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A Thing Word to the Wise

Word to the Wise

    Various Web sites and consumer associations publish guidelines for Web shopping. These guidelines usually list things consumers should do or watch out for when shopping online, to be sure they are not taken for a ride.

     While the sites do offer some helpful hints, such as reading a product warranty before buying or tallying shipping charges and taxes to make sure you really are getting a good deal, they also offer some other tips that may mean well, but do not seem to tell the whole story.

     For instance, many guidelines tell consumers to read the privacy statement and find out what the site operators learn about their consumers and what they do with that data.

     It’s always a good idea to read the privacy statement, no matter what site you’re visiting. But, not all sites will give you all the information you need. A privacy statement may indicate that yes, demographic information will be sold, but it will not say to whom or for how long. Or, if data is gathered for a company’s own use, but not for third parties, that may not be included in the privacy statement.

      For example, RealNetworks Inc., was found to be monitoring their customers’ music preferences, including what CDs they listened to online and how many songs they copied, and sending this data back to their Seattle headquarters. While consumer-specific records were not kept, the fact that this data was being monitored was not disclosed in their privacy statement. After a security expert discovered the practice, RealNetworks did update their privacy statement to say the technology is intended “to understand the interests and needs of our users so that we can offer valuable personalized services.”

     Many Web shopping guidelines urge consumers to look for icons, such as locks or keys, to see if a site is secure. That’s a great idea but, a consumer should also make sure it is being used at the time. A little lock in the corner is no good unless it is enacted.

     Most consumer groups encourage Web shoppers to use credit cards when shopping online, instead of checks or debit cards. While it is true that most credit card companies limit liability to $50, the Fair Credit Billing Act does have some limitations that can affect Web shopping.

     The Fair Credit Billing Act states that a consumer can only effectively dispute charges billed to a credit card (but that you have not yet paid) if all of the following conditions are met:

    1. A good faith attempt to resolve the dispute with the seller has been made;

     2. The dispute involves $50 or more; and

     3. The dispute arose within the state of the credit card billing address, or within 100 miles of the address; and

     4. The seller of the goods has not issued the credit card that you used to pay.

   The problem can be with number three: if the goods are purchased online, there may be some legal uncertainty about where a dispute arose and if it meets the 100 mile limit. So, in this instance, a check may be just as good as credit, if not better. Because with a check, if a problem arose, a consumer could always stop payment on a check or close the account.

     The bottom line is, Web shopping and traditional shopping both pose risks to the consumer. It is being aware of those risks and shopping wisely that will save time and money in the long run.

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