Shipping costs can wallop home shoppers
Anyone who orders something off the Internet, TV or via a catalog usually expects to pay some sort of shipping and handling fee unless, of course, there's a special promotion.
But did you ever get charged three or four shipping fees when everything you ordered was sent in one package?
“I've ordered many things off the TV before and never had this problem before,” said Blanche Mayer, 81, of Southgate, Mich.
She spotted a product called WaxVac on TV that promised to replace cotton swabs and gently suction dirt and wax from her ears. Mayer figured the cost with shipping would be less than $25.
Instead, the product that was supposed to clean her ears ended up cleaning out her wallet. She was talked into ordering more accessories. And she was charged $83.90, including all those unexpected shipping fees.
“Each item that was purchased was charged postage and handling,” Mayer said. She rattled off two fees at $4.99 and two others that were $13.98.
All told, we're talking about $38 in fees for items that cost Mayer about $8 to ship back to the company. The ear wax softening drops, disposable tips, brushes and main product were not heavy. “They were as light as a feather,” she said.
Consumer complaints about “shop-at-home and catalog sales” ranked No. 4 on the Federal Trade Commission's Top 10 complaint list. The top complaint was identity theft, followed by debt collection complaints and then complaints about banks and lenders ranked No. 3.
We may be more comfortable about buying things at home. But there are some fees that will definitely get you angry, as Mayer was when she saw her bill. In the past, I've heard other consumers complain about skin care products that had more shipping charges on each item — even though all the products came in the same box.
But quite frankly, as someone who helped elderly parents for many years, I'll admit I quickly lose patience with products or procedures that add one more minute of confusion or heartache for the elderly. They just don't need it.
David Torok, director of planning and information at the FTC, said a wide range of complaints falls into that shop-at-home category.
Types of complaints: All the costs aren't disclosed, the product is never delivered or the guarantee isn't much of a guarantee.
But shipping and handling fees can be a trouble spot, too, particularly on health care products.
Some “free” trial offers have ended up as “fee” trials — or deals that unexpectedly generate more fees by automatically signing you up for recurring shipments or services.
The trick here: Make sure you read each line of your credit card bill every month.
And yes, it's not always easy to spot bad deals.
“If you see a $7.99 charge on your credit card bill, you might blow right by it,” said Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com in Birmingham, Ala., a website that provides credit card information for consumers.
Hardekopf said he got stuck with one recurring charge program himself once and didn't spot it right away.
The FTC has noted that some dishonest businesses often hide the terms and conditions of their offers in very small type or use pre-checked sign-up boxes as the default setting online.
Some companies may put conditions on returns and cancellations that are so strict it could be next to impossible to stop the deliveries and the billing.
Mayer's bill notes that WaxVac can be returned for a full refund within 30 days of receipt. But here's the trick in the wording on that statement — the refund is “less applicable postage and handling.”
Sure, they've got you for nearly $38 even if you ask for a refund — once they've added several non-refundable shipping and handling charges to one order that arrives in the same package.
Product Trend has received a series of complaints from consumers who have contacted the Better Business Bureau. The BBB lists WaxVac as one of the alternative business names. Other business names or products from Product Trend include Stretch Genie, Wraptastic, Furniture Fix and Comfy Cushion.
According to BBB files, the company has a pattern of complaints concerning advertising, sales and customer service issues.
The BBB report noted that some consumers have had a hard time ordering just one item because the review process is difficult and larger orders seem to be automatically placed.
Consumers also reported a hard time canceling orders.
Product Trend has a D rating on the Better Business Bureau's grading scale of A-plus to F. See www.bbb.org. The low rating is attributed to the length of time it has taken to resolve complaints, two complaints that were not resolved and the fact there were 281 complaints overall.
A representative from Product Trend did not comment on the fees or the Better Business Bureau report or Mayer's case. The most recent comment from a representative Wednesday was that the company had “requested the recording of the call” to review it.
Kathryn Lampron, legal affairs manager for Hampton Direct in Williston, Vt., said in an email that she needed an opportunity to review that call before she could fully address my concerns.
“I've also requested a copy of the invoice that the customer received to review how the charges were broken out and ensure that the invoice coincides with what was ordered over the phone,” she wrote in the email.
Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press.
She noted that it can take the third-party call center as long as 10 days to provide call recordings.
While it's not always easy to find a resolution with billing practices, many experts recommend that consumers who are upset with practices at any company take some action anyway.
Complain. Ask for refunds.
Talk to the company first to try to resolve the dispute. Be persistent - even if someone says you agreed to some fine print that you never spotted.
Mayer contacted her credit card issuer to dispute the charges and she said she's thankful that her bank is working with her. But she's going to keep an eye on her credit card statements, too - just in case any other charges pop up.
The FTC's Torok said some credit card issuers are more willing to deal with a dispute - if they've had a lot of complaints about a specific company. But consumer advocates note that speaking up can help when trying to get your money back.
Companies that have shaky practices are betting that consumers will just shrug off the loss - or possibly be too embarrassed to make their beef public. After all, who wants to admit having ear wax woes?
Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press; firstname.lastname@example.org.