The smarter consumer: 5 incredibly stupid things customers do online

I handle customer complaints for a living – the good, the bad and sometimes, the incredibly stupid.

Let’s talk about the incredibly stupid for a minute. When it comes to online transactions, I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen outrageously dumb behavior that could have easily been prevented and that cost customers thousands of dollars.

Here are five standouts.

They buy the same product twice. This is by far the most common error. You’re purchasing something online, like an airline ticket or a book, and you either get impatient when you arrive at the final screen or your computer freezes. Next thing you know, you’ve bought two tickets or books. Even worse, some of these purchases are completely non-refundable, so good luck getting your money back.

How to prevent it: Once you’ve clicked the “buy” button, chances are pretty good you’ve made the purchase, no matter what your screen says (yes, even a “404” error).

The recovery: Call the online company to verify the purchase or wait for a verification email. Often you’ll have a grace period in which to cancel your transaction with no penalty.

They don’t check their receipt. Don’t laugh. Even the savviest online shoppers sometimes forget to check their in box for the receipt. As a result, they fail to catch everything from a simple mistake (see #1) to an unexpected surcharge. What’s more, they don’t have any record of the transaction.

How to prevent it: You mean, other than reading the receipt? Make sure you’ve ensured that email from the company in going to our in box, so that your receipt doesn’t get sent to the spam box, instead.

The recovery: If you check your credit card statements online, you should be able to catch any errors. You do check your credit card statement regularly, don’t you?

They don’t update their contact information online. It may sound like a small thing, but if you didn’t update your address after you move, then how can an online company fill your order? What’s worse, if important correspondence is being sent to your old address, you could miss something you really need to see. Not a day seems to go by that I don’t see or hear about someone whose frequent flier points expired because a notification was missed. Don’t be that person.

How to prevent it: Update your address.

The recovery: Companies are often understanding when you fail to let them know how to contact you. For example, the post office will forward your mail and small packages for a limited time after you move. But some aren’t so eager to help. Let’s just say I’ve seen a lot of loyalty points expire with no chance of recovery.

They try to resolve problems with an online business by phone. Yes, sometimes you have to call a company. But often, calling is totally counter-productive. At the risk of repeating myself, here’s the “down” side: You don’t have a reliable record of the call, so when there’s a problem, you can’t prove anyone said anything. Oh, sure, most companies record their call center conversations, but that’s for their own records – not yours.

How to prevent it: Where possible, stick to email.

The recovery: Even when a company asks you to call it for a resolution, insist on having everything backed up in writing. In other words, if someone offers a replacement product, make sure they send you the offering as either a letter or an email. Because talk is cheap.

They draw no distinction between online and offline purchases. Do I need to tell you there’s a difference? OK, I will. There is a difference. Sometimes, a big difference. After all, companies offer their wares online because it’s cheaper – sometimes a lot cheaper – to sell online. A camera bought through an e-tailer isn’t necessarily the same thing as a camera purchased at a store. A store with a physical location will let you return a product; a dot-com on the other side of the country? Perhaps not. And let’s not forget travel agencies. There’s a world of difference between a bricks-and-mortar travel advisor and an online travel agency.

How to prevent it: Become aware of the difference. Expect to pay more for a full-service offline experience.

The recovery: Sometimes, the only reason an e-tailer can get away with routing your call to India or telling you to deal directly with the manufacturer is that we let them. Spell out your expectations clearly when something goes wrong, and don’t take “no” for an answer.

Next week, I’ll examine some outrageous offline consumer behaviors.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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