commentary Plenty of Web sites this holiday season are offering tips about how to shop online without getting burned by dishonest merchants or con men.
Here's my advice: if in doubt shop at Amazon.
Amazon isn't perfect. I don't know any perfect stores online or off. But after 15 years of providing consumers with a safe shopping experience on the Web, the e-tailing pioneer deserves some applause. Don't believe me? Just read the testimonial given by Vitaly Borker, the man who operates what is now likely the most notorious retail store on the Internet.
On Friday, The New York Times published an expose about DecorMyEyes.com, a site that sells eyewear. In the Times' story, Borker reveled in his reputation for mistreating customers. He boasted that all the complaints posted to the Web about New York-based DecorMyEyes only boosted his site's position in Google's search results.
According to the Times, Borker has refused to refund money. He has threatened unhappy customers with physical violence. He intimidated one woman enough to send her running to police. He continued to operate by outwitting Google, eBay, and Visa. But when it came to Amazon, the tough-talking Borker backed down.
"Mr. Borker is perfectly capable of minding his manners," wrote Times reporter David Segal. "And he does so, right now, with every order that comes through a store he runs through Amazon.com's affiliate program. (He declines to provide that store's name.) He handles those transactions like a Boy Scout because Amazon doesn't mess around, he says--the company just kicks you off its site if you infuriate customers."
The reality is that Amazon has a long history of protecting customers.
In 2009, a Congressional investigation found that a group of marketing companies paid a host of retailers to dupe their customers into signing up for so-called loyalty programs.
Some of the better known merchants included Continental Airlines, Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, Barnes & Noble, Fandango, FTD.com, Hertz, and Classmates.com.
These loyalty programs were nothing more than a scam, according to U.S. senators who oversaw the investigation. The retailers would allow marketers Affinion, Webloyalty, and Vertrue to present their customers with an ad that gave many the impression that they were signing up for a free product or service. Instead, these shoppers found--sometimes many months later--that the marketers had charged their credit cards $20 a month.
The lure for the retailers was that it was easy money. For instance, United Online, parent company of Classmates and FTD, banked $70 million from participating in the marketing program, lawmakers said.
The marketers also provided cover. They were careful to protect merchants from customer or media backlash, senate investigators found.
The marketers only went after a relatively small number of a retailer's customers. When customers called to complain, the marketers rarely revealed which retailer had betrayed them. The marketers could also reassure skittish e-tailers that the terms of the loyalty program were included in the offer and that no laws were violated.
Amazon resisted this kind of temptation. The Seattle-based company was pitched by at least one of these companies to participate in the dubious marketing practice, according to a former employee of one of the marketers. Amazon turned them down, the source said.
The Web's largest retailer wasn't alone in rejecting such offers. Others, including Borders, the book chain, also said no, according to the source. At a time when there are still too many risks involved in shopping online, those executives who put customers ahead of a quick and dishonest buck deserve a pat on the back.
That said, don't let your guard down anywhere. Never provide any online merchant with a Social Security number or birth date. Look up reviews for an unfamiliar retailer. Only buy from stores that encrypt credit-card information. Always check your statements.
Trust your instincts. If something doesn't feel right, walk away.