What You Should Know about Online Shopping

Q: How safe is it to give my credit card number to an online seller?
A: In general, it is safe to give a credit card number to an online merchant. It’s not advisable to use a debit card, however, since debit cards function to remove money almost immediately from your bank account and are far less protected from being lost or stolen or being used improperly. Credit cards cover losses from lost or stolen credit cards over $50 as long as you notify the card company promptly. Even with credit cards, though, some banks are now restricting their customers' ability to dispute charges from out-of-state online merchants. For both types of cards, it's best to check with your bank; some banks offer more protection than the law requires. 

Avoid dealing with merchants who do not have a verifiable street address and phone number listed on their websites. When providing credit card information online, make sure the site is secure (https:// rather than http:// plus a “closed lock” symbol on your browser), and make sure you have an up-to-date browser with good encryption. It is okay to provide the “validation code” on the back of your credit card, but you should obviously never supply a Social Security number to a merchant. Save a copy of the online order confirmation screen. Review your credit card records each month to make sure only legitimate charges appear, and if any suspicious charges appear, call your credit card’s fraud prevention line for assistance in checking their legitimacy. 

Q:   Is there any legal requirement for how fast goods I order are shipped?
A:   Yes. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a “mail order rule” which provides that, unless another deadline is specifically stated by the vendor before the sale, goods ordered via the Internet must be shipped within 30 days. The customer must be notified of any delay and under some circumstances must be given the option to cancel the order.  For more information, search for “mail order rule” on the FTC website at www.ftc.gov.

Q:   Do I have to pay sales tax when I buy something through the Internet?
A:   The days of “no sales tax” for online sales are quickly fading into history. For years, the Internet was a “no sales tax” haven. There have been many proposals in Congress to require sales tax on all Internet transactions, but none ever passed. (The “Internet Tax Freedom Act” does not affect taxes of online sales of goods and services, but only prohibits new taxes on the Internet connection itself.) In 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court gave a green light to state efforts to require large online retailers to charge sales tax, even if the retailer does not have a physical presence in the state. Thus, the sales tax disadvantage to storefront merchants will come to an end as soon as states like Ohio realize that there is no longer any reason they cannot collect sales tax on online sales.

Q:   Can I control how an online merchant uses the information I provide?
A:   To some extent. Merchants must comply with any privacy policy they post (and you should not deal with merchants who do not have privacy policies). A privacy policy cannot be loosened retroactively without the customer’s consent, but can be changed at any time, and each time you use the site, you consent to the policy in force at the time. Virtually all online privacy policies allow the merchant to track how you interact with the site, display advertising based on your perceived preferences, and aggregate your data over the long term. Many merchants have privacy policies that allow them to sell or forward your information to others for advertising purposes and to send you email or even text message advertising. 

It is best to have multiple email addresses, including one or more that you use only for consumer transactions. Federal law allows unsolicited email advertising, but requires that any advertiser provide an opt-out address. Since unscrupulous advertisers not only ignore opt-outs, but actually use them send more advertising, it’s best to opt-out of advertising only from known merchants; other ads are best marked as “spam” and blocked. Recent changes in federal law completely prohibit text message advertising, with exceptions only if you have specifically authorized it in writing after full disclosure from the merchant. 


This "Law You Can Use" column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Robert L. Ellis, partner in the Columbus firm of  Hennis, Rothstein & Ellis LLP. 

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. This article is not intended to be legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from a licensed attorney.



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