Can online retailer refuse to ship item and then charge a restocking fee?

June 10, 2015 19:20 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed: 

I recently purchased a pool cover online.  My credit card was charged immediately.  Two weeks later, without any notification, the company refunded 95% of the purchase price.  When I discovered this, they told me they kept 5% because they don’t ship to where I live. Is that legal?

Consumer Ed says: 

Likely not.  Generally, a company must sell goods as advertised, and have a reasonable supply of those goods available, subject to certain disclosures.  At the very least, a company must disclose any limitations as to the availability of its inventory (including whether it can actually be shipped to a purchaser’s location).  Even though the company selling the pool cover may not be out of stock, the fact that it cannot ship the product to you is a limitation that, had you known of it, you certainly wouldn’t have ordered or paid for the merchandise.  Therefore, this means the limitation was one the company should have disclosed before you completed your transaction.   When you purchase an item over the Internet, it is assumed that the seller will ship the item to you within a specified time, or, if no time is specified, within 30 to 50 days depending on the method of payment.  If shipment is delayed and the seller cannot ship to you within this time—or in your case, cannot ship to you at all—the seller must give you an option to cancel your order and receive a full refund.  Because you paid by credit card, you should receive your refund within one billing cycle for the full amount paid.  This means 100%, not the 95% returned to you.  Had you paid by cash, check or money order, you should have received the refund within 7 business days.

The company may tell you that the 5% it retained covers a restocking fee, or other shipping and handling costs, but you are likely protected. First, any such fees must be displayed clearly and conspicuously on the company’s website, and in a manner that ensures a shopper will see it before the purchase is completed.  If the company didn’t sufficiently disclose these fees, it may be in violation of Georgia’s Fair Business Practices Act. The same could be said if the company knew at the time of your order that it did not ship to your location, and didn’t disclose this on its website.  Even if the company could ship the item to your location, any restocking fees or shipping costs may still be unfair if there is no evidence the company actually attempted to ship the pool cover.  If the seller neither placed an order with a manufacturer, nor took affirmative steps to ship the pool cover to you, then there’s no reason for any costs to be charged to you at all (i.e., if the company’s stock never left, then there’s no reason to charge you to restock it).  For more information, you may want to view our previous Consumer Ed column regarding restocking fees.

If, going forward, you cannot resolve the problem directly with the company, there are several options available to you.  Because you paid with a credit card, you may be able to dispute the remaining charge with your credit card company.  You could also contact the Better Business Bureau to see if they can help mediate a solution between you and the company.  Finally, you can file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov, and/or with the Office of Consumer Protection by visiting www.consumer.ga.gov (or by calling 404-651-8600).

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How to tell if an online product review is real or fake

December 3, 2014 15:16 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed:

How can I tell if an online review of a product is real or fake?

Consumer Ed says: 

Considering how easy it is for anyone to post an online review for potential customers to see, you’re right to be skeptical about the reliability of online product reviews.  Businesses understand that consumers’ purchase decisions are often swayed by user-generated online reviews.  Unfortunately, this has led some businesses to post positive reviews of their own products or services, and negative reviews of competitors’, while pretending to be real customers.  Other businesses have even incentivized consumers to write fake reviews in return for payment or discounts.  The Federal Trade Commission has tried to minimize fake reviews by imposing fines on those who post and/or pay for fake reviews.  The incentive to fabricate phony critiques remains high because the likelihood of getting caught is still unfortunately low.

This Office has also pursued such parties for this kind of false advertising. However, it is often very difficult to distinguish between a legitimate review and a fraudulent review.  Many sites, like Amazon and Yelp, use multiple methods of analysis to detect fake reviews.  This helps to a degree, but is not foolproof.  However, there are other things you can do to filter through the fake reviews on your own:

Compare reviews not only within a site, but across different websites.  Read a lot of reviews to form an opinion about the site and decide whether it's trustworthy.  Then, compare reviews of the same product on other sites to determine an overall trend of reviews for a product.  You can't necessarily trust a handful of bad reviews or glowing reviews, but trends are much harder to fake.

Compare reviews by the same reviewer. Look at other reviews by the same reviewer to help you decide how much trust to put in the opinions of that person.  Be wary of "one-time" or "first time" reviewers. Reviews by people who are verified by the site are more trustworthy than reviews by anonymous reviewers.  Anonymous reviews are far more suspect than a review that tells you who wrote it with brief biographical information.  Try to verify if the reviewer has actually purchased a product (e.g., an Amazon reviewer’s “Verified Purchaser” status indicates that the review was posted by someone who has actually purchased the product being reviewed through the site).

Be watchful for similar wording on reviews.  Legitimate reviewers usually speak specifically about their individual experience with the product, and discuss things like performance, reliability, and overall value.  So, if the reviews mainly list off product features, or if there are a number of reviews that use similar wording to describe the product, the reviews could be fake.

Be skeptical about "extreme" reviews. 
If a reviewer makes over-the-top, extremely positive or negative comments, that should raise your suspicions.  Generally, most people will list one or two things they liked, along with something they may have been surprised by (whether positively or negatively).  But when the reviewer uses terms like "absolute worst" and "best ever," it’s worth checking out the reviewer before taking what he/she says as the gospel. In general, read reviews less for whether they give a product five stars or one star, and more for the specific information they give about the reviewer’s experience with the product. 

Check the business reputations of all merchants. Organizations such as the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org) and agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov) maintain information about at least some reviewers and reviewed products.

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How to keep your computer from being hacked

October 22, 2014 15:25 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed:

My husband keeps clicking on every pop-up ad that comes up on the Internet.  As a result, he has downloaded malware, which has slowed down the computer and created unwanted toolbars, coupon services and even an unwanted security software program.  Short of barring him from the computer entirely, what is the best way to protect our computer from being hacked?

Consumer Ed says: 

With hackers and identity thieves frequently finding new ways to attack your computer, there are some basic security steps that you can take to protect your computer and your personal information.  Malware (the nickname for “malicious software”) includes viruses and spyware that can be remotely installed on your computer when you download programs on the Internet to play games, listen to music, and other activities.  It may be used to send consumers pop-up ads, redirect their computers to unwanted websites, monitor their Internet usage, or record their keystrokes, which, in turn, could lead to identity theft.  Here are some ways to protect your computer from malware:

  • Install Reputable Security Software. At a minimum, your computer should have anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and a firewall. Viruses can be planted in emails or attachments to emails, in programs or files that you download, and even in Web sites that you visit. These viruses have the potential to wipe out your computer files.  Anti-virus software scans everything that enters your computer, looking for these viruses. Spyware is software that tracks your computer activity, gathering information without your knowledge. Anti-spyware software blocks or removes spyware. You may obtain the anti-virus and anti-spyware software separately or as a package. For lists of security tools from legitimate security vendors, visit staysafeonline.org or security.getnetwise.org/tools/search.
  • Use a Firewall. A firewall is a virtual barrier between your computer and the Internet. Everything coming into or leaving your computer must go through the firewall, which blocks anything that doesn’t meet specific security criteria. Before purchasing separate firewall hardware or software, check your operating system to see if there is a built-in firewall and whether it is turned on.
  • Update System and Software Frequently. Computer and software companies frequently update their programs to include protection against new security threats. Simply updating your operating system and software whenever new versions become available gives you an added measure of security. If available, activate automatic security updates so you will be alerted when updates are issued.
  • Avoid “Free” Security Scans. Be suspicious of an offer of a “free security scan,” especially when faced with an unexpected pop-up, email, or an ad that claims “malicious software” has been found on your computer. Though the “alerts” look like they’re being generated by your computer, they actually are created by a scammer and sent through your Internet browser. If you suspect a problem, shut down your browser. Don’t click “No” or “Cancel,” or even the “x” at the top right corner of the screen. Some of these scams are designed so that any of those buttons can activate the program. If you use Windows, press Ctrl + Alt + Delete to open your Task Manager, and click “End Task.” If you use a Mac, press Command + Option + Q + Esc to “Force Quit.” Complete a separate search of the program to determine if it is legitimate.
  • Download Carefully. Don’t download programs from Web sites you don’t know and trust. Don’t download or share music or movie files with strangers— the file you receive could contain a virus, spyware or inappropriate content. (And, unauthorized file sharing of copyrighted material is illegal.)
  • Create and Protect Strong Passwords. Create strong email passwords and protect them with the following tips:
  • The longer the password, the tougher it is to crack.  Use at least 10 characters.
  • Mix letters, numbers, and special characters.  Try to be random – don’t use your name, birthdate, or common words.
  • Don’t use the same password for different accounts.  If it’s stolen from you, it can be used to take over all your accounts.
  • Don’t share passwords on the phone, in texts or by email.  Legitimate companies will not send you messages asking for your password. 
  • Keep your passwords in a secure place, out of plain sight.
  • Use a Pop-up Blocker. Don't click on links or open attachments in emails unless you know what they are, even if the emails seem to be from friends or family.
  • Use the Spam Filter. Utilize your email program’s automatic spam filter, which reduces the number of unwelcome email messages that make it to your inbox. Delete, without opening, any spam or “junk mail” that gets through the filter.
  • Backup Important Data. No system is completely secure. Copy important files onto a removable disc or an external hard drive, and store it in a safe place. If your computer is compromised, you’ll still have access to your files.
  • Report Possible Fraud. Report possible fraud online at www.ftc.gov/complaint or by phone at 1-877-FTC-HELP.

 

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