Know the Terms and Conditions Before You Buy

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All websites where you make online purchases display legalese outlining the terms of your purchase. Make sure you find and read the terms before you complete your transaction.

Woman Shopping On Laptop

Many people have made the switch to going online for the majority of their purchases, rather than going to the mall. Shopping online is easier, faster, and often less expensive, and you can do it in your bathrobe without having to find a parking space.

Online shopping is growing more popular. But the risks involved in online shopping are greater, and not as clearly defined as they are when you shop in a store. Because you aren’t dealing with a flesh-and-blood person when you make a purchase online, it is essential for you to understand the terms of your purchasing contract before you complete the purchase.

Because buying online is a written contract, not just a trip to the store where you save the receipt and hope you can remember the clerk’s name if you have to return something.

Every website that sells products must display terms for shoppers outlining the rules, obligations, and expectations of all parties to the transaction. Some sites display them conspicuously and point them out to site visitors throughout their shopping and purchasing experience.

Others highlight the terms in one or two places as you browse and complete your purchase. But some are not conspicuous at all, and you have to remember to look for the link on the home page.

Some Terms and Conditions links apply only to the use of the website, not the terms of the purchase. And terms of the sale may not even be available for you to read until you reach the final page for inputting your payment information.

Some sites have a page of terms and conditions that requires you to click on an ‘OK’ or ‘Agree’ button in order to advance to the remaining purchase screens. It is a good idea for you to print out the terms of the purchase, particularly for expensive items or items sold or shipped from another country.

If you don’t see a section outlining purchase terms, you may want to e-mail the seller to ask for them. If there is a phone number given on the site, you can call to ask.

Important information you should know include:

  • How much is shipping? Is the shipping cost a flat rate per order, or a fee per item?
  • What are the policies for returning a damaged or defective item?
  • What are the policies for returning an item if you open it?
  • Is there a ‘restocking fee’ deducted from your refund if you return an item?
  • Is there a written warranty for items?

If the product costs in excess of $10, federal law requires sellers to tell you whether a warranty is a full warranty or a limited warranty. A full warranty means that if a product breaks during the warranty period, you are entitled to free repair without having to pay shipping costs.

If the seller cannot fix the product, it must be replaced or your money refunded. Any other type of warranty is limited. Although the majority of warranties are limited, all types protect consumers. If a product is sold ‘as is’, then the seller is not giving any warranty at all.

The terms and conditions should also address whether or not you will be able to sue the seller if a dispute arises. Some terms specify that you must waive your right to a court hearing and instead have a decision through arbitration or mediation. Arbitration results in one person―the arbitrator―deciding the outcome of the case, rather than a judge or jury.

Mediation is a process by which the two parties in the dispute appear before a third party―the mediator―who helps them try to reach a settlement. A mediator does not make a decision; instead, the mediator helps the disputing parties to make a decision.

The popularity of online shopping is growing by leaps and bounds, and rightfully so. Although there are many positive aspects to buying online, it pays to be armed with knowledge about the purchase and your rights afterward, before that last mouse click that completes your purchase.

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