How to Avoid the Biggest Web Shopping Annoyances

After You Buy

Good luck calling us.

It's true: some companies hate it when you call. Why? Because they have to pay someone to answer the phone.

"Some retailers just don't want to be bothered with answering questions on the phone." --Ellen Hobbs, Austin, Texas
Photograph: Matthew Mahon
Video game producer Ellen Hobbs of Austin, Texas, knows how hard it is to get a living, breathing person from an online store on the phone. She had a problem with an Amazon.com order, but could not find a customer-service phone number on the giant e-tailer's Web site. So she combed the Internet and finally found it on the site of another Amazon customer.

"It's a shame that there are still some major retailers out there that just don't want to be bothered with answering questions over the phone," Hobbs says, no doubt speaking for many.

Hobbs reports that Amazon has gotten better about advertising its once-elusive toll-free phone number. Some other big sites still make calling difficult, however: I attempted to find a customer-service number for Apple's iTunes and gave up after 15 minutes of searching.

In a survey by the Virginia-based Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business, not being able to talk to a human being topped the list of what people don't like about online retailers' customer service.

Businesses such as Apple and eBay say they prefer to receive customer questions by way of Web forms or e-mail; both companies say that they try to reply to all queries within 24 to 48 hours. By funneling inquiries though Web forms, the companies say, customers can sometimes get the answers they need without ever calling.

If having the option of placing a phone call to a company you do business with is important to you, don't buy from merchants that fail to post a phone number conspicuously on their Web site. But if you have already made a purchase, you can try looking up the firm's number by using an information or directory service such as Switchboard.com.

Money back is never guaranteed.

Procedures for seeking refunds can be frustratingly elaborate. Edie Milliken, a housewife from Lewiston, Maine, says she spent nearly a month trying to reclaim $73 from McAfee for Internet Security Suite 8.0, which she had bought from a local retailer and could never get working properly on her PC.

Milliken says that she never thought she would have so much difficulty taking advantage of the company's "30-Day Money-Back Satisfaction Guarantee" pledge.

First, Milliken says, McAfee made her spend a total of 40 hours over several weeks using online tech support to verify that she couldn't get the program to run on her machine. "I told them repeatedly I wasn't interested in trying to fix the problem, I just wanted my money back," she says.

She did eventually receive a total-refund check from McAfee, but not until 41 days after she had first called the company.

McAfee told PC World that its money-back guarantee doesn't work the way Milliken says it did. "A consumer can get a refund no matter what the reason if they contact us within 30 days," says Francie Coulter, McAfee spokesperson. Coulter declined to comment on Milliken's experience in particular, saying that she was unfamiliar with the case.

As for obtaining refunds from retailers, even when you regain your cash from reputable companies such as Best Buy, Sears, or Staples, you may get stuck with restocking fees of 10 to 15 percent of the purchase price.

What can you do to avoid the money-back guarantee runaround? Ask retailers about (or check their Web site carefully for) their refund policy. And if a product comes with its own money-back guarantee, make sure you read it closely, too.

Our freebies are anything but.

When does a "free" cell phone cost as much as $36? Welcome to the world of not-so-free freebies.

Cell phone companies often advertise phones as "free" but charge you for them nevertheless. Not to be confused with "activation fees" levied on new customers, phone-upgrade fees are charged to existing customers who request new phones.

Cingular, for example, says it charges an $18 upgrade fee when customers get a new handset. Sprint/Nextel customers face as much as $36 in handset-upgrade fees.

In posts on gripe sites such as My3Cents.com and PlanetFeedback.com, some customers say that they were never told about the fees at the time of purchase, and that they were surprised to see them surface on their phone bill as long as two months later. By then the window for cancellation of the purchases without termination fees had expired.

Cingular and Sprint/Nextel officials defend the imposition of these fees by saying that they cover service and administrative costs associated with upgrading customers to a new handset.

Officials for various carriers also insist that their sales representatives and Web sites make all fees clear to customers at the time they purchase a new phone.

To read more about cell-phone-related gripes, see "Why We Love to Hate Our Cell Phone Company."

You'll pay for these gifts, again and again.

The cell phone industry isn't the only source of freebies that come with catches and generate consumer complaints, however.

Pitches for free $25 gift cards or cash back on just-completed purchases are causing a tidal wave of discontent as hundreds of people receive unexpected credit card charges stemming from such offers. Many buyers who have taken advantage of the offers say that at the time, they didn't realize they were accepting trial memberships in shopping services that turn into monthly paid subscriptions if not cancelled. Internet searches reveal a flood of complaints against the firms behind the offers, including Vertrue (formerly MemberWorks), Trilegiant, and Webloyalty.com.

In a class-action suit filed against Webloyalty.com in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, a Fandango.com customer says that after he bought a movie ticket he was charged a monthly fee for a discount-club membership he had never requested.

The suit, filed in September, alleges that after a customer made a purchase from one of Webloyalty's 75 e-commerce partners, a pop-up window appeared promising a $10-off coupon for their next purchase. If the customer accepted the offer and gave an e-mail address to redeem the coupon, the customer's billing information was automatically transferred to Webloyalty.

Webloyalty would then automatically bill the customer's credit or debit card a $9 or $10 monthly fee for a membership in its Reservations Rewards discount club. And if the customer did not cancel the membership by contacting Webloyalty within 30 days, these monthly charges would continue.

Webloyalty's CEO Rick Fernandes said in a statement, "The lawsuit is frivolous. It completely misrepresents the manner in which Webloyalty.com conducts its business."

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