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The New York Times recently ran a story about an online retailer who was a real bully. The particular eyeglass merchant in question, who we’re not going to name here, sold fake glasses—among other crimes—and when consumers complained or requested money back, he went so far as to threaten their lives (even emailing one customer a photograph of her apartment building to let her know he knew where she lived).

A retailer can’t do this for very long without people screaming—digitally, in this case—but this particular vendor didn’t care. In fact, he liked it. He had discovered that the greater the number of angry complaint posts filed in consumer advocacy forums about him, the higher his company popped up in Google—a marketing plan that’s been dubbed the anti-SEO or anti-customer-service approach.

This charmer not only scammed his customers and Google but also MasterCard and VISA. These companies have a monthly limit on “charge-backs”—when customers contact their credit card companies for a refund. Too many—a secret number neither merchants nor the credit card companies will disclose—and a merchant can lose his VISA or MasterCard privileges. When this vendor approached that limit, he toned down his hate tactics until the next month.

Clearly these companies have security and customer-service issues to consider. Hopefully law enforcement will shut down this bully once and for all, but in the meantime, here’s what you can do to avoid buying from a less-than-social retailer.

[Related: How to Spot, and Avoid, Internet Scammers]

  • Just like in the real world, the bigger online stores offer more protection. You might save money on that new hardcover at cheapbooks4you.com, but should you encounter a problem, it’s not going to be nearly as easy as dealing with Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.
  • Google’s price shopper, Froogle.com, and Pricegrabber.com allow you to compare retailers’ prices, but they also have retailer reviews. Read them. Also, if you find a good deal but can’t find any reviews on the retailer, do an online search for the retailer’s name and look for feedback in the results. As the New York Times story points out, that would have been enough to help customers avoid this particular vendor.
  • If it sounds like broken, misspelled or grammatically incorrect English, i.e. cheapboks4you.com, avoid it. Yes, it could be fine, but if the company is sloppy enough to have errors all over its website, where else does it take shortcuts?
  • Pay with a credit card rather than a debit card. You have some layer of protection with credit—the money isn’t coming directly from your account. And while you’re at it, use a credit card that you know has high-quality customer service. A high standard of security, helpful customer service and strong merchant vetting vary from provider to provider.

Image by Odd Bod, via Flickr

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