What Are You Agreeing to When You Shop Online?
Shopping online is big business, projected to surpass $3.5 trillion by 2020. Although China spends far and away more money in e-commerce than any other country, its closest competitor is the United States.
In 2015, clothing and accessories ousted computer hardware from the best-seller spot, with consumers spending more than $51 billion to buy items from that category – an increase of 19 percent over 2014. It has recently been estimated that every 20 minutes, Americans spend $5.5 million shopping online. Amazon is the biggest winner, accounting for 16% of total online purchases. With statistics like these, chances are high that you have bought at least one item from an online retailer, but do you know exactly what it was that you agreed to when you checked out?
The ease of putting something in your online cart and the convenience of its simply showing up at your door can be an irresistible combination. And just like in the brick and mortar world, almost no one bothers to read the fine print. User agreements, privacy rights, warranties, and terms of service all get skimmed or completely ignored in our rush to click that beckoning “Buy Now” button. Because it’s right in front of consumers’ faces and they have to tick the box that they accept the conditions, courts have largely favored the sellers. That is, when the disputes get that far.
One of the most common rights compromised by e-commerce sites is the ability to sue if there is a disagreement. Many retailers stick arbitration clauses into their terms and conditions, which limit the remedies available to consumers. Arbitration tends to favor businesses over individuals, denying them their day in court and precluding class-action lawsuits. Other provisions may address how your personal information will be used, how your behavior on the site will be monitored or collected, the order cancellation process, the return process, payment terms, limitations of liability, and intellectual property restrictions.
In fact, issues with trademarks and copyrights can result in purchases being far from permanent. You bought a book or movie and downloaded it, so it belongs to you in the same way as a paperback or a DVD, right? Many consumers find out the hard way that buried in the fine print was restrictive language explaining that e-content can be deleted by the seller without warning and can’t be shared, sometimes not even between the consumer’s own digital devices. You can imagine the details tucked into iTunes’ four-page license agreement that accompanies the purchase of a $0.99 song.
Online buyers need to protect themselves by paying better attention to the rights they are being asked to give up. Completing an online transaction is to enter into an enforceable contract, the terms of which should not be overlooked. Knowing that most buyers do not read or understand the stipulations can lead some sellers to include unfair conditions. It can prompt others to indulge in fraudulent activity.
Increase your internet shopping safety by patronizing only those merchants you know by experience or reputation, reading reviews, using a secure browser, and paying with a credit card, which will protect your transaction under the Fair Credit Billing Act. Don’t email any financial information, and familiarize yourself with at least the basic terms regarding delivery dates, shipping methods, and return policies. If you encounter problems during an online transaction, contact the seller directly and try to work it out. If you can’t reach a resolution, you can get help from:
• the Federal Trade Commission
• your state Attorney General
• your local consumer protection agency
• the Better Business Bureau
• an attorney who is experienced in consumer issues and contract law.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David Mann
David Mann is a graduate of the University of Alabama. He received his undergraduate degree in speech communication and later worked in Washington, D.C. on the House Committee for Veterans Affairs. Afterwards, David attended and graduated from Mercer University's Walter F. George School of Law. David Mann, is now a personal injury lawyer located in Macon, Georgia. David has been practicing law and representing clients since 1997.
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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.