Ripped off? You have recourse
Here are steps you can follow if a merchant isn't treating you right.
If you've gotten a raw deal from a retailer, the law is often on your side, but many consumers are unaware of those protections when trying to resolve disputes.
People often make the wrong assumptions about what the laws allow, or they rely on misinformation from friends, family or merchants.
"There are recourses available to consumers, but often people don't know about them," said Noreen Perrotta, finance editor of Consumer Reports Money Adviser. "From getting rain checks from your local supermarket when they are out of the spaghetti sauce they advertised as half off to doing a credit card chargeback after your refrigerator dies three months after the warranty expires, in many cases, consumers may have more rights than they think."
Here are some common scenarios and tips from Consumer Reports Money Adviser experts on how to get satisfaction:
In mid-November, you order an MP3 player online for your nephew's holiday gift. The merchant promises you'll have it on time, but the gift arrives two days after the family's holiday gathering.
The law: The federal Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Trade Regulation Rule requires stores to ship telephone, mail, fax, and Internet orders within 30 days. If the merchant promises an earlier shipment date, it must meet that deadline. If the retailer has a reasonable basis for not getting your order out on time, it must obtain your consent to the delay. And if you don't respond or consent, the merchant must issue a refund. Merchants have more time -- 50 days instead of 30 -- to make the shipment if you're also applying for credit.
You should know: The clock begins running on shipping deadlines when the seller receives a properly completed order, including any advance payments. So if you're expecting a shipment and the retailer tries to contact you about a delay, be sure to respond or your order will be canceled, even if you still want it.
Your supermarket advertises your favorite spaghetti sauce at half off. When you get there, the store tells you it ran out and you're out of luck.
The law: The federal Retail Food Store Rule requires grocers to provide rain checks on advertised items or to substitute an equivalent product. But stores can get around that by demonstrating they ordered sufficient quantities to meet reasonably anticipated demand.
You should know: The federal law applies only to food stores, but states may have broader rules. For example, Connecticut's rain-check law applies to sellers of most products, with exceptions for seasonal items, products covered by storewide or departmentwide discounts, clearance items, and automobiles, among others.
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Your new TV breaks down just weeks after you bought it. The company says it will fix it under the manufacturer's warranty, but you have to ship it back at your own cost.
The law: Although that warranty may require you to pay for shipping, you should expect to get what you paid for without paying additional costs. If neither the retailer nor manufacturer will make good, you might be able to cancel the sale under the implied warranty of merchantability -- this is an unwritten state-mandated promise that your purchase will perform as commonly expected and will last a reasonable amount of time. This is where a chargeback or the threat of legal action might help.
You should know: If you have a full warranty instead of a limited one, you cannot be charged for shipping or reinstallation. And a full warranty cannot be limited to the first purchaser of the product.
After telling a salesperson that you need a washing machine that can handle 15-pound loads, you bought the one he recommended, only to discover later that it can't. Now the store won't take it back.
The law: By providing a machine that doesn't meet your stated needs, the merchant breached an implied warranty -- that of fitness for a particular purpose. You have a right to cancel the sale. If the store won't honor your request to take the washer back, cancel the sale on your credit card, if possible. You may need to initiate (or at least threaten) legal action.
You should know: It can be difficult proving that you specified a certain requirement to the salesperson. So it's best to verify a product's capability or get the store's written assurance before you buy.
You go to the bridal salon to pick up your wedding dress only to find that the store has disappeared, along with your deposit.
The law: If you paid by credit card, you probably can contest the charge. If you used cash, check or debit card and the store went bankrupt, you can make a claim with the bankruptcy court as an unsecured creditor. You'll probably be eligible for priority status for up to $2,425 of the amount owed. But you may end up with pennies on the dollar after waiting months or years.
You should know: Check with your local or state consumer affairs officials, who often intervene on consumers' behalf in such situations.
Related reading at ConsumerAffairs.com:
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