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#323 Online and mailorder purchases

mp3 #323 Mail Orders: What Are Your Rights (mp3 file)

Before you decide to order merchandise through the mail, you should:

1. Comparison shop. Find out if the merchandise is available locally. If it is, is the cost the same or maybe even less than through mail order? Add in the cost of postage. Also consider the advantage of receiving the item immediately and having the merchant nearby if problems develop.

2. Check the advertising claims. Are they outrageous: Is the price ridiculously low compared to local stores: Check the description of the product carefully, and if you send for it, keep a copy of the ad or catalogue from which you ordered.

3. Find out if there is a warranty. Read it carefully. Does it offer your money back if you're not satisfied? Who pays return postage if you are dissatisfied?

4. Check the time limit on delivery. If none is stated, do you want to wait 30 days (the maximum length of time the Federal Trade Commission says you have to wait)?

5. Ask the company for a more detailed description of the product or its guarantee if you have any doubts about either.

6. Check with your local consumer protection agency if there is one in your area. Also check with your Better Business Bureau or the Chamber of Commerce where the company is located.


If you decide to order by mail, you should:

1. Start out with a small rather than a large order, and see how the company responds.

2. Make sure your name and address are clearly marked on the order form. If you are ordering a gift, make doubly sure that the name and address of the person you are sending it to is included and legible.


3. Keep a copy of your order form and any letters you send to the company. Make sure you have the company's correct address for future reference.

4. Never send cash. Pay by check or money order so that you have a record that you've paid. Be sure to include any extra charges, shipping, handling, and sales tax. Don't forget that C.O.D. orders will cost more.

5. Check the order immediately when you receive it. Make sure it is what you wanted and ordered. If not, notify the company (it is best to do so in writing and keep a copy of your letter) and return the merchandise by insured mail for a refund or exchange.

A Federal Trade Commission rule gives you the right either to receive the merchandise within the advertised time period or to assume you will receive it within 30 days. A seller who cannot fulfill this responsibility must notify you and give you the option and free means (such as a postage paid card) to cancel. If you tell the seller to cancel the order, he has to do so and refund your cash, check or money order within seven days (or credit your credit card account within one billing period).

If you fail to respond to the notice of delay, the seller can assume that you agree to a 30 day delay in delivery. The seller must get your agreement on any delay over 30 days.

The rule also requires sellers of mail order merchandise to have a reasonable basis for their claims about shipping dates.

The FTC rule does not apply to mail order services such as photo printing, nursery products, magazines and other publications except for the initial order. C.O.D. orders are also not included in this rule. However, you already have the right to refuse merchandise sent C.O.D. if an unreasonable amount of time has passed since you made the order, and you are no longer in interested in receiving the merchandise.

The Federal Trade Commission will enforce this ruling, and after appropriate proceedings, it can request the court to fine a company $10,000 for each day of the violation.

If you are unable to solve your problems with a mail order company, contact the United States Postal Inspector in your area. (Look in your phone book under "U.S. Government".) A Consumer Protection Specialist will attempt to contact the company and mediate your complaint, but the company cannot be forced to give you a refund or make an adjustment. If the Postal Service thinks you may have been a victim of fraud or misrepresentation it can take civil action against the company, or refer the case to the U.S, Attorney for criminal action, or both. If it can be proven that the company intentionally defrauded you and used the mail in some part of that fraud, the operators of the company may be fined $1,000 or receive 5 years in prison or both for each count of fraud.

You may also contact the state Attorney General’s Office in Sacramento or online at and the Federal Trade Commission office in San Francisco or Los Angeles or online at

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