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

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Unhappy Woman
Antonio Guillem /

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 single most common retail rip-off.

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 couple of years 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 (long after everyone else had eaten) 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.

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 or her state’s office of consumer protection, contacting the company via Twitter or Facebook and/or posting her problem on a complaint site.

And while she’s doing that she should also proceed to 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. This is why you always shop with a credit card and never a debit card, because debit cards don’t offer this valuable consumer protection.

Disputing a charge isn’t 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,” then the onus of proof is typically on the merchant.

If your complaint is legitimate — and not receiving merchandise certainly qualifies — you won’t have to pay for the item. Whether it’s the merchant or the card company that ultimately pays depends on the circumstances, but the important thing is you won’t.

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, 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 feds

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.

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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’m a CPA, and I have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate.

Got more money questions? Browse lots more Ask Stacy answers here.

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