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A Crack in the System

Uncovering a big problem with online purchases

Q: In December 2006, FedEx delivered a flat-screen HDTV we had purchased online for $1,135. There was a dent in the box, and after accepting it we found three cracks across the bottom of the screen. We called FedEx, which examined the package and somehow determined we were at fault. We then called the Consumer Protection Division of our state attorney general’s office, which asked FedEx to reconsider but was rebuffed. The broken set is still in our living room. —Kathy and Keith Biever, Seattle, Washington

A: Your story reveals one of the biggest problems with online purchases: you are not the shipping company’s customer—the retailer is. That drastically limits your leverage in a dispute. Moreover, there’s little financial downside to either company’s simply ignoring you—even when faced with a prosecutor’s inquiry.

I can’t imagine circumstances in which the damage could be considered your fault. If the package was damaged before shipment, that’s between FedEx and the store. Damaged in transit? Still not your problem. The good news for you is that On Your Side can be more of a pebble-in-the-shoe than can most government officials.

When I first called FedEx customer service, the agent said he could talk only to you. So I sidestepped the gatekeepers and reached Carla Boyd, a FedEx spokesperson, who promised to look into the matter. A day later Boyd called back to declare that FedEx had just been slow in its review and that very morning had finally made a decision—though she lacked authority to tell me what it was. I reminded her that FedEx had already denied responsibility twice, to you personally and to the attorney general’s office. I suggested she rethink the situation. Several hours later Boyd rang again and let me know that FedEx had indeed reversed direction and unilaterally decided to compensate you in full for the loss, including shipping charges.

Why the change? Boyd called it “an internal business decision.”

To avoid problems with deliveries, remember:

  • Carefully inspect any package before you sign for it. Reject it if you see damage. That way no one can claim you are responsible.
  • If you discover damage after delivery, note the tracking number and immediately inform the shipper and the vendor, which should file a claim. Take lots of pictures, and keep all paperwork and packaging.
  • Last, think twice before purchasing expensive technology online. I don’t recommend it. The few dollars saved are rarely worth the headaches when things go wrong. Better to buy from a brick-and-mortar store that has its own truck. Home delivery usually costs less than shipping and may include setting things up for you at no extra charge.

Total recovered by On Your Side: $1,333.45

Ron Burley is a consumer reporter and author of Unscrewed: The Consumer’s Guide to Getting What You Paid For (Ten Speed Press, 2006).

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