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Consumer Advisory Bulletin

How to Protect Yourself in Mail Order Purchases

Shopping by mail is a great convenience for many of us, but it can also be frustrating if there are delays -- or if unscrupulous operators don't deliver what you are counting on.

Follow these tips for mail order purchases:

  • Buy from established companies you know are reputable and have a good record of delivering products on time.
  • Read the advertisement or catalog carefully. Study the product description and the company's policies -- including returns. Know exactly what costs you will pay, including shipping and handling, and any other terms of the purchase.
  • Pay only by check or credit card. Cash transactions leave no documentation, and cash can be lost in the mail or at the company.
  • Keep copies of all order forms, advertisements, telephone notes, etc., so you have a record in case you want to make a return or you have a complaint.
  • General protections: Federal rules give you certain protections whenever you order by mail or over the phone. Merchandise must be delivered within 30 days, unless the seller advertises a longer wait. If there is a delay, the shipper must notify you and give you a chance to cancel your order and get your money back, or agree to a new shipping date. If you cancel, the seller must mail you a refund within seven business days after your cancellation. When a credit sale is cancelled, the seller has one billing cycle to adjust your account.
  • Unordered merchandise: If you receive something in the mail you didn't order, you may keep it and consider it a gift! Do not feel pressured to pay an invoice or make a donation to an organization if you receive unsolicited merchandise. Send a letter to the company notifying them of your intention to keep the gift unless they prove you ordered the item.

If you have problems with your mail order purchase, contact your U.S. Postal inspector. Or contact the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division, Hoover Building, Des Moines, Iowa 50319. The telephone number is 515-281-6699.

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