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Most businesses want you as a satisfied, repeat customer. However, there may be instances when you are not satisfied and you need to know how to remedy the situation. This file explains your rights regarding mail and telephone order shopping, unordered merchandise, and door-to-door sales. It also explains how to write an effective complaint letter and lists some resources for additional consumer assistance.

MAIL AND TELEPHONE ORDER SALES

Ordering merchandise by mail, telephone, computer, or fax machine can be convenient ways to save time and energy. But if your merchandise arrives late or not at all, you need to know your rights.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Mail or Telephone Order Rule states that 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.

If the company is unable to ship within 30 days or the promised time, the company must send 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 requirement. 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 after receiving your order to ship.

FAIR CREDIT BILLING ACT (FCBA)

You also have protections, under the FCBA, against billing errors and the receipt of unsatisfactory goods and services if you use your credit card to pay for purchases made by mail or telephone.

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 order.

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 mailing 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 the letter.

UNSATISFACTORY GOODS OR SERVICES

You also may dispute a charge if you bought a product by mail or telephone and found it unsatisfactory. As with a billing error, you may withhold payment on the disputed amount during the dispute period but you must pay for any part of the bill that is not disputed, including finance charges on the undisputed amount. In order 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.

UNORDERED MERCHANDISE

If you receive an item you did not order, federal law states you can consider the item as a gift. You cannot be forced to pay for the item or return it.

If you decide to keep the merchandise, you may want to send the seller a letter stating your intention, even though you have no legal obligation to do so. Your letter may discourage the seller from sending you repeated bills, or it may clear up an error. You may want to send the letter by certified mail and keep the return receipt and a copy of the letter. These records will help you establish later, if necessary, that you did not order the merchandise.

There are two types of merchandise that may be sent legally without your consent: free samples that are clearly marked as such; and merchandise mailed by charities asking for contributions. In either case, you may keep the shipments.

DOOR-TO-DOOR SALES

Shopping at home can be convenient and enjoyable. But there may be times when you change your mind about a door-to-door sales purchase.

The FTC Cooling-Off Rule gives you three days to cancel purchases that are made in your home or at a location that is not the permanent place of business or local address of the seller. However, the Cooling-Off Rule does not cover sales that:

* are under $25.

* are made entirely by mail or telephone.

* are the result of prior negotiations made by you at the seller's permanent location.

* are needed to meet an emergency and you write and sign an explanation waiving your right to cancel.

* are made as part of your request for the seller to perform repairs or maintenance on your personal property (although, any purchase made beyond the maintenance or repair request is covered).

* involve real estate, insurance, or securities.

* are of automobiles sold at temporary locations, provided the seller has at least one permanent place of business.

* involve arts and crafts sold at fairs or other locations, such as shopping malls, civic centers, and schools.

Under the Rule, the salesperson must orally inform you of your cancellation rights at the time of sale. You also must be given two copies of a cancellation form and a copy of your contract or receipt. The contract or receipt should be dated, show the name and address of the seller, and explain your right to cancel. The contract or receipt must be in the same language used in the sales presentation.

SIGNING THE CONTRACT

Before you sign a contract, get as much information as possible in writing. Make sure the contract matches the claims made by the seller. Be sure all blank spaces in your contract are filled in. Also, get a copy of the contract or other document you sign; keep it in a safe place for future reference.

HOW TO CANCEL A DOOR-TO-DOOR SALE

To cancel a sale, sign and date one copy of the cancellation form. Make sure the envelope is post-marked before midnight of the third business day after the contract date. (Saturday is considered a business day but Sunday and most federal holidays are not.) Because proof of the mailing date and receipt are important, consider sending the cancellation form by certified mail. Keep the other copy of the cancellation form for your records. You can write your own cancellation letter if you are not given cancellation forms. But let the FTC know that you did not receive cancellation forms from the seller.

WHAT THE SELLER MUST DO IF YOU CANCEL

If you cancel, the seller must, within 10 days:

* cancel and return any papers you signed.

* refund all your money and tell you whether any product left with you will be picked up.

* return any trade-in.

Within 20 days, the seller must either pick up the items, or, if you agreed to send back the items, reimburse you for mailing expenses. If you do not make the items available to the seller or if you agreed to return the items but fail to do so, you remain obligated under the contract.

IF YOU HAVE A COMPLAINT

Try to resolve your dispute with the seller first. Make sure you act quickly. Some companies may not accept responsibility if you fail to complain within a certain period of time.

Send a letter of complaint. A letter is important because it puts your complaint on record and lets the company know your are serious about pursuing the dispute. Be sure you keep a copy for your records.

If you cannot get satisfaction acting alone, consider contacting the following organizations for further information and assistance.

* State and local consumer protection offices.

* Your local Better Business Bureau (BBB).

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

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

* The Federal Trade Commission. Write: Correspondence Branch, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580.

* Mail/telephone orders only. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA). Write: DMA, 1101 17th St, NW, #705, Washington, DC 20036.

* Door-to-Door sales only. The Direct Selling Association (DSA) can assist you with your complaint if the door-to-door seller is a member. Write: DSA, 1776 K Street, NW, Washington, DC 20006.

DISPUTE RESOLUTION OPTIONS

You also may want to consider dispute resolution programs. They are an increasingly popular way to settle disagreements. They can be quicker, less expensive, more private, and less stressful than going to court. Many businesses, private organizations, and public agencies offer these programs. Two resolution techniques are mediation and arbitration.

Through mediation, you and the other party try to resolve the dispute with the help of a neutral third party -- a mediator. In the course of informal meetings, the mediator tries to help resolve your differences. The mediator does not make a decision; it is up to you and the other party to reach an agreement. The mediator is there to help you find a solution.

In arbitration, you present your case before an arbitrator, who makes a decision about the case. Arbitration is less formal than court, though you and the other party may appear at hearings, present evidence, or call and question each other's witnesses. The decision may be binding and legally enforceable in court.

Consider contacting the following organizations to find out what dispute resolution options are available in your area: local and state consumer protection offices; small claims courts; BBBs; and bar associations.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

If you are not sure what federal agency has jurisdiction over your inquiry or complaint, contact the Federal Information Center (FIC). The FIC is listed in the U.S. government section of phone books in major U.S. cities. For a complete listing of FIC numbers, send a postcard to: Federal Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009.
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modified from 12/94 Federal Trade Commission material

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