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Mail-order buyer, be aware

Help is close at hand for hapless victims of the unreliable or unscrupulous

by Mark Schreiber

In retrospect, I didn’t really need a new baseball cap. But this one, advertised by the publisher of a nationally circulated magazine, had a humorous logo in Japanese that tickled my fancy, making it — like much of the merchandise sold via mail order — a novelty item not sold in stores.

Succumbing to temptation, I sent in my order. The instructions for purchase were clear enough (“Complete the form and mail to the address below with payment in the form of postal money orders”) but the promised delivery date was vaguely worded, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight I should have sensed this might cause problems.

On July 21 (note that date), I mailed off the form with ¥2,500 in postal money orders.

A month passed, and no cap came. Now I am a patient person, but this seemed like a ridiculously long wait for a mass-produced item.

I’d hoped to receive the goods before the hot weather had passed. By the end of August I’d grown impatient and phoned the number on the ad. A sweet young thing came on the line and apologetically said, “We’re working to expedite the orders, would you pleeeeease wait just a little longer? Maybe kugatsu ippai (by the end of September).”

Another month passed, and still no cap.

In late September I called the company a second time, to be told they were now shooting for “sometime in October.”

Their refusal to inform me of a delivery date set off alarm bells. I suspected they weren’t shipping the caps because there were no caps to ship, and as it turned out my suspicions were to prove spot on.

So I decided it was time to call out the big guns.

Fortunately Japan has something called the National Consumer Affairs Center, and there’s a branch not far from my home. After confirming its operating hours online, I went over in person.

Nobody got excited when a hulking foreigner walked in. A woman emerged from behind the counter and handed me a form, on which I was invited to write down my name, contact number and a brief description of my problem.

After less than a minute’s wait, a second staff member beckoned me to accompany her into a semiprivate cubicle. I produced copies of the original magazine ad and my postal money order receipts, and explained why I was unhappy with the delay.

With no further urging on my part she made the call to the company and, in a polite but businesslike tone, identified herself as an employee of the consumer affairs center.

She was requested to wait until a supervisor could return the call.

About five minutes later, a manager at the publisher called back. He apologetically explained that the company had consigned cap production to an outside firm that had let them down badly, and they were scrambling to find a new supplier.

I was not particularly encouraged to learn the company had been selling goods that had not yet been manufactured.

“I suppose you’ve been getting a lot of calls from other customers, haven’t you?” the woman at the center inquired. They had indeed, the manager replied.

It’s likely this flood of calls from indignant customers, like yours truly, finally forced the company to grapple with the matter. The following Monday I received a call from the center; the company had notified her that they would be writing me directly about getting a refund.

“Thanks for your help,” I told her, adding, “Normally I should also say kore kara mo yoroshiku (I look forward to our future dealings), but it’s probably better if I don’t require your assistance again.”

That remark got a chuckle in return.

The letter I received offered apologies and promised that all orders would be filled “by early December.” Or, if I preferred, the company would arrange for a full refund.

This one was a no-brainer. Early December? For an order that I’d placed on July 21?

Deciding it was time to quit while I was ahead, I opted for a refund and eventually received a genkin kakitome (cash by registered mail) envelope containing the value of the money orders, the ¥300 for cost of issuing the money orders, and ¥80 for the postage stamp.

I still don’t have a baseball cap, but next summer is a long way off. Maybe I’ll buy myself a new one for Christmas.

Upon reflection, I suppose I should accept some blame for this farcical situation because I allowed my desire to own a conversation piece to overrule common sense. More specifically, I had disregarded some clear warning signs.

Well-managed mail order firms are quite specific about delivery time for goods. The ad for the cap was vaguely worded, to the effect that it basically said, “We’ll send it to you whenever we’re ready.” And if that was not enough to warn me off, the ad also mentioned the goods were not returnable — which may even be a violation of the law regulating mail-order commerce.

If the transaction had involved ¥250,000 instead of just ¥2,500, it’s possible I would have become a lot more emotional. As it was, I was able to explain my predicament to the center in a cool and composed manner, and they basically agreed that my complaint was legitimate.

As for what I did right, well, it goes without saying that eliciting the assistance of the consumer affairs center only works if you have records, including receipts, copies of contracts, and a log of telephone calls and other exchanges with the seller, which I did. But there’s a limit to what they can do, and if you have disregarded the black-and-white terms of a legal contract, or fallen victim to a professional swindler, the center will probably have no choice but refer you to a list of attorneys.

I should add that most of the catalog mail order and online purchases I have made in Japan have been trouble-free. When shopping I look for things like a toll-free number for telephone assistance for reassurance. (Note: It’s definitely not a good idea to deal with any company or individual that only provides a cell phone number.)

Writing in the November issue of Gekkan Shoshisha, a monthly publication of the Japan Consumer Association, attorney Chizuko Mura lists “Ten rules to avoid being victimized.” With the author’s kind permission, they appear below:

1. Don’t be pushed into signing any contracts. Think things over at your own pace. Don’t be passive.

2. Before signing a contract, collect information about both the company and the product it’s selling.

3. Consider if you really need the product, and if you can afford it.

4. Refrain from inviting an unfamiliar salesperson into your house. If you talk to them, ask for their business card and confirm that they are who they claim to be.

5. Be unambiguous when declining to purchase. The reason for refusal is yours and need not satisfy the seller.

6. Jot down notes during a sales pitch. Carefully pore over any brochures and contracts.

7. Proceed with a contract only after you fully comprehend, and are satisfied with, the contents.

8. Review and confirm the details of any additional documents you receive after signing.

9. If you feel dissatisfied with the transaction, don’t hesitate to call the National Consumer Affairs Center.

10. If you feel you’ve been victimized, don’t “cry yourself to sleep” (acquiesce). Resolving the matter is an important first step in preventing yourself from being victimized again.

The National Consumer Affairs Center has been working with the police and other government agencies to disseminate warnings against those “It’s me, send money” scams. It also warns the public against aggressive street solicitation (so-called “catch sales”), door-to-door fraudsters, false labeling of products or sales of goods after their recommended “consume-by” date, and many other scams. New ones are constantly popping up, which is why I also visit its website occasionally.

I haven’t heard of any serious problems among my own circle of foreign friends and acquaintances. If any readers have an experience, either positive or negative, they would like to share with other Community Page readers, how about writing to let us know?

The National Consumer Affairs Center’s Japanese website: www.kokusen.go.jp/. Limited English information is available at www.kokusen.go.jp/ncac_index_e.html. The center’s nationwide hotline number is (0570) 064-370. A list, in Japanese only, of branches nationwide, broken down by prefecture, can be found at www.kokusen.go.jp/map/. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp