August 22, 2019

Mail-order headache cured by COMBAT

Phyllis Johnson of Belfast contacted COMBAT after BuyWell Shoppers of California had not delivered catalog merchandise four months after she had placed her order. Johnson’s experience is a perfect example of the right way to handle mail-order problems and how state and federal law provides protections for the consumer.

Trying to get a jump on the Christmas season, Johnson started her shopping in August when she ordered a jacket and gloves for $155.68 from BuyWell, paying with her personal check. Within two weeks her canceled check, endorsed by the company, arrived in her bank statement.

After not hearing from the company by late September, she sent a registered, return receipt requested letter of inquiry. The signed verification of delivery card came back but still no merchandise or mail from the company. After a total of four months had elapsed, with Christmas fast approaching, Johnson contacted COMBAT.

A COMBAT dispute resolution volunteer wrote the company with a full description of Johnson’s problem. We reminded the company that to wait four months for merchandise is not acceptable because the Federal Trade Commission’s 30-day mail-order policy clearly states that if merchandise cannot be sent within 30 days and an alternative delivery schedule is not provided, the consumer must be notified and given the choice of waiting an additional specified time or requesting a refund.

Since the FTC standards had not been met, we advised BuyWell that it was in direct violation of law. We gave the company 14 days to send either the merchandise or a refund in the amount of $155.68 with a warning that if it did not respond as requested, we would have no alternative but to contact state and federal agencies.

Seven days later COMBAT received a reply from the company that said, “We have no record of any purchase made by the named consumer. Please send us a copy of her payment check so that we can verify the endorsement.”

Johnson prudently had retained a copy of her order form, the full name and address of the company, copies of her letters to them, and all other documentation including a copy of both sides of the canceled check. She had sent copies of all this information to COMBAT when requesting help. COMBAT wrote a second letter to the company and enclosed a photocopy of the check.

Less than two weeks later, COMBAT received a joyous letter from Johnson. “I can’t believe it. I received a refund in full from the company just in time for Christmas. You guys are magic!” Well, Johnson deserves a lot of credit herself for doing everything right, which helped greatly in bringing a positive resolution.

If you should ever have similar problems with a mail-order company, keep a full and complete record of the transaction. If you don’t receive merchandise within 30 days, send a registered, return-receipt-requested letter of inquiry. If you still get no response, write Consumer Forum, including copies of all important documents (never originals).

Better yet, if you can find items locally, buy from a Maine merchant who doesn’t make you wait four months for your merchandise. Not only does this keep the cash circulating in our local economy, but if there is a problem with the merchandise you can just drive to the store and get prompt action.

A tip for the new year: Return merchandise promptly while other sizes or similar items are still in stock, and so you can get more bang for your credit or refund dollar by taking advantage of post-holidays sale prices.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast COMBAT-Maine Center for the Public Interest, Maine’s membership-funded nonprofit consumer organization. Individual membership $25, business rates start at $125 (0-10 employees). For help and information write: Consumer Forum, Bangor Daily News, PO Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329.

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