WASHINGTON – So much for all your holiday shopping being a point-and-click away.
Online shopping and services have joined telemarketing and auto repair as leading sources of consumer complaints, according to a new survey.
Internet-related complaints ranked eighth on the list released Monday by the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators and the Consumer Federation of America.
"People don't always get what they order over the Internet and sometimes they don't get anything at all," said Wendy Weinberg, executive director of the NACAA. "While there are many benefits to shopping over the Internet, consumers need to be aware of the risks."
Sharing the eight spot were tried-and-true consumer headaches like mail-order shopping, telemarketing and landlord-tenant relations.
Problems with auto sales and household goods shared the top spot in the annual list of consumer grievances, up from second and third, respectively, in 1999. Both have been in the top five since 1997.
The most common Internet complaints involved online purchases and auctions, according to reports from 45 federal, state and local consumer agencies who participated in the survey. The third most common type of Internet complaint involved service providers.
Weinberg recommended that consumers use credit cards when shopping online, keep records of all transactions and vary passwords among different Web sites.
The number of Internet-related complaints has been surging for the last two years, Weinberg said.
During the 1999 holiday season, many Internet sellers claimed they could ship extremely quickly, but some failed to meet their promises. The Federal Trade Commission fined companies more than $1.5 million in civil penalties.
The situation improved last year, but the FTC said Monday it had sent warning letters to more than 70 Internet retailers reminding them to live up to their claims.
"There's a lot more consumers being impacted because there are simply more people shopping online," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group. He said industry has to work to educate consumers about shopping on the 'Net.
"There are some bad actors out there who prey on consumers and want to take advantage of the excitement of buying online," Miller said. "Consumers have to be smarter and have to go with reputable Web sites."
The categories generating the most complaints in 2000 were auto sales and household goods, which includes appliances, furniture, electronics and other retail items.
Complaints about household goods involved defective merchandise, deceptive advertising and failure to honor warranties or provide refunds.
Many of the complaints with auto sales involved financing deals. Some consumers complained they would take home a car with a good financing rate only to later get a call from the dealer saying they have to return the car because they didn't qualify for the rate.
The category of home improvement services fell from first place on the list in 1999 to third, but the survey ranked it as the type of business most likely to fail and reopen under another name. Furniture stores and health studios were also types of companies most likely to go out of business.
"Consumers need to check out the company before they make any payments to business in these industries," Weinberg said. "Consumers can lose large amounts of money if a company that they are doing business with closes its doors."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.