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Resolutions for smart online buyers

PC World

(IDG) -- After reading hundreds of letters from unhappy customers looking for help from PC World, I'm confident that by avoiding a few common pitfalls, we can all save ourselves a few bucks and a lot of headaches.

1. Know your vendor. Before buying anything, research thoroughly the company you're considering dealing with, especially if you've never heard of it before. Look for feedback from other customers at online discussion forums or at sites like and get a free company report from the Better Business Bureau. If you're buying a PC, check PC World's ratings of companies' reliability and service. If you're buying online, make sure the company's Web site lists a physical street address and full contact information, including a toll-free phone number and e-mail links to customer service and tech support.

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2. Review the warranty. Be sure you fully understand the warranty details before you purchase. All retailers--traditional and online--must provide written warranties for all products they sell, but these are sometimes hard to find or out of date. Ask for the complete and most current version--and read the fine print. Common gotchas include companies' replacing faulty components with refurbished--instead of new--parts and forcing you to pay to ship back a malfunctioning machine.

3. Get the scoop on shipping and handling. When you're buying, make sure you get a total charge amount--including shipping costs--before you authorize payment. Also, a vendor should never charge your credit card until it has actually shipped the purchased item, so nail down a ship date when you place an order, and check your account status regularly.

4. Learn the return and refund policy. What if you get the goods and they're not so good after all? Before you buy, know your options if you decide to return your purchase for replacement or a refund. Ideally, look for a 30-day, no-questions-asked replacement or refund policy. Ask when the clock starts ticking--that 30-day window sometimes opens when your order leaves the vendor's warehouse, not when you get it. Also, find out whether it stops ticking when you request to return the item or when it arrives back at the vendor--a requirement that can make returns significantly more difficult. Finally, try to steer clear of restocking fees--some sellers charge as much as 20 percent of your purchase price to accept an item you return for any reason.

5. Always use plastic. Credit cards offer the best protection against purchase problems ranging from shipping errors to faulty products to vendor fraud. Just remember that most credit card companies impose a 60-day limit on claims against a vendor, so don't delay if you have a problem. Many premium credit cards, such as American Express Optima and Visa Gold or Platinum cards, provide additional, free warranty coverage for purchases made with those cards.

6. Protect your plastic. Consider using an online payment protection plan such as Private Payments, offered by American Express. Private Payments assigns an individual transaction number to each online purchase and limits the vendor's access to your permanent account number. Many banks and credit companies offer similar online protection services. Again, check on your options.

7. Write a letter. If you get a raw deal, let the culprits know--in writing. If calling doesn't help resolve a dispute with a vendor, sit down and calmly write a letter describing the problem and suggesting a reasonable solution. Carefully document and refer to any previous communications, using names and dates, and send it, certified, to the president of the offending organization. (Okay, it probably won't actually get to the head honcho, but it's more likely to reach someone who will help.) For extra clout, send copies to the BBB and the attorney general's office in the company's state. Conversely, don't forget to stroke the good guys: If you're treated particularly well, let the company know you appreciate its exemplary service.

8. Spread the word. Report your experiences--bad and good--to online discussion groups and consumer forums such as,, and, and to PC World's On Your Side column ( Some resources also have consumer advocates who can assist in resolving problems with vendors.

9. Know the risks of online auctions. The deals can be tempting, but both the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission report a steady increase in Internet auction fraud since 1998. While some sites offer insurance and other limited protections, most claim to be only a meeting place for buyers and sellers and accept no liability if a deal goes sour.

10. Use an escrow service. If you decide to make a big purchase from an auction site, consider using an escrow service. These services, which typically charge as much as 5 percent of the total purchase price, hold your payment and forward it to the seller only after you've received and approved the purchased goods.

11. Read sites' privacy policies. Until laws are enacted to defend our privacy online, companies' privacy statements are all we have. Make sure the site you're considering doing business with posts its privacy policy prominently--and read it carefully. Sites that share your information with others should notify you that they're doing so and let you opt out. If you can't find a site's privacy policy or aren't comfortable with it, take your business elsewhere--and let the site know why you did.

12. Don't tell all. Obviously, online retailers need some information to send you a product. But before you fill in every field on any Web site's form, ask yourself whether the information is essential for the transaction. For example, unless you're requesting a credit report, there's no reason to divulge your Social Security number. Also treat with discretion such information as your mother's maiden name (often used to verify ID) and your driver's license number.

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