personal finance

6 worrying things about online shopping

I have been an avid member of eBay for the past 14 years and a customer of Amazon for almost as long. Both have transformed the way I shop – and probably not in a good way if you happen to be a local retailer with a physical presence on the high street.

The trouble is, internet retailers have made it too easy; slipping along a path greased with special offers, free next-day delivery and the sort of customer-focussed guarantees that even M&S would blanch at, has led to me into a blinkered, semi-catatonic state in which I see something I like and click unthinkingly.

But I shouldn’t, and nor should you. There never has been, and never will be, any such thing as a free lunch; here are six things about online shopping that you might not know.

Avoid the cloned website scams

You probably don’t own your books and music

When you download music from iTunes or a Kindle book from Amazon you are actually purchasing a licence to use that product rather than buying the product itself.

This might be a seamless and highly convenient way to consume them but if you ever close your account with the retailer (and goodness, they sometimes make it tempting…) you’ll lose everything. Of course, there are workarounds but the retailers would tell you that they’re illegal, and they’re probably right.

The learning: unless you can hold it in your hand you almost certainly don’t own it.

How to download and read eBooks on an iPad

That money-back guarantee might not be worth the paper it isn’t printed on

eBay sets great store in its Money Back Guarantee, as well it might. The Internet is awash with outraged retailers crying foul over shoppers who’ve milked the system to get a refund, which has to be a good thing for the consumer at least.

And yet the guarantee isn’t all it could be. There are exclusions, including

  • Vehicles,
  • Real Estate,
  • Business & Websites for Sale,
  • Digital Content,
  • Intangible Goods,
  • Classified Ads,
  • Services, and
  • some Business Equipment categories.

Most of which seems reasonable to me. The problem is that there are items in the Business Equipment category that have the eBay Money Back Guarantee (eMBG) logo next to them, even when they aren’t covered.

I contacted eBay to see why it would do this. It replied: “It’s important to remember eBay is a marketplace. There are 800 million listings on eBay at any one time, all listed by our members, so it’s really difficult to produce a definitive list of specific items because eBay doesn’t have possession or sight of any of those items.”

The learning: don’t rely on the logo itself as proof of cover and always check with eBay if you’re thinking of buying an item that has been listed in the Business Equipment category.

Avoid getting scammed on eBay

Be careful with help via social media

All of the big retailers have a customer service presence on social media because more and more of us are finding that a concern raised through those channels gets a better response than either a phone call or an email.

Scammers know this and they’ve started imitating those accounts, sending solicitous messages offering to help, but first “could you just confirm your credit card details as proof of identity, please?”

The learning: never, ever, ever give your credit card details to anyone who asks for them as proof of identity.

Don’t get stung by a social media scam

Just because you can return goods doesn’t always mean you should

On the whole, I’ve never had a single problem returning faulty goods – until I received an email from Amazon in which it said that it I had “requested refunds for some items that you returned damaged, defective, or in a condition that does not allow them to be resold.” It went on to say: “Please reply to this email with the reasons why each item was returned.”

Being keen to sort out any misunderstanding (I have only ever returned faulty goods), I asked for details of the items it was referring to. However, Amazon didn’t give any more information other than to say that it was “concerned about the activity on [my] account.

The Consumer Contracts Regulations (which replaces the old Distance Selling Regulations) say that you have an absolute right to cancel your order within 14 days, even if you just change your mind. Amazon extend this time frame to 30 days voluntarily, but if they deem a customer to have returned too many items, they have on rare occasions been known to cancel accounts.

The learning: exercising your legal rights too often could land you on the wrong side of Amazon’s account abuse policy – so make sure you research thoroughly, read reviews before you buy, and don’t be tempted to simply go for a purchase with the intention of sending it back if it’s not quite what you’d hoped for.   

Getting refunds on unwanted Christmas gifts

Free delivery on larger items

There have been a number of instances on eBay recently in which private sellers are offering free delivery on large items such as trailers and tractors. The seller, who is almost invariably using the hacked account of a genuine seller, offers to send the item via a courier after payment has been made.

The problem is that they insist on being paid via bank transfer in advance and you will lose your money when (not if) the item doesn’t arrive.

The learning: always collect larger items yourself and only pay the seller when you’re sure that what you’re buying actually exists.

Annie Shaw: Goods delivered too late and your rights

Deals outside of the official channels

Some online auction sellers will offer to do a deal outside of the usual channels, splitting the savings they’ll make by not having to pay commission with you.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether this is ethical, but would just point out that you will lose pretty much all of your consumer protection if you do so.

The learning: paying the extra and sticking to the rules means that you will be protected if things go wrong, which is why it costs you more in the first place…

If you’ve been the victim of an online shopping fraud you can report it to the police here.

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