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Originally published Monday, January 9, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Online orders never arrived

Thousands of Amazon.com shoppers were left without the Christmas gifts they ordered when a third-party seller took their orders and their...

Times consumer-affairs reporter

Thousands of Amazon.com shoppers were left without the Christmas gifts they ordered when a third-party seller took their orders and their money but never sent their products.

Amazon seller "mygreatchoice" had a nearly perfect record on the feedback portion of Amazon's Web site in November, when many online shoppers were placing Christmas orders. But at the beginning of December, customer response changed dramatically:

"I never got my purchase!" wrote Rachael W.

Her response was followed by more than 3,500 with the same story: People ordered DVDs. Mygreatchoice charged their credit cards. The DVDs never arrived.

The company didn't respond to the customers' e-mails or telephone calls.

Amazon, which kicked the seller off its site last month, is working to refund the buyers' money.

"If you're not happy with what you've purchased on Amazon through a marketplace seller, you can submit a claim for the price that you paid and Amazon will refund the purchase price," company spokeswoman Patty Smith said.

Tips for buying items online


In 2004, Internet auctions were the No. 2 source of complaints to the Federal Trade Commission, topped only by identity theft, said Chuck Harwood, director of the agency's Northwest Region. The FTC offers this advice to online buyers:

Use a credit card: Don't send cash. Use a credit card so you can take advantage of the Fair Credit Billing Act. Under the federal act, you can dispute charges and temporarily withhold payment. Generally, you'll be liable for no more than $50 in fraudulent charges.

Know the terms: Make sure you understand the terms of the deal, such as refund policies and delivery dates. Can you return the item for a full refund? If you return it, who pays the shipping costs or restocking fees? Check on when you can expect to receive your order. The law requires sellers to ship items as promised or within 30 days after the order date if no specific date is promised.

Know whom you're dealing with: Confirm the seller's physical address and phone number in case you have questions or problems.

Keep a paper trail: Print and save all records of online transactions.

Source: Federal Trade Commission

If Amazon is out of the product a customer wants, Amazon directs the customer to its "marketplace" — a group of businesses and individuals who also sell the item. The businesses are separate from Amazon, so customers often decide whether to buy based on the feedback posted on the site from other customers.

Smith said that's the only way to check out a seller, although Amazon guarantees purchases from all the sellers on its site.

David Haerle, of Aberdeen, said mygreatchoice appears to have figured out a way to take advantage of that system.

Haerle said his wife ordered DVDs of two seasons of "Seinfeld" for him as a Christmas gift.

He and his wife sell on eBay, so they understand the importance of having good customer feedback. Haerle said his wife trusted the seller in part because she knew how difficult it is to build up such good customer response.

But the DVDs never arrived.

"He took all his Christmas orders and ran," Haerle said.

There was no answer at a telephone number listed for mygreatchoice. Amazon's Web site says mygreatchoice is part of a Los Angeles tool company called Tool Solutions.

The company's nearly perfect record of happy customers this fall has turned 97 percent negative in the past month. Livid buyers posted warnings, stories about Christmas gifts that didn't arrive, and questions about what to do next.

Lance Dean of Chunky, Miss., said he placed his order Nov. 26 for $200 worth of "Friends" DVDs for his wife's Christmas gift. His credit card was charged two days later.

"Before I knew it, floods of negative, 'no item received after being charged' reviews of this seller began popping up everywhere," he said in an e-mail. "I never received anything."

Amazon is refunding his money, but Dean said he wouldn't order from an Amazon third-party seller again.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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