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Better Business Bureau ®
Start With Trust®
Northeast California
Shopping Online, By Catalog, Mail, or Telephone
March 27, 2014

Many consumers make purchases by catalog, internet, mail or by telephone. Use these tips as a guide when ordering merchandise other than through visiting a retail store.

Tips for Shopping by Phone or Mail: 

Do Your Research. Before placing an order, make sure the business has a good reputation. Ask friends and family members if they have experience ordering from the business. Check out the business’s reviews and complaints on bbb.org. Be sure to understand the business’s return and refund policy. Be wary of businesses that offer prices that are too good to be true. 

Understand the Mail or Telephone Order Rule. The FTC's Mail or Telephone Merchandise Order Rule covers purchases ordered by mail, phone, computer, and fax. This rule by law states that your order must be shipped within the timeframe stated in the ad or on the website. If there is no specific timeframe given, the business must ship your merchandise within 30 days of receiving the order If the business cannot ship the item within the timeframe, they must contact you to give you the option to agree to the delay or cancel your purchase. If you do not respond to the notice the company has the right to assume that you agree to a delay of up to 30 days. However, the company may not delay shipment beyond an additional 30 days without your consent. If the company cannot ship your merchandise within the 30 additional days, or the agreed upon time, it must again notify you and get your consent to any further delay or cancel and refund any payment you sent with your order, or credit your account.

Check the Exceptions to the Rule. The following purchases by mail order do not apply to the Mail Order Rule: magazine subscriptions, except for the first shipment, seed and growing plants, photo-finishing, Collect-On-Delivery orders, and negative option sales. If you are applying for credit to pay for the merchandise, the business has 350 days to ship your purchase once they receive the order.

Unordered Merchandise. According to federal postal regulations and the FTC Act, it is illegal to send merchandise that has not been expressly ordered by a consumer through the U.S. mail. Also, it is illegal for a company to bill you for such merchandise. Only two types of merchandise can be sent legally through the U.S. mail without a consumer's prior consent:

  • Free samples that are clearly and conspicuously marked as such; and
  • Merchandise mailed by a charitable organization asking for contributions.

If you receive unordered merchandise through the mail, you may consider it as a gift. You are not obligated to pay for it or return it. 

C.O.D. Orders. The U.S. Postal Service rule on C.O.D. orders has been changed to help consumers from becoming victims of mail fraud. In the past, consumers were required to pay the Postal Service for C.O.D. orders. The Postal Service would then pay the company that had shipped the merchandise. The rule now allows the recipient of a C.O.D. package to pay the charges with a check made payable to the sender. Consumers can stop payment on the check if they think the goods have been intentionally misrepresented. However, you should contact your bank before canceling a check to determine if a fee will be incurred.

Review the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA). Be sure to use a credit card because your purchase will be protected under the FBCA. If you are charged for the incorrect amount, did not receive the item, or the item was not delivered as agreed, you may dispute the charges and withhold payment. Send your dispute in a timely manner because it must get to the business within 60 days after the first bill was mailed. The business must recognize the complaint within 30 days of receiving it and resolve the complaint within two billing cycles. If you are unsatisfied with your merchandise, you may dispute the charges if the purchase is $50 or more and was purchased in your home state or 100 miles from your billing address. If the seller also issued the credit card or if there is a special relationship between the seller and card issuer, the dollar amount and distance are not required for a dispute. 

Keep a Record. After placing an order, make sure to keep a record of the name and address of the business and the date you placed the order. Always save the catalog or ad. Be sure to check if the merchandise has a cut-off date where they stop guaranteed delivery.

Verify Website SecurityUse https: sites and look for a padlock symbol on your browser. The 's' stands for secure and ensures that it is protected under an SSL protocol. Also, look for a padlockin the bottom left of the screen or in the window frame with the browser itself. Clicking the padlock will give you the certificate and its registration information. Scammers may duplicate the padlock in other areas of the screen. Look for it in the browser. Check for these features before submitting personal information such as credit cards, addresses, or phone numbers.  For more, read this article on web security.