How to Avoid On-Line Ripoffs

What to Know Before You Buy

Have you ever ordered something on-line and then had second thoughts about the safety of the transaction or the reliability of the company? The first time I used my computer for purchasing a product it was a crash course in what might go wrong.

We wanted to go to Disney World, so I searched the web for hotels in Lake Buena Vista and found an unbelievable price at the Best Western: a double room for $39.95! I closed out the site and checked some others, then went back to that same web site and finally took the plunge. I signed up for three nights at that rate, submitted my credit card information, printed the page with a confirmation number that showed up and closed up the computer. That was at 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday.

A half hour later I was having second thoughts, so I called that Best Western and gave them my confirmation number. No, they had no reservation for me. In fact, their confirmation system didn’t even use a number like mine. The desk clerk suggested I call Disney.

I did. It wasn’t their confirmation number either. Then I tried phoning the web site business that had ‘sold’ me the reservation, but it was after office hours and they wouldn’t be available until Monday morning at 9 o’clock.

Two anxious days later, at 9:05 a.m. I phoned the company again and got a person to respond. “Let me check our records,” she said. “A minute later she came back and reported that, yes, I’d signed off at 5:37 p.m. on Saturday and my reservation request was submitted at 11:48 that night – but for some reason it didn’t go through.

“I’ll try it again,” she told me. “This time it worked. Maybe the transmission lines were busy over the weekend.

Still a bit nervous, I asked about the incorrect confirmation number. “Oh, that’s only our in-house numbering system. You’ll get an e-mail with the hotel’s confirmation number within the next half hour.”

Still anxious, I asked if I’d get a notice through regular mail. “No, I’m sorry. We don’t send out hard copies.”

More anxiety. Yet, a half hour later I had my e-mailed confirmation. To round out the happy ending to the story, three days later I got – not one, but two – written confirmation notices by snail mail, and when we showed up at the Best Western hotel two months later they did have our reservation and, yes, it was for $39.95 per night!

Those rates are long gone six years later, but the anxiety of ordering on-line still can be a concern. Take one of my most recent experiences as proof.

This summer I ordered an inexpensive camera lens from a company I’d never heard of or dealt with before. After I’d submitted my credit card information and closed out the purchase no confirmation number appeared. Instead, a message informed me that I’d get an e-mail minutes later.

But no e-mail came – in the next few minutes or the next few hours. So I e-mailed the company, described my item for purchase and asked for an order and/or confirmation number. Later that day I got this reply: “Sorry for the inconvenience. If you’ll just submit an order or confirmation number, we’d be glad to help you.”

I e-mailed again, explaining in the strongest language that I was contacting them precisely because I had no such numbers. A second response came, apologizing for the confusion and reporting that they’d searched their records (using my e-mail address) and found that no such order existed. But I could place the order again if I wished to do so.

Instead (here’s the informed purchaser at work, finally!) I contacted our credit card company, American Express, and filed a complaint. They flagged the charge (it was already on our list of purchases) and promised to investigate.

Ten days later the camera company sent me a copy of an order, along with a confirmation number and delivery information. I phoned them at once to head off the shipment, but their representative said, “I’m sorry. Your order has already been processed and is ready for shipment.”

So I called AMEX again, and was advised to simply return the product if it arrived, since I’d decided not to use it and not to purchase anything from that company ever again. Five days later the product arrived, and I marked it “Refused. Return to Sender” and put it back in the mail. Then I called AMEX again.

Two weeks later I got a letter from American Express that told me a) the dispute had been resolved in my favor, that the charges had been taken off our billing, and b) the camera company still had not responded to any of the inquiries! (can you believe that?)

So, what’s a person to do when ordering on-line? Here are a few simple ground rules, so basic and simple that I’m sure you’ve seen some or all of them before. However, they bear repeating:

#1 – Always deal with companies you’ve either done business with before or are well-known to you and others.

#2 - Be as certain as you can be that the company has a secure website to protect your credit card information.

#3 - Unless a confirmation and order number appear on your screen, never complete the transaction. Instead, empty your “cart.”

#4 - Use a reliable credit card from a company that will go to bat for you (AMEX has come to our rescue on more than one occasion, and always in our favor).

#5 - As a last resort, never open or accept any unordered or unwanted parcel; send it back immediately.

I hope your experiences in purchasing on-line turn out as good as my first effort, minus the anguish and worry, and that you can avoid the kind of aggravation my recent encounter with a less-than-efficient (if not downright sleazy) company produced.

Happy shopping!

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