What You Should Know about On-Line Shopping

Q.: How safe is it to give my credit card number to an on-line seller?

A.: In general, it is safe to give a credit card number to an on-line merchant. It’s not advisable to use a debit card, however, since debit cards function to remove money almost immediately from your bank account and are far less protected from being lost or stolen or being used improperly. Credit cards cover losses from lost or stolen credit cards over $50. Even with credit cards, though, some banks are now restricting their customers' ability to dispute charges from out-of-state on-line merchants.

Avoid dealing with merchants who do not have a verifiable street address and phone number listed on their Web site.  When providing credit card information on-line, make sure the site is secure (https:// rather than http:// plus a “closed lock” symbol on your browser), and make sure you have an up-to-date browser with good encryption.  It is okay to provide the “validation code” on the back of your credit card, but you should never supply a social security number to a merchant.  Always print out a copy of the on-line order confirmation screen—and review your credit card records each month to make sure only legitimate charges appear.

Q.: Is there any legal requirement for how fast goods I order are shipped?

A.: Yes. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a “mail order rule” which provides that, unless another deadline is specifically stated by the vendor before the sale, goods ordered via the Internet must be shipped within 30 days. The customer must be notified of any delay and under some circumstances must be given the option to cancel the order.  For more information, see the FTC Web site at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/menu-internet.htm.

Q.: Do I have to pay sales tax when I buy something through the Internet?

A.: You pay sales tax on the Internet in the same way you would if you ordered goods by mail order. If you buy goods from a merchant who has a store in Ohio, you have to pay sales tax even if you’re ordering from the on-line affiliate of the merchant in some other state. The “Internet Tax Freedom Act” does not affect taxes of on-line sales of goods and services, but only prohibits new taxes on the Internet connection itself.

Q.: Can I control how an on-line merchant uses the information I provide?

A.: To some extent. Merchants must comply with any privacy policy they post (and you should not deal with merchants who do not have privacy policies).  A privacy policy cannot be loosened retroactively without the customer’s consent. It can’t hurt to save a copy of the privacy policy when you place an order. Unsolicited advertising via email (“spam”) is not yet against the law, but there are several practical measures you can take to cut down on spam: First, use an Internet service provider that does spam filtering.  Second, use one email address for personal and business correspondence, and another for consumer transactions. If you register your own domain name, you can use a different e-mail address for each vendor and then use your own e-mail program to filter out e-mail coming to the addresses you gave to vendors you don’t want to hear from again.

The information contained herein is general and should not be applied to specific legal problems without first consulting with one of our attorneys.

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