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Know Your Rights When Shopping Online

Know Your Rights When Shopping Online

Thomas P. Vartanian, Chair,
ABA Cyberspace Law Committee

Consumer online shopping the upcoming holiday season will reach $9.5 billion. This figure has more than tripled since last year's total of $3.1 billion, and is expected to reach $78 billion by 2003.

Clearly, consumer confidence in online shopping has grown over the last several years. But the need to be watchful continues. This is why the ABA Business Law Section is launching a new web site, to provide consumer information on online shopping. The web site poses basic questions to help safeguard legal rights and possibly save yourself from trouble later on. Here are some important questions to consider before shopping online:

Who is the seller? Does the seller regularly deal in the type of product you're interested in? Do they provide an address and phone number? Are they authorized to sell the product? If the seller is outside the United States, you should consider that you may not have the same legal rights as dealing with a company in the U.S.

What am I buying? Are you buying a new or refurbished product? Is it a brand name or a "replica." You should be suspicious of prices that appear too good to be true.

What are the legal terms of my purchase? Is the seller offering or limiting warranties? How and where can you return an item? Can you return an item for cash, or only store credit? Whom must you contact to repair, replace, or refund the item? Do you have to mediate a dispute? Can you sue in your home state?

How will I maintain my privacy? Web sellers are not yet required to respect privacy of information relating to your browsing their site. If the seller doesn't have a privacy policy, you might not want to deal with that company. The privacy policy should tell you what information the seller is gathering, how the information is being used, and whether you can decline.

How secure is my transaction? Did you protect your password? Create different passwords for different sites. If a site does not use a secure Internet connection, you should carefully consider whether you want to give your credit card to the seller. Many encrypted sites indicate what security they are using.

How am I paying for the item? Paying by credit card is usually safer than check or cash. Under federal law, your liability for unauthorized charges made on your credit card is usually limited to $50. You may be also able to dispute the seller's charges more effectively as well.

When and where can I expect delivery? U.S. law requires sellers to ship within the time promised in ads. If no date is promised, the item should be shipped within 30 days of receiving the order. The seller must notify you and give you a chance to cancel if it can't meet the 30-day deadline. These regulations do not apply to Cash on Delivery orders.

Am I keeping records? You may want to keep hard-copy records of your purchases and e-mail communications with the seller in case problems arise later.

To whom can I complain? You may want to notify the Better Business Bureau or your state attorney general's consumer fraud division in instances where you believe you have been misled or cheated.

The Internet can open up new possibilities in shopping. By taking a few sensible precautions, consumers can explore the world of online shopping more safely.