.

Rimalovski said he ended up canceling his online order and demanded a repayment. He's waiting to see whether his account has been credited.

Consumers who claim they have been cheated by an online company should turn to the district attorney or state attorney general's office, said Al Bender, director of the consumer protection unit for the Santa Clara County District Attorney. Those agencies, he said, have the power to prosecute or file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator.

An attorney in Bender's office, for instance, is investigating a fraud case involving the purchase of a faulty computer on eBay.

In addition, Selis recently filed a consumer protection lawsuit on behalf of about 100 people who say they were ripped off by Microworkz, a now-defunct discount PC provider.

E-commerce is still so new, however, that many law enforcement agencies don't have adequate staff to handle Internet-related complaints.

Plus, consumers must file grievances in the city where the company is based, which may then involve several government jurisdictions.

This is where the Better Business Bureau's online arm, BBBOnline, can help. A gripe filed electronically on the agency's Web site is immediately routed to the bureau's offices where the targeted business is headquartered.

Bureau officers then intervene on behalf of the consumer by writing letters in an attempt to broker a settlement.

During the past several weeks, members of the Better Business Bureau have been traveling around the country gathering input from high-tech executives for its new Code of Online Business Practices, which may help set guidelines for appropriate Net business practices, said Russ Bodoff, senior chief operating officer for BBBOnline.

The National Consumer League, a private, nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., also fields consumer complaints and then sends them to the appropriate law enforcement agency, be it the Federal Trade Commission, FBI or U.S. Postal Inspector's Office, said Susan Grant, director of the league's Internet Fraud Watch.

Last year the consumers league logged some 7,700 complaints on its Fraud.org Web site. For the first six months this year, about 6,000 consumers sent in gripes. The figure is expected to rise following the holiday shopping crush.

Most complaints involve online auctions in which a bidder either never received the item purchased or got something entirely different than expected. One woman, for example, paid $100 for an aluminum wheelchair. What she got was an aluminum lawn chair with wheels.

Grant said, however, that the league doesn't "give any promises that the individual problem may be solved."

Some consumers have turned to online complaint services to resolve disputes with Net retailers as they become fed up in dealing with government authorities.

"It's difficult to deal with a municipality," said David Horowitz, who recently relaunched his FightBack site. "The district attorney won't look at a problem unless it involves a lot of people or a lot of money. So the average person gets screwed."

The online complaint services don't have the power to prosecute, but they can smudge a company's reputation by posting consumer problems on the Web.

Despite the troubles with online shopping, many users are unlikely to give up.

Rimalovski, the New Jersey father who never got his television from Amazon, says it's a convenience he still enjoys.

"I have a 2-year-old daughter at home and a pregnant wife, and I don't have a lot of time to shop," he said. "I have found it to be easy. But I suppose I should reconsider."