What You Should Know to Make On-Line Purchases of PC Hardware and Software
1. Always use a credit card. You don't forfeit your rights as a
consumer if you pay by cash, but you forfeit the most practical way to enforce
those rights--credit-card companies' procedures for refunding your money if
there's a problem with the product or its delivery.
If a product doesn't arrive as promised or work as advertised, and the vendor won't fulfill its obligations or comply with your reasonable requests, your best recourse is to inform your credit-card company. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you have 60 days from the occurrence of the problem in which to report the details, in writing. No credit-card company guarantees it will solve every problem or issue a charge-back for every disputed purchase, but the clout of the creditor is often the heaviest weapon you can wield.
2. Get a no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee. It's common for hardware vendors to back their products with a 30-day return-for-refund period, although even the most honorable companies may offer less than 30-day guarantees for certain product categories such as notebook PCs. This is a result of consumers taking advantage of vendors by "borrowing" or using products without paying for them.
Double-check the details of any money-back guarantee. Many vendors refuse to take back opened software packages, though others, especially those specializing in software, are more accommodating. Clarify whether your refund will include shipping charges.
3. Avoid restocking fees. It's the sometimes shocking reason you should always read the fine print: Restocking fees--often 15 percent to 20 percent of your total purchase price--can take a big bite out of a money-back return policy.
Be sure to ask about the existence and terms of any restocking policies before you buy. Often different restocking fees apply to different types of products, or even different parts of a system purchase. PC hardware, for instance, might be returnable without a restocking fee, but bundled software may be subject to a fee or nonreturnable.
4. Avoid credit-card surcharges. If an advertisement offers a discount
on cash purchases, think twice. It's another way of saying that the vendor
imposes a surcharge on credit-card purchases, inciting you to violate the No.1
rule of mail-order shopping--always use a credit card.
5. Know the details of your service policy. All things being equal, a
three-year or five-year warranty is obviously more attractive than a one-year
warranty. But sometimes, a solid one-year plan--one that covers parts and labor
on all components, not just some, and includes onsite service at your discretion
rather than the vendor's--can be better than three years of haggling and
Ask for a thorough, preferably written explanation of the company's warranty, including which contractor or subcontractor it uses to provide onsite service in your area. Learn at whose discretion onsite service is offered for problems that don't lend themselves to phone support, whether you must install replacement parts yourself, who pays for return shipping for major repairs, and whether a loaner system is available during downtime.
6. Clarify delivery terms. Mail-order merchants are obligated to ship
products within the time period they specify. The agreed-upon time may be
precise (e.g., two days) or vague (e.g., between four and six weeks), but must
be finite. If the vendor can't deliver within that time, it must inform you in
writing of the delay and recommit to another date. You have the right to cancel
your order if the delay is unacceptable to you, but you must reply--silence on
your part is deemed acquiescence.
There's no reason for a canceled order in this case to involve any refund, as a vendor cannot bill you until it ships your goods. Nevertheless, it's smart to contact your credit-card company at least once a week after ordering to verify that there's been no advance billing. If you ever encounter an early charge, contact the vendor immediately. If it cannot provide a shipping invoice or airbill number that you can track yourself, have the charge removed until you're certain the goods have been shipped.
7. Accept no substitutes. Before you finalize an order, especially on
a PC, have the vendor send or fax you a detailed list of components. Don't
settle for a spec sheet that leaves component choices open--one, for example,
that merely lists "graphics card" if you're expecting a particular
brand and model of graphics accelerator. If you don't get things spelled out,
you'll have little recourse if you don't get what you thought you had ordered.
8. Pay no more than advertised. Pay less, if possible--give extra points to a vendor who volunteers to pass along lowered component costs since an ad was printed, or to meet a verifiably lower price from a competitor.
Don't fall for the classic bait-and-switch scheme, in which a product is
advertised at an enticingly low price but the vendor says it's sold out and
pitches a more expensive product in stock. If the product is available, but the
vendor says component-cost fluctuations have driven its price up, it's your
call: Legitimate component increases are not uncommon, but many vendors are
willing to shave their profits and honor their advertised prices rather than
pass along their problems to you.
9. Get all sale terms in writing. It's nice to hear all the right
answers to your questions over the phone, but memories of cordial conversations
mean nothing if you're trying to prove yourself in a dispute. For every rule
above, you should get the vendor's position stated in writing. For every vendor
that balks at providing this information, there's another who'll be happy to
send you documentation of its policies by mail, fax, or e-mail.
For your part, keep track of all your correspondence. This includes copies of
your credit-card receipts and confirmation letters, along with the advertisement
that may have inspired you to call a particular vendor. Each time you telephone
a vendor, note the date and time, the purpose of the call, and the name of the
person with whom you spoke. If anything should go wrong later, the data you've
collected will help you reach a resolution.
10. When things go wrong. This advice applies when shopping as well as for post-purchase problems. If a vendor strikes you as irresponsible, unresponsive, or unprofessional during your initial inquiries, there's no reason to believe it'll do better after you buy. If you follow all these rules and still encounter problems, your first move should be to inform your credit-card company--your best chance of gaining retribution. You can follow up by filing a complaint with the local Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org) at the mail-order vendor's location.
If you can prove fraud, contact the Postal Inspector of the city in which the vendor is headquartered. Business and civic organizations like the BBB, Direct Marketing Association, and other consumer-protection agencies can do little more than log complaints, but the U.S. Postal Service has legal authority to pursue fraudulent mail-order marketers.
Finally, never return a product, in dispute or otherwise, without obtaining a Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA) code from the vendor. Whenever possible, keep possession of the product until your complaint is resolved.
Links to on-line PC shopping sites (some of these sites will accept a Purchase Order):