The Nasty Fine Print of "Terms & Conditions"
I don't know about you, but when I shop online, I'm usually in such a rush that I rarely read the e-tailer's "terms and conditions." That's a mistake.
The latest edition of Consumer Reports (subscription required) explains why. Many e-tailers use their terms and conditions to trim many of the consumer protections we have taken for granted when dealing with a bricks-and-mortar store. For example, at a traditional store, there's usually an implied warranty that the product you buy will work properly and last a reasonable amount of time. But CR surveyed many e-tailers and found their terms and conditions revoke the implied warranties and say everything is being sold "as is." That means if it doesn't work, that's your problem, not the store's. The stores can absolve themselves of responsibilities in other ways as well. CR cites Target.com, which makes you assume the risk of loss or damage to merchandise when the shipping firm picks it up, not after it is delivered.
Other findings: Some sites don't accept returns of opened merchandise; some don't take returns of defective products. And if you return items that were shipped for free, you may be charged for the return, even if the item is defective. In some returns, that original "free shipping" may be deducted from your credit.
How can you protect yourself? First, know the business that you're dealing with. Don't buy online from any site that doesn't list the owner's name, address or phone number. And don't buy if there are lots of spelling errors on the site as well.
When you do buy online, use a credit card. That way, you can dispute any charges for items that arrive broken or aren't what you ordered. You can't do that with a debit card. Never pay with cash, money order or a wire transfer.
To be extra safe, consider buying big-ticket items in a store, not online.
Of course, it goes without saying that you should read the terms and conditions (T&C) as well. But that's not easy. Usually you have to order something and enter your shipping info and all your credit-card data before you can even find the T&C. By then, it's almost too late. You're already emotionally invested in the product. E-tailers need to make their T&C easily available--before the shopping begins.
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