by Robert A. Crook, Esq., Special Counsel

So, your Cyber Monday has continued into your post-holiday cyber returns. Shopping deals are still everywhere, and they last well into the next year.  As our reliance on the internet grows for our consumer needs, so too do the risks. Unfortunately, the law has not caught up with technology, and there are multiple risks involved when shopping online.  While online payment and security technology have come a long way, you still may encounter problems from time to time.

In a face to face retail situation, if the item you received is not the item represented, the seller is responsible for either correcting the error (at no extra charge) or refunding your money. Online sellers, however, may have different practices that may seem arbitrary, especially if you are purchasing items from overseas.

Most online vendors understand that customer service can make or break their business and will try to fix the problem quickly. But not all vendors do so, and some expenses, such as return shipping charges, will not be reimbursed. Moreover, if you did not receive your items, a seller may take the position that the items you purchased were mailed at your own risk.

What are your legal rights in such circumstances? It is frustrating to think that your local court system may be inadequate. Even in a small claims setting, the court must have jurisdiction over the seller you want to sue, called “personal jurisdiction.” So, as long as the person or business you are suing resides or does business in your state, your local court has personal jurisdiction. The obvious problem arises when the dispute concerns out of state (or out of country) sellers. While you may be doing business with them in your living room, this fact alone may not be enough to bring the unreasonable or unethical seller into your local court.

Realizing that legal enforcement is difficult, major online retailers such as eBay and Amazon have their own online process for resolving disputes over delivery of goods and may serve as an intermediary in the process when a dispute arises concerning merchandise sold through the retailer.

Further, established online retailers must also comply with the federal Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule which requires retailers that process orders by mail, telephone, or the Internet ship items within 30 days. If a seller cannot ship within the promised time, the seller must obtain the buyer’s consent to a delay in shipping or refund payment for the unshipped merchandise.

Similarly, the Fair Credit Billing Act protects you from being billed for items that are not delivered, but nevertheless charged to your credit card. If the online vendor is unwilling or unable to help you, or denies your claim that the item was never delivered, you may write to your credit card issuer’s billing inquiries department about the problem.

For the most part, shopping online is safe—that is, if you use familiar, reputable websites. But sometimes, in order to find that perfect gift, you need to stray from the usual vendors, and that means you must take extra precautions to make sure that you don’t end up as a victim of fraud.

Safe cyber-shopping practices not only helps protect you from unscrupulous sellers, but they also shield you from identity theft risks. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Shop on secure websites. Make sure the website address contains “https” instead of “http,” which indicates an added layer of protection. Remember…”s” stands for secure! Also check the website for a trust mark by a third-party company. These marks demonstrate that a trusted company has taken comprehensive measures to certify security, online business ethics, and customer privacy standards.
  • Use strong passwords. Using complex passwords is a good start, but they also should be changed on a regular basis.
  • Avoid sending checks, wiring money, and making direct money transfers, even if encouraged to do so by the seller. Major credit cards and Paypal offer some consumer protections for most items paid through their systems.
  • Do not shop on public Wi-Fi networks. Always assume public Wi-Fi networks are insecure.
  • Use a good security solution. Invest in a security suite that offers anti-virus, a two-way firewall, and other essential tools, like Sentinel One, McAfee, or Norton to protect your data and your computer from online threats.
  • Monitor account and billing statements for fraudulent activity. After making online transactions, be sure to double check for any accidental or potentially fraudulent charges. Unauthorized credit usage should be reported immediately in order to prevent further activity.

Wishing you the best during this “buy and return” holiday season, and a safe and satisfying online shopping experience!

Robert A Crook Robert Asa Crook, special counsel to the firm, graduated magna cum laude from UCLA and obtained his Juris Doctorate from the University of California, Hastings College of Law.

Mr. Crook’s extensive legal experience includes Property Disputes, Construction Defect Litigation, General Civil Litigation Breach of Contract and Products Liability. In addition to having published appellate cases, he is also the author of several legal articles published in a variety of publications.

As part of his commitment to provide quality legal services to the community, Mr. Crook volunteers his time as an arbitrator and judge pro tem for the Los Angeles Superior Court. He is also on the Board of Directors for the Pasadena Society of Artists.

Mr. Crook is admitted to practice in the State of California, the United States District Court, Eastern, Southern, and Central Districts, and the United States Court of Appeals (Ninth Circuit).