A cautionary tale about e-commerce

A number of polls have reported that consumers are afraid to shop online. I have to say that I am not immune to that fear. But like everything else, sometimes paranoia can get out of hand.

A number of polls have reported that consumers are afraid to shop online, for fear of fraud or invasion of privacy. I have to say that I am not immune to that fear.

But like everything else, sometimes paranoia can get out of hand. Let me give an example of how mine did.

I'd been trying to land accommodations in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics. My wife is an athlete and big Olympics fan. Me, I'm a couch potato - my one-year-old son has more energy than I do. Still, my wife and I thought attending the Olympic Games would be a neat way to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary. We had already obtained some tickets for the Games.

Having never dealt with the insane world of accommodations for such events, I had little knowledge of whether I had a shot at getting rooms or of what rooms should cost. Thanks to the SaltLake20002.com Web site, I know that rooms in the Days Inns in nearby Nevada are available real cheap. You just need to drive an hour and a half each way, each day. But whether or not rooms will be available in Salt Lake City is a mystery known only to the Olympic organizing committee, which has locked up all the rooms in every hotel in town.

Are you afraid to shop online? YES

Using the Web, you can book private condos for a minimum of 28 days at $1,400 a night, or bunk with some of the enterprising homeowners in the area. But those looking for regular hotel accommodations will have to wait until the Olympic organizers have filled all the hotel rooms they need for athletes, journalists and staff. Then they will throw the crumbs to the rest of us. Who knows what the market price will be?

With this in mind, I recently called a hotel reservation service using a number given to me by a source in Salt Lake City's Olympics bureaucracy. By some chance, they had one, just one, accommodation available in a hotel.

I was not sure whether I should book it, or wait. I decided I would at least like to discuss it with my wife that evening, and so I asked for an authorization slip.

Because the prices seemed very high (over eight times the normal rate for such a room), we decided not to accept. Calling back a couple of hours later, I said I would not sign the authorization. I sent an e-mail, too. Case closed, I thought.

A few days later, I found I had a positive balance on my credit card. The company had billed me, not just for a deposit, but for the full amount of the room! Afterwards, however, they credited me for everything - except the $600 deposit!

I contacted the company by e-mail and it sent back a terse reply stating that I had been credited. The message did not cite the numbers. Yes, I thought, I had been credited, but not for the full amount.

I sent the company another e-mail, saying that I thought charging me a deposit was outrageous. I had not authorized it. I was ready for war. I would file complaints with my credit-card company and the attorney general of its state. I'd even get some of my journalist friends after it.

A company representative called while I was out and left a cryptic message. He repeated that I had, in fact, been credited. But I continued to check my credit-card account online and by phone, and the positive balance was still there. I was only partially credited. They are playing semantics, I thought.

I couldn't work very well that day. I had a fitful night's sleep. I had worked too hard to see all that money go down the drain on some scam perpetrated by some unknown, fly-by-night Internet operation. All those people out there who are afraid of the Net, I thought, are right!

The next morning, I decided to check my account online one more time, for the same reason I open my Free Cell game over and over: It's a nervous habit. And, to my surprise, the positive balance . . . was gone! The company had issued a second credit the day after my call, but it hadn't shown up with my credit-card company for six days.

I was humbled. Whatever the odd reason for the full charge, this company had done right. And I had made an ass of myself. I e-mailed an apology to the company.

The lessons: First, don't be me. Second, remember that even in the rapid-fire world of online credit-card monitoring and alleged instant access to all your financial information, not every transaction is posted at the speed of light. Look before you leap. Talk to a real person, in good faith. Firing off a nasty e-mail is sometimes too damn easy.

Matt Carolan is Online News Editor at Interactive Week, and a columnist for Newsday.