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Warranty Blues: Shopping Online - The Morning After

This article by Stuart Adams appeared in Louisville Computer News January, 2000


‘Twas the morning after Christmas, and all through the house,

Electronic gadgets I’d purchased with the click of my mouse,

All were malfunctioning or were not what I ordered,

Now I wondered, was my e-commerce experiment, just a big blunder,

While Mama in her kerchief and me in my cap,

Waited for a dial tone to hear tech supports’ rap,

The phone was as silent as the new-fallen snow,

I wondered where help was, where could I go,

When what to my wondering ears I did hear,

But a support service guy, saying happy new year,

When out of the phone there arose such a clatter,

I felt compelled to ask tech support, what’s the matter,

Away from the phone he rushed in a flash,

It seemed his company’s Y2K fix had suffered a backlash,

For my gadgets, Mama and me there seemed little hope,

Do the vendor, and those tech support guys, consider me a dope,

I know my remedies for the old bait and switch,

But it seems there may be a hitch,

The vendor’s out of business, his company closed,

While he sails his new sailboat financed by that IPO,

Guys who thought they were smart and knew how to sue,

May find themselves out in the blue,

I filled my kids’ stockings with gadgets that don’t work,

Now Mama and the kids think I’m a big jerk,

But the FTC heard the vendor say, as he drove out of sight,

Know who you’re dealing with online and you might be alright.

    All right, I never said I was a poet. It’s the thought that counts, right? Well, explain that to the kids when they try to turn on that new electronic toy you ordered online, or you slip that new fun but educational CD into the computer you bought at the local mega store and all you get is the blue screen of death. Hey, you can’t say I didn’t try to warn you in last month’s article on how to avoid getting taken online.


    Let’s say you’re new in town and didn’t read my article last. What can you do when you get the screen of blue? If there was just one answer, I probably wouldn’t be writing a whole column on it, would I? OK, maybe I would, but unfortunately its not usually that simple.

    Amazingly enough, one of the first things to do in the case of a problem, is to simply read the manual. Unfortunately, more and more devices seem to come with little in the way of paper manual. Many companies seem to prefer to put their manual and help files on the installation CD. Many also are simply suggesting you visit the technical support area of their web site for help. That may be hard to do if the installation program or some other glitch either took out you modem or your CD drive. If not, however, you should be able to get some help at the technical support link on the vendor’s web site or through a FAQ posting, which is composed of Frequently Asked Questions, which the vendor typically supports and maintains at or around its technical or customer support area at its web site.

    The next thing to do is to check the warranty on the problem device. Hopefully, you printed out the warranty and return policy when you visited the web site of the vendor and made the purchase. If not, see if something came in the box or on the packing slip that was possibly stuck in a plastic envelope on the outside of the box. That little sealed piece of paper that had the shipping address on it that was stuck to the top of the box may actually have been a larger folded up piece of paper that had all sorts of information on it if you took the trouble to open the envelope and unfold the paper. If you didn’t get such a paper, or were just so surprised and thankful that it arrived before Christmas that you didn’t take the trouble to open it or save it, try to revisit the Web site were you bought the piece of junk. Many sites post their standard warranty and return policy online.

    What can you do if you don’t have any paperwork on your junk, other than start to raise a bead of sweat? Well, all may not be lost just yet. Try looking at your browser. Did you bookmark the site while you were doing some comparison shopping? If not, but you don’t do a whole lot of "surfing" of the Internet, try checking your "history" window in your browser (probably accessed through your menu bar) to see if the site is still listed as a recently visited site. Some browsers have this feature and will automatically capture and display on demand the last "X" number of sites visited.

    If that fails, you might check your browser cache. Most browsers take a "picture" of sites you visit and retain the image of at least some of these pages, so that the computer can simply go to the hard drive and read the image of the page, rather than waiting for the possibly slow loading graphics or other modem clogging material at the web site to download. You can set most browsers to retain or drain the cache at specific levels, but this may be a last ditch effort to find some memory of the site where you bought the problem peripheral.

    If this also fails, try some search engines. Sites like and many others allow you to use plain English search language to locate information on a subject, such as who makes this ?&*@#$%! device? You might also check the FTC site or, to see if others are complaining about the company, its product or service.

    Lets say you have at least found the vendor who sold you that piece of garbage. What remedies do you have? The good news is that there is an implied warranty, if nothing else, that the merchandise, if it was new, was "merchantable," meaning it was not inherently defective, and fit for its intended purpose. In other words, if you bought a video card that was supposed to fit into a standard AGP slot on your mother board, it should fit. That does not mean, of course, that if your computer doesn’t have an AGP slot and you needed a PCI card instead, that the manufacturer has to take it back. It’s not the manufacturer’s fault that you didn’t read the specs before you clicked "checkout" with your online shopping cart.

    Let’s now say the card did fit into the slot but you can’t get the darned thing to work. I have had the great fortune to have bought several devices in the last year which were supposed to work but didn’t. In one case I bought a relatively new device which already had outdated drivers by the time it hit the shelves of the local computer store. I was able to get the updated drivers at the manufacturer’s technical support site, but I had to do so from another machine because the new device pretty much locked up my machine.

    In another case, all the ads, the specs on the side of the box, and the manual all said the device should have been fine for my network. As it turns out, when they said it was Windows 98 compatible, they were wrong. I had to upgrade to Windows, Second Edition to make it work. They apologized, but it still cost me some money I hadn’t planned to spend on the device, as well as a couple of hours online with technical support.

    In both of the above cases, I decided to pursue the technical support route, rather than simply returning the devices, partially because I’m a glutton for punishment from these vendors, and partially because every time I fool with one of these problems, I learn a lot more about computers. That’s not necessarily a good thing, nor perhaps the approach you want to take.

    Even though the courts around here have pretty much accepted the "shrink wrap" and "click wrap" agreements which are now a fact of life online, the legal precedents which led to these opinions are not necessarily "modern." Most, in fact date back decades in their reasoning to cases dealing with newfangled gadgets like telegraphs. That doesn’t give us much help, frankly, on the consumer end of e-commerce.

    There are lots of consumer protection laws out there, but their application to e-commerce may still be dubious. The implied warranties mentioned above, which usually emanate from the Uniform Commercial Code, as adopted by the various states, are very much subject to modification. This is usually accomplished by a "disclaimer" of some sort posted by the vendor. These disclaimers typically must be conspicuous and clear for them to be effective in reducing the vendor’s default warranties. That means that an average consumer should have a shot at noticing and understanding them.

    Unfortunately even lawyers sometimes tire of reading the fine print for ourselves. As long as it’s not too fine, the typical click wrap agreement online will probably be ruled effective in limiting warranties on products sold. Many of us have grown accustomed to simply skimming those software licenses we see, when we install that new program or device. Likewise, we have a tendency to gloss over those online disclaimers which simply seem to get in the way of our online checkout line. This, however, is where the vendor can get you if you don’t do the reading.

    You may find you have an amazingly short time in which to reject the goods, particularly if they were manufactured to your specifications, such as with a new computer built to order. You may also find such things as restocking fees, which the vendor can charge you for the cost of labor and depreciation on returned goods that are put back into inventory.

    You may have to fight an uphill battle with a vendor who has a legal right to handle your customer dispute in its home state, thus saving it expense, while making it unrealistic for you to try to pursue a remedy in court. The bottom line, given that potential advantage, is still to check out your vendor before you click on "checkout."


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