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Shopping by telephone or mail is often a convenient alternative to shopping at a store. When you shop by phone or mail, you should know how you're protected by law.

The Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) new Mail or Telephone Order Rule covers goods you order by mail, telephone, computer, and fax machine. If you pay by credit card, you also get protection under the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA).

Mail or Telephone Order Rule

By law, a company should ship your order within the time stated in its ads. If no time is promised, the company should ship your order within 30 days after receiving it.

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

There is one exception to the 30-day Rule. If a company doesn't promise a shipping time, and you are applying for credit to pay for your purchase, the company has 50 days after receiving your order to ship.

Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA)

When you use your credit card to pay for purchases, whether by phone, mail, or in the store, you are protected by the FCBA.

Billing Errors

If you find a billing error on your monthly credit or charge card statement, you may dispute the charge and withhold payment on the disputed amount during the dispute period. The error might be a charge for the wrong amount, or for something you did not accept or was not delivered as agreed.

If you decide to dispute the charge, follow the steps below. Of course, you still must pay for any part of the bill that is not disputed, including finance charges on the undisputed amount. To be protected by the FCBA, you must:

* Write to the creditor at the special address indicated on the monthly statement for "billing inquiries." Include your name, address, and credit card number, and describe the billing error.

* Send your letter soon. It must reach the creditor within 60 days after the first bill containing the error was mailed to you.

The creditor must acknowledge your complaint in writing within 30 days after receiving it, unless the problem has been resolved. The creditor must resolve the dispute within two billing cycles (but not more than 90 days) after receiving your letter.

Unsatisfactory Goods or Services

If you bought an unsatisfactory product, you also may dispute the charge for that product and withhold payment on the disputed amount during the dispute period. Again, you must pay for any part of the bill that is not disputed, including finance charges on the undisputed amount. To take advantage of this protection regarding the quality of goods, you must:

* Have bought the item in your home state or within 100 miles of your current billing address. The amount charged must be more than $50.

* Make a good faith effort first to resolve the dispute with the seller. You are not required to use any special procedure.

There are certain exceptions to this protection. The dollar and distance limitations don't apply if the seller is also the card issuer or if a special business relationship exists between the seller and card issuer.

Precautions

Before ordering by phone or mail, consider your experience with the company or its general reputation. Determine the company's refund and return policies, the product's availability, and the total cost of your order.

Contacts for Resolving Problems

If you have problems with mail or phone order purchases, first try to resolve your dispute with the company. If that doesn't work, the following resources may be helpful.

* The Better Business Bureau (BBB). Contact the BBB in your area or near the company.

* State and local consumer protection offices. Contact the offices near you and near the company.

* Action-line and consumer reporters. Check with your local newspaper, TV, and radio stations for a contact.

* The Direct Marketing Association (DMA). Write: DMA Mail Order Action Line, 1101 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036

* Postal Inspectors. Call your local post office and ask for the Inspector-in-Charge.

You may want to have your name removed from direct mail or telephone lists. Be aware, however, that if you purchase goods by mail after your name is removed, it may be added again. You may want to make a new request to have your name removed every few years. You also may want to ask mail or telephone order companies to retain your name on in-house lists only.

To remove your name from many national direct mail lists, write:

DMA Mail Preference Service
P.O. Box 9008
Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008

To avoid unwanted telephone sales calls from many national marketers, send your name, address, and telephone number to:

DMA Telephone Preference Service
P.O. Box 9014
Farmingdale, NY 11735-9014

For More Information

To learn more about your credit billing rights, send for the FTC's free brochure Fair Credit Billing or Best Sellers, which lists more than 100 free publications on credit and other consumer topics. Contact: Public Reference, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580; 202-326-2222. TDD: 202-326-2502.

If you have complaints about mail or telephone order companies, write: Division of Enforcement, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580. Although the FTC does not usually resolve individual disputes, your comments can be useful in its law enforcement efforts.

Facts for Consumers from the Federal Trade Commission in cooperation with the Direct Marketing Association and the American Association of Retired Persons

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