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Educational Consumer Tips

Buying by Mail

Author: Rachel Gelb
Category: Retail

Many consumers find that buying by mail is the most convenient way to satisfy their shopping needs. Although many mail order companies are legitimate, each year Better Business Bureaus receive thousands of complaints against fraudulent companies that sell merchandise through the mail or over the telephone.

If you are planning to shop by mail, you should be aware of your rights before making your purchase decision.

FTC's Mail Order Rule:

The Mail Order Rule was issued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to correct growing consumer problems with late or undelivered mail order merchandise. According to the rule, companies must ship orders within the time promised or, if not stated, within 30 days.

When there is a shipping delay, the rule requires the company to notify you of the delay and provide you with an option either to agree to the delay, or to cancel the order.

In notifying you, the company must provide a cost free means for you to reply if you wish to cancel. If you cancel, the company must provide you with a full refund within 7 working days after the cancellation is received. For credit card sales, refunds must be credited to your account within one billing cycle.

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.

Exceptions to the Rule:

The following mail order sales are exempt from the Mail Order Rule:

  • Magazine subscriptions, except for the first shipment;
  • Sales of seed and growing plants;
  • Photo-finishing;
  • Collect-On-Delivery (C.O.D.) orders;
  • "Negative Option Plans" such as those used by some book, record and tape clubs; and
  • Orders placed over the telephone and charged to a credit card account.

    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.

    When Buying By Mail:

      • Contact your local Better Business Bureau before placing your order to check on the company's reliability.
      • Beware of exaggerated claims for products or unrealistically low prices for merchandise, and compare prices for similar merchandise in your area.
      • Carefully read catalogs. Always keep a copy of the ad or brochure you plan to order from.
      • Find out if the merchandise is offered on a satisfaction guaranteed or money-back basis.
      • Check for a cut-off date for orders, after which delivery will not be guaranteed.
      • Pay by check or money order and be sure to include any shipping and handling charges; never send cash through the mail.
      • Be wary of giving a credit card number to an unfamiliar company. Be sure to clearly indicate your name and address on the order.
      • Keep a record of your order including the name and address of the company, the date you placed your order, canceled checks, and number of a money order or bank check by which your order was paid.
      • Check your order promptly upon receipt to make sure the item is what you ordered, that it is intact and satisfactory. Notify the company at once if it is not.
  • About the Author: Rachel Gelb is Communications and Marketing Manager for BBB serving Eastern Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont. Find Rachel on Google +.

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