Mail-order bargains may offer promises too good to be true


Not long ago, a friend was in the market for an item of electronic equipment. He shopped locally until he was sure of his selection. But prices were much higher than those he had seen advertised by mail-order firms in magazines.

So, armed with telephone, magazine and credit card, he set about his quest for substantial savings.

He was particularly drawn to one advertisement that promised "free same-day shipping" and had a toll-free order number. When he dialed the 800 number, he was surprised, though not alarmed, by some of the things he heard.

"What is your name?" the clerk first asked. This was not a place where products were discussed. It was where orders were taken, quickly. My friend provided his name, address, the name of the item he was ordering -- and his credit card number.

"Shipping is free if you send us a certified check or money order," said the clerk. "If you use a credit card, the charge is $5.95." The ad had made no mention of this.

"Will you need cords?" Well, yes, it certainly will be difficult to plug the thing in without a cord. "And connecting cables?" Yes, those certainly will be necessary, too.

Two weeks passed and the item didn't arrive. He phoned the toll-free number to find out what had happened.

"I'm sorry, but customer inquiries are handled by our information line," said the clerk who answered. The clerk gave a number -- this one was not toll-free. The customer dialed it and was put on hold while music played for several minutes. Finally, an irritated-sounding employee picked up the phone.

"Oh, yeah, those were out of stock," said the employee. "We got them in yesterday and they'll go out today."

The item arrived the same day as the credit-card bill. The amount of the charge was much greater than my friend had expected. Those cords and cables were much more expensive than they would have been had he purchased them locally. His savings had rapidly diminished, though still he was a little bit ahead.

Even more surprising, the only item shipped was the factory-sealed box containing the piece of equipment. Inside were the cords and cables which, as it turned out, were included with the item he ordered.

Looking at the cards and papers that came with the unit, he discovered that it was "gray market," meaning that it was not brought into the country by the product's official importer. If the equipment ever breaks, he will have a hard time getting it fixed. He phoned the company to complain and, after he held for several minutes, the connection was broken.

The lesson here may sound familiar: You get what you pay for in products and services. Unrealistically low prices almost always are unreal. It may not be a matter of quality or service. Expected savings can evaporate in a cloud of incidental charges.

How do you protect yourself? Before you order, call the Better Business Bureau in the city where the firm is headquartered. This is your best source for finding out whether the business is on the up-and-up. A list of complaints tells you to shop elsewhere, perhaps locally.

If the company passes muster with the BBB, when you order make entirely clear what you are ordering and what it will cost before you give out your credit card number. If you are in a hurry for the item, ask if it is in stock. Ask, too, if it is legitimately imported merchandise. Get the name of the clerk.

Don't be fooled into ordering accessories that you may not need or that are offered at additional price. The prices of those accessories could be ridiculously high, or they could be cheap imitations of the manufacturer's original equipment. Be wary, too, of additional shipping charges added to each item.

If you believe you have been shabbily treated, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. It will help to warn others, and it is your best revenge.

There are hundreds of responsible mail-order firms that will bend over backward to be fair and to make sure you become a satisfied customer. Be aware there also are hundreds of companies that are just a hair on the legal side of confidence games. Learn to recognize the warning signs.

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