Resolve Disputes with Online Merchants

By Jennifer Martinez

Online shopping is not only convenient -- it can also land you some juicy bargains. But unlike a brick-and-mortar store, with most online shops there is no real storefront you can go to if you have a problem with your purchase. So what do you do when something goes wrong with your purchase? Here are some tips for resolving disputes with online merchants:

Tip No. 1: You can withhold payment
When it comes to e-commerce, online shoppers in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada can withhold payment from a merchant if the product does not fulfill three conditions:

  • The product is not as it was advertised.

  • The product arrives in unsatisfactory condition.

  • The product does not arrive within 30 days (unless otherwise agreed upon at the time the order is placed).

In most cases, you'll need to report any problem within 60 days of purchase. For C.O.D. (cash on delivery) purchases paid by check, inspect the product on the day it's delivered. You're entitled to stop payment on the check if there's a problem or dispute the charge with your credit card company (see next step).

Tip No. 2: Try to work out with the retailer
Before you do anything else, try to work with the merchant to resolve the issue. Be polite and positive. The overwhelming majority of online merchants will want to help you resolve the problem.

If there is any dispute, you can pay the rest of your credit card bill and withhold payment for the disputed order, as long as you include a letter explaining why you are withholding payment.

The credit card company will attempt to resolve the problem with the merchant. The credit card company is responsible for notifying you of the result (within 30 days, in the United States). The merchant is responsible for crediting your account within two billing cycles.

Tip No. 3: File a complaint
If neither the merchant nor your credit card company agrees with your contention, there are a number of mediation services and consumer protection agencies that can help. Look up the following web sites to get help:

In the United States:

  • Federal Citizen Information Center

  • Home Shopping Rights

In Canada:

  • Canada's Office of Consumer Affairs

In the United Kingdom:

  • Office of Fair Trading

Tip No. 4: Take legal action
If all else fails, your final recourse may be to initiate legal action if the value of your loss is high enough to justify it.

Small claims courts have traditionally been an easy and inexpensive way to obtain legal rulings on minor disputes. But, since small claims generally must be filed in the jurisdiction where the merchant resides or does business, this isn't practical for most online shopping.

You can find a lawyer (and low-cost or free legal assistance, if you need it) at these web sites:

In the United States:

  • Find Law for the Public

In Canada:

  • Lawyer Locate

In the United Kingdom:

  • Lawyer Locator

You may be able to recover your court costs and legal costs if the judgment goes in your favor. But if your complaint has already been denied by a credit card company, your case may not be sound or well-documented.

Jennifer Martinez  is a freelance writer who specializes in family computer topics.

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