E-tail watchdog

So your daughter hates the blouse you gave her, and the new Springsteen disc you bought yourself is defective. Problem? Not really. Simply head back to the store and return them. If you have any trouble getting an exchange or refund, just ask for the manager.

But what if you bought these goods online? OK, now there's a problem. So much of a problem, in fact, that US Federal Trade Commission studies show most Internet users still steadfastly avoid making online purchases. Brick-and-mortar retailers, it seems, still eclipse the cybermarketplace when it comes to consumer confidence.

That could be changing, however. WebAssured.com is one of a growing crop of free websites aiming to take the scare out of shopping online. Geared toward holding online merchants accountable to their customers--and giving shoppers a viable outlet to vent their frustrations--the site serves as a watchdog to discourage e-tail malpractice. WebAssured has a rigorous screening process that researches companies' backgrounds and track records. If a company survives the strict screening--and pays a US$180 fee--it gains the WebAssured seal of approval. At press time WebAssured had more than 8,000 member e-tailers. This vetting of companies gives consumers assurance that they are dealing with a reputable business. Labeling its technique "pressure through publicity," the online consumer protection service also provides global access to ratings of and complaints about thousands of e-commerce sites. The site contains a database with credibility information (consisting of a history of complaints and business track records) on nearly 250,000 companies.

WebAssured.com not only certifies companies, it also attempts to mediate more tangible problems--like how to return a defective CD bought online--and boasts a 95 percent success rate resolving complaints against member sites; a 79 percent rate against nonmember sites. Since its launch in 1995, WebAssured.com has grown to handle an average of a couple hundred complaints each month--via a user-friendly "complain" button. Moreover, the site offers a cash-back guarantee--backed by Lloyd's of London--for customers dissatisfied with the service of member companies.

Conversely, there is also a "praise" button for customers looking to reward any credible e-tailer. The Indianapolis-based company is not alone in its mission: BizRate.com, Safeshopping.org and Ithought.com have also jumped on the consumer e-confidence bandwagon.

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More about Federal Trade CommissionLloyd's of LondonUS Federal Trade Commission

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