Ask Stacy: I Got Ripped Off by an Online Store. What Can I Do?

A reader ordered something online and never received it. She feels helpless, but she shouldn’t. She has powerful weapons at her disposal.

We’ve all been there. We buy something, either online or off, then feel we’ve been taken advantage of. We can’t sue, so instead we stew.

But you may have a lot more power than you think.

Here’s this week’s reader question:

I recently made a purchase from the website of a company in California. It’s been a month now and I have not received the product I ordered. I have called the customer service number and left a message, [but] did not get a call back. I have sent several emails requesting the merchandise or a refund. Is there a source I can report this to? Is there anyone that investigates fraudulent businesses on the Internet? Thanks! — Debbie

Before we get to Debbie’s question, check out this video. It’s about the top five consumer complaints and how to avoid them. One of those complaints? Not getting what you paid for.

Now, let’s attack today’s question.

While it’s easy to feel helpless and alone in a consumer struggle, you have powerful weapons at your disposal. Here’s a list, along with the order in which to use them.

Step 1: Complain

Sometimes complaining can get results.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I joined a group of people at a local restaurant. A few bites into her stir-fry, my wife uncovered a long, black hair. The manager was apologetic and replaced the dish but offered nothing else. Nothing off the bill, no free dessert — nothing. While I wasn’t happy, I paid the bill without comment.

That night, however, my wife became ill. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say she was up half the night and barely made it to work the next day. Enough was enough. I went to the restaurant’s website and wrote a detailed email describing the entire event. Two days later, a regional manager called to tell me he was reversing the charge on my credit card bill and sending me a $50 gift certificate to encourage a return visit.

Alas, our reader Debbie has tried to get satisfaction from her merchant via email and phone. What she hasn’t tried, however, are nontraditional methods, like writing to the company president, contacting the Better Business Bureau, sending out a tweet or using a complaint site. Some of the most popular:

Reputable companies often monitor these sites, so showing up on one or more could help. But just in case, as she’s doing this, she should also be taking the next step.

Step 2: Dispute the charge

One of the best features of credit cards is they allow you to protest a charge and have it removed from your credit card bill. It’s not difficult. You simply call the number on the back of your card, and you’ll be directed to a form where you’ll explain what happened and dispute the charge.

Once you file a dispute, the card issuer will put the charge on hold, then open an investigation and contact the merchant. If it’s a case of he said, she said, the onus of proof is typically on the merchant.

If your complaint is legitimate — not receiving merchandise certainly qualifies — you won’t have to pay for the item. Whether the merchant or the card company pays depends on the circumstances.

The law allowing you to gain the upper hand on credit card transactions is the Fair Credit Billing Act. It requires that credit card issuers create a mechanism allowing you to dispute unauthorized charges, mistakes, products that don’t deliver what was promised, or products or services that weren’t delivered at all.

The problem for merchants is that this law also allows the unscrupulous to pretend they never received their purchases. The problem for banks is that millions of transactions are disputed annually and must be investigated. The problem for both is disputes cost time and money.

But these aren’t Debbie’s problems. The law is on her side.

Honest merchants hate disputes because not only can a sale be reversed, but if it happens too many times, their cost to process credit cards may increase. They could even lose the right to accept credit cards entirely, which would be the end of any online business and most brick-and-mortar ones.

So any responsible merchant should be concerned about disputes and react quickly when one arises. But because this weapon is powerful, it should not be pulled out until you’ve tried to work it out with the merchant.

Step 3: Complain to the FTC

Unfortunately, sometimes the merchant and your money are nowhere to be found.

Depending on the circumstances, you may be out the money. But you still need to do what you can to expose fraudulent businesses. This is your responsibility, if not to help yourself, to help those who follow.

If you feel you’ve been defrauded, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at this page of its website. Here you can file a complaint about many types of businesses, including online shopping.

Complaining to the FTC will not get you a refund. It doesn’t intervene in individual complaints. Its function is to collect data to help it “detect patterns of fraud and abuse, which may lead to investigations and eliminate unfair business practices.”

If your complaint is about a financial service, however, like a loan, bank or credit card, there is a federal agency that might intervene on your behalf. You can submit a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau here.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

Got a question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

About me

I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I’ve earned a CPA (now inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. If you’ve got time to kill, you can learn more about me here.

Stacy Johnson

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  • Frank Bello

    My bank account with Wells Fargo was breached. I called costumer service right right away after receiving an e-mail alert and my money was returned three days later.Thast’s why I try to call as fast possible. Thank you.

  • James Mejuto

    I’m an avid consumer advocate but I don’t understand why people eating out expect the restaurant to reimburse them and also replace the meal. If you experience human hair in your plate, report it to the manager, do not pay for the meal and walk out with a warning to the manager. You shouldn’t expect them to give you money! Just walk out !

    • nonya bidness

      don’t agree… it is totally acceptable to expect amends and dangerous to just walk out (hello police, someone just walked out without paying)….

    • RB

      Stating what you expect in a respectful manner is the way to go. When that has happened to me, I tell them I don’t want the food, don’t want a replacement (by then I don’t want to eat there), and I don’t want to pay for the messed up plate. As I’m still willing to pay for the food that was fine, they are usually happy with that solution. Walking out, however, looks like you’re trying to get out of paying for the meal. After reporting, you should get an amended check so you can’t be accused of anything.

  • mibtp

    You forgot to mention to not pay with a debit card! Banks don’t treat them like credit cards. You can’t dispute them. Citibank will only “email the vendor” and “request” a refund. But they say they are under no obligation to do so and will not issue a chargeback.

    • Ed Boyd

      So why is most debit cards either a Visa or Mastercard. If they are under either of those two copanies,then they must follow the dispute procedures for Visa or Mastercard. They are either Visa or Mastercard, debit cards are nor hybrids. Dispute procedures for credit Visa/Mastercard but not for debit Visa/Mastercard? That’s like being half pregnant!

      • No, mibtp is correct. Debit cards are completely different than credit cards, and it’s something I should have mentioned. Visa, Mastercard…whatever. You should ALWAYS use a credit card to shop online and NEVER a debit card.

    • Phillip McMurran

      I have a VISA debit card through my credit union and I have disputed charges and gotten refunds.

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