Study: US out ahead on e-commerce

If you're an American buying goods or services off a U.S.-based e-commerce site, chances are you won't have major problems with billing, shipping, or dispute resolution.
Written by Maria Seminerio, Contributor on

But many overseas e-commerce sites, selling both inside and outside the U.S., still have a long way to go to meet the customer service standards Americans are used to.

That's according to a University of Utah professor who offered preliminary results on Tuesday of what may be the first study of consumers' experience of international e-commerce at the Federal Trade Commission's "Consumer Protection in the Global Electronic Marketplace" workshop here.

In the survey, which is focusing on consumer-oriented retail sites in the U.S. and 11 other countries, including Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Norway and Sweden, researchers are tracking online transactions valued at between $25 and $50 -- 10 Americans and 10 non-U.S. buyers are participating.

In the nearly 175 transactions carried out so far in the study, which concludes later this month, no credit card fraud has cropped up. But participants have encountered sites that won't ship goods to many parts of the world, Robert Mayer, a professor in the university's Department of Family and Consumer Studies, told about 200 people gathered for the workshop. "In some cases, the purchaser completed the order, gave their credit card number, and only then was told that the goods could not be shipped to their country," Mayer said.

And while U.S.-based sites typically were able to deliver goods to U.S. addresses within a week, and to overseas addresses within two weeks, overseas purchasers often have to wait much longer for deliveries, he said.

Another problematic trend with certain non-U.S.-based e-commerce sites was a tendency to delay issuing credits for returned goods, Mayer said. "We found some firms would keep our money for 100 days or more before making a credit," he said.

The preview presentation of the University of Utah researchers' report was among the opening events in the FTC's two-day e-commerce confab, attended by Internet executives, officials from consumer watchdog groups, and law enforcement officials.

Another session, focusing on the battle to stop online scam artists from targeting consumers, highlighted some nagging problems faced by law enforcement. Perhaps the most vexing problem in much of the online crime now occurring is figuring out which agency has jurisdiction to investigate, said Sally Gustafson, senior assistant attorney general and chief of the Consumer Protection Division at the Washington State Attorney General's Office. "All too frequently, scam artists hide behind the Web," making it nearly impossible to determine jurisdiction, Gustafson said.

And international investigations are all too scarce, she added. "If a fraudulent person is operating outside the U.S., often even when we get a judgement against them, it's an empty judgement" because of the inherent problems in getting overseas governments to carry out orders from U.S. judges, Gustafson said.

International co-operation is also the ultimate goal of U.S. officials now negotiating a data privacy accord with the European Union, a senior Commerce Department official said in a brief address at the end of the first day of the workshop. "An international consensus for online consumer protection is critical. After negotiating with the EU for over a year on this, I've concluded that reaching this consensus will be very difficult," said David Aaron, undersecretary of the International Trade Administration at the Department of Commerce. "But it's vitally important that we do so," he added.

Aaron said the talks, now set to resume June 21, have been successful to the extent that both sides agree on "the major principles of data privacy." What still remains disputed is the way to implement consumer protections, he said.

The workshop is part of the FTC's ongoing effort to determine what role, if any, it should take in regulating Internet companies. It continues here Wednesday with an address from U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and panel discussions on the roles of the private and public sectors in resolving consumer e-commerce disputes.

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