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You are here: Information Center >> Consumer Protection >> Mail-Order Shopping

Mail-Order Shopping

Mail order can be a convenient way to make a purchase, and there are many legitimate companies who sell by mail order. However, as with any type of transaction, there are still things that you should keep in mind.

What should I know before ordering by mail?

Before ordering a product through the mail, keep the following things in mind:

  • Is the item you want to buy described well in words, not just pictures? Know what you are actually getting before you order.
  • Are there handling and shipping charges in addition to the price of the item? If so, is it still a good buy?
  • Can you trust the company you are buying from?
  • Does the company offer a written, money-back guarantee if you are not happy with the product?
  • Does the company provide a street address and contact phone number? Never buy from a company that just gives a P.O. Box number.
  • Beware of exaggerated claims for products or unrealistically low prices for merchandise.
  • Check the Better Business Bureau for a reliability report on the company with whom you are thinking of doing business.

How should I pay for my mail-order purchase?

Never send cash when paying for a mail-order purchase. If a problem arises, it will be easier to solve if you have paid by credit card.

I have decided to make a mail-order purchase. Are there any steps I can take to protect myself?

Keep a copy of the advertisement, a record of the name and address of the company, exactly what you ordered, the date you placed the order, the amount you paid for the item and your method of payment. Keep a record of any delivery period that was promised.

Check what you ordered as soon as it arrives. If you are dissatisfied, immediately get in touch with the company.

When should I receive my merchandise?

Under FTC rules, if an advertisement states that your merchandise will be "rushed" to you within a certain time period, you must receive it within that time frame. If no date is given, the manufacturer must make the shipment within 30 days.

If the company is unable to ship within the promised time, they must give you an "option notice." This notice gives you the choice of agreeing to the delay or canceling your order.

If you decide to cancel, the seller must refund all of your money within 7 days of your cancellation.

There is one exception to the 30-day rule: if a company does not promise a shipping time, and you are applying for credit to pay for your purchase, the company has 50 days to ship after receiving your order.

Can a mail-order company send me substitute merchandise?

They can send you anything they want, but that does not mean that you have to keep it. If you do not want the substituted merchandise, send it back and ask for a refund. If you do not return the merchandise, the company can assume that you are accepting the substitute and bill you accordingly.

Is shopping on the Internet safe?

For the most part, the information found above regarding mail-order shopping applies to Internet shopping. However, there are few points that are unique to the Internet. These are:

  • Confirm the online seller’s physical address and phone number in case you have questions or problems.
  • If you get an e-mail or pop-up message while you are browsing that asks for personal or financial information, do not reply or click on the link in the message. Legitimate companies do not ask for this information via e-mail.
  • Print and save records of your online transactions, including the product description and price, the online receipt and copies of every e-mail you send to or receive from the seller.
  • Check the company’s privacy policy. It should tell you what personal information the Web site is collecting, why and how they are going to use the information. If you do not like their policy, consider shopping elsewhere.

TIP: If you initiate a transaction and are charging your purchase, make sure the site is secure. Look for a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or make sure the company’s URL address begins with "https:" (the "s" stands for "secure").

Do I have to pay for merchandise I did not order?

No, you can treat it as a gift. Federal laws prohibit mailing unordered merchandise to consumers and then demanding payment.

Do I have to notify the seller that I am keeping the merchandise without paying for it?

While you are not legally bound to notify the seller, it will not hurt to write the company a letter stating that you did not order the item and that you have a legal right to keep it without paying for it. A letter may prevent the seller from sending you repeated bills or dunning notices. It may also clear up a shipping error.

TIP: You should make a copy of the letter and send the original by certified mail, return receipt requested. Keep the return receipt and the copy of the letter. You may need them at a later date to establish that you did not order the merchandise.

I received merchandise as a result of a shipping error. What should I do?

In this situation, write the company and tell them of the error, offering to return the merchandise if they pay for postage and handling. Give them a specific yet reasonable amount of time to pick up the merchandise or arrange to have it returned at no expense to you. Inform the seller that you reserve the right to keep the merchandise or dispose of it after that date.

Once again, you should make a copy of the letter, and send the original by certified mail, return receipt requested. Keep the return receipt and the copy of the letter. You may need them at a later date to establish that you tried to return the merchandise.

What merchandise can legally be sent to me without my consent?

You may legally be sent free samples that are clearly and plainly marked as such and merchandise mailed by charitable organizations asking for contributions. In both of these instances, you may keep the merchandise without paying for it.

How can I protect myself against receiving unordered merchandise?

Be cautious when participating in sweepstakes or placing an order for goods advertised as "free," "trial" or "unusually low-priced." Read all of the fine print to ensure that you are not joining a "club," with regular purchasing or notification obligations.

Where can I go for help in dealing with this problem?

You should always try to resolve your dispute with the company first. However, if the company is unresponsive, contact your state or local consumer protection office, local U.S. Postal Inspector or the Better Business Bureau in your area for help.