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Five Laws Every PC Owner Should Know

Knowing your rights can give you added leverage when you get into a scrape with a vendor, a credit card company, or an Internet pest.

by Roberta Furger

Do you know what your rights are when you encounter a problem with a PC product, vendor, or merchant? In this article you'll find information about key consumer laws governing shopping, warranties, and credit card billing problems.

New legislation for PC users is also in the offing. Later this month, you can expect to see an Internet privacy law aimed at protecting children from nosy Web merchants. And a bill winding through Congress, if passed, will give you new redress against annoying spammers.

Credit Card Billing Problems

The Fair Credit Billing Act covers disputes related to "billing errors" on credit accounts such as credit cards. By law, consumers are not required to pay the disputed amount, including finance charges, until the problem is resolved. Here's what's covered:

Unauthorized charges: If a merchant charges an item to your account without authorization or a thief steals your card and runs up your bill, federal law limits a consumer's liability to $50.

Incorrect charges: If a charge is posted on the wrong date--say, before it is shipped--or for the wrong amount, you can dispute it. Always check your final receipt or order confirmation to verify the exact amount of your purchase.

Problems with delivery and/or order: You can dispute charges when you're charged for goods you never received or you're charged for an order that you've canceled and refused to accept delivery of.

Shoddy merchandise: You may also be able to dispute charges if a questionable item cost more than $50 was purchased with a credit card from a merchant in your home state (or within 100 miles of your billing address), after you've tried to settle the dispute with the seller.

HOW TO TAKE ACTION: Write a letter to your credit card company and use the address provided for "billing inquiries." The letter must reach the credit card company within 60 days of the mailing date of the first statement containing the error. Send it certified mail and request a return receipt.

In addition to detailing the reason for the dispute, you should include copies of all receipts or supporting documentation with your letter. See our sample letter.

By law, the credit company must resolve the dispute within two billing cycles or not more than 90 days after receiving your letter. Creditors that do not follow the proper procedures forfeit their right to collect the amount in dispute (or any finance charges up to $50), even if the bill is correct.

Mail Order, Online Shopping, Rebates


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Inside This Article

Five Laws Every PC Owner Should Know

Credit Card Billing Problems

Mail Order, Online Shopping, Rebates


Privacy Protection for Children

Spam Overload


Mail Order, Online Shopping, Rebates

If you buy anything by fax, by phone, or over the Internet, you're covered by the Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule. The rule requires merchants, such as mail-order vendors and Web sites, to ship orders within the promised time frame.

If an item is back ordered and cannot be shipped on time, merchants must notify you of the delay, provide a new ship date, and give you the option of canceling the order for a full refund. Merchants that do not provide a specific ship date have 30 days to ship an order or notify you of any delays.

In at least one instance, the Federal Trade Commission has used the Mail or Telephone Rule as the basis for fining a computer company for failure to deliver rebates in the promised time. In December of 1998, Iomega paid $900,000 in fines for the alleged violation, although the company never admitted guilt in the matter.

HOW TO TAKE ACTION: If you believe a merchant has violated the Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule, contact the FTC with your concerns. Make sure to send a copy of your complaint to the merchant, too. Although the commission won't intercede to resolve individual disputes, it will investigate companies that repeatedly fail to comply with the rule.




Consumer goods, such as PC products, are covered under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act and the Uniform Commercial Code. Many states have additional warranty laws that give residents even greater protections.

Among its many provisions, the Magnuson-Moss Act requires that retailers (or manufacturers, if they're selling directly to consumers) make available current warranty information to potential buyers. In the retail environment, these materials are typically in a binder behind a sales counter--and are not always kept up-to-date.

Be sure to scrutinize written warranties so that you understand the length of coverage, what specific parts and repairs are included in your coverage, and who handles in-warranty repairs (the retailer, the manufacturer, or a third party, for example).

In addition to the written warranty that comes with most products, under the Uniform Commercial Code, consumer goods are also covered by an implied warranty, also known as a warranty of merchantability. In layperson's terms, the implied warranty guarantees that a product will work as expected. When a product fails under warranty, you should call the manufacturer (or seller) and follow the instructions for getting the item repaired.

If the problem persists despite multiple repair attempts, you may be entitled to a refund or a replacement. Although neither of these remedies is mentioned in standard written warranties, in extreme cases these options may be available to you under the implied warranty.

HOW TO TAKE ACTION: You'll need to submit a written request for a refund or replacement, and include all relevant documentation. Smart companies will offer a replacement rather than lose a customer. If the company refuses your request, your next option is small claims court. For an excellent primer on the small claims court process, visit Nolo.com.

Privacy Protection for Children


Privacy Protection for Children

The 1998 Children's Online Privacy Protection Act takes effect on April 21. After that time, Web sites geared toward children 13 years old and younger must follow specific rules governing the collection and dissemination of personal information. These include:

Post a privacy policy: This policy must be accessible via a single click from the main page. The policy must specify the type of information collected from children and provide details about how the information will be used. The policy must also disclose whether any personal information (such as a child's name or e-mail or street address) is shared with third parties. The Web site must also include contact information, should visitors have questions about the policy.

Obtain parental consent: In many cases, a Web site must obtain parental consent before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information about a child. (See How to Protect Kids' Privacy Online for a complete list of instances in which parental consent is not required.) Web sites must obtain new consent whenever they change their information collection or dissemination practices. One important note: You may consent to the collection of certain information without consenting to the disclosure of that information to third parties.

Allow parents to review the information: Web sites must provide parents with a mechanism for reviewing personal information collected from their child. Parents have the right to revoke consent at any time and to ask that information about their child be removed from the Web site's database.

HOW TO TAKE ACTION: If you suspect that a Web site is violating its stated privacy policy or is not complying with the law, contact the FTC Consumer Response Center at 877/382-4357 or file a complaint online.

Spam Overload


Spam Overload

House Bill 3113, the antispamming bill, was approved by the Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection in March and is expected to be approved by the full House later this spring. Although the text of the bill may still change before final passage, it will likely continue to include the following key provisions:

prohibit the forging of e-mail address headers, which will make it easier to track down spammers;

make it illegal to continue spamming someone who has requested

to be removed from a distribution list;

make it illegal for spammers to collect e-mail addresses from Internet registrars, so it will be tougher for spammers to get your address;

require spam to be labeled as unsolicited commercial e-mail, so consumers won't have to open the message before deleting it;

allow individuals to sue spammers;

allow Internet service providers to have a spam policy and the right to sue violators for $500 per message; and

authorize the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and prosecute violators.

HOW TO TAKE ACTION: Consumers who are being bombarded by one particular spammer should check to see if their state has adopted any antispam laws. A list of current state laws can be found at an informative Web site maintained by the John Marshall Law School's Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law. You can also forward any spam to the FTC. For ongoing updates on the Unsolicited Electronic Mail Act of 1999, visit the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail.

Roberta Furger is a contributing editor for PC World.

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