- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2000

On-line retailers are getting fair warning from the government about how to do business this holiday season.

The Federal Trade Commission has sent more than 100 letters to clicks-and-mortar retailers making them aware of the Mail and Telephone Order Rule, which spells out the ground rules for making promises about shipments, notifying consumers about unexpected delays and refunding shoppers.

Last year, more than $1.5 million in fines were handed out to on-line retailers for violating the rule.

"The goal here is so we don't have to bring cases [against sites]," said Eric London, an FTC spokesman. "We want to nip it in the bud before [violations] happen."

For the last couple of months the FTC surfed more than 200 Internet retailers searching for shipment promises made to entice shoppers to their sites.

About 100 of them made claims assuring consumers that in-stock items usually ship with in 24 hours to 48 hours after an order is placed. While there's nothing wrong with stating that claim, the FTC warns that they have to deliver when they promise they will.

The letters are an attempt to help the retailers understand their obligations fully. The rule requires retailers to ship merchandise within the date promised or within 30 days of receiving the order if not otherwise stated.

If the company can't ship as promised they have to send a notice to the shopper with a new delivery date. That gives the consumer an opportunity to agree to the delayed shipment or cancel the order.

Some of the biggest offenders during last holiday season included Macys.com, KBkids.com and Toysrus.com all slapped with $350,000 fines each for violating the rule.

FTC officials expect fewer violations this year but plan to closely watch on-line retailers.

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