Balancing the books

Rosh Hashana is a time for closing off old accounts, whether divine or temporal, according to Jewish tradition.

Rosh Hashana is a time for closing off old accounts, whether divine or temporal, according to Jewish tradition. Everything we have done, right or wrong, is listed in the "big book" - and it is according to this that Heaven will decide the course our coming year will take. And we human beings tend to do the same thing - except modern types like us use a spreadsheet for our calculations. And right now, a most negative calculation is accruing among the computer-buying public against Web sites that are happy to take your money, but duck out when you need someone to help you stand up for your rights. Last month, one of the biggest suppliers of computer equipment in Israel, Nati-Sakal (not legally connected to duty free and appliance center Sakal) stopped filling orders for customers who had ordered products from them through Web portals such as Netaction and Walla Shops. The story highlights the pitfalls and dangers of buying expensive goods over the Internet, and both consumers and businesses have been paying close attention to the story and its fallout. Nati-Sakal was, until recently, an active importer, wholesaler and supplier of laptops, desktops and other computer equipment, both via auction and "group purchase." Its products, which consisted of a range of equipment manufactured by companies like HP and Sony, as well as lesser-known brands, were sold on all of the popular Web sales sites operated by Israeli Web portals, most notably Netaction (run by Netaction is among the top Internet sales sites in Israel - I bought something from them, supplied by none other than Nati-Sakal (this was about a year and a half ago). The purchase conditions stated that it would take 21 business days for the item (a laptop) to arrive, not including holidays, of course (I think Pessah was around that time). It took about five calendar weeks for the thing to arrive, but arrive it did, and it worked. People who ordered products supplied by Nati-Sakal this past spring and summer, however, were not as lucky. Customers noted long delays in the arrivals of the products they had ordered, and, several weeks ago, in response to press inquiries, Nati-Sakal let the cat out of the bag: shipments of equipment were being held up because of international shipping problems, and, while the company intended to deliver its hundreds of backlogged orders, Nati-Sakal would arrange for a refund from credit card companies for any customer that wanted one. Not quite, say consumer activists; first of all, they charge, the "shipments in transit" story is nonsense. The real issue is the company's financial problems, which is evidenced by the fact that it owes a great deal of money - over NIS 1 million, according to consumer groups' estimates - to Web sales sites like Netaction. But what really galls these activists, who have set up a Web site of their own (, in Hebrew only) to collect complaints and prepare possible class-action lawsuits against the company, is the reaction of the "first line" companies the consumers have contact with: the Web site that made the sale and the credit card companies that set up hurdles of difficult-to-understand rules and regulations, making getting a refund for goods that never arrive a near-impossibility. According to the site, nearly all the sales sites from which customers bought their Nati-Sakal equipment - with the notable exception of Walla Shops - have refused to refund the money customers paid for their items, including orders paid for with extended credit payments. Instead, the companies refer customers to the credit card companies, which claim that they cannot stop payments on orders already paid for, because those payments have already been forwarded to Nati-Sakal. Bleah! If there's one thing that's a downer, it's having to fight with suppliers and credit card companies (I speak from experience) - especially in this country, where customer service is at best an afterthought, and you practically have to be a lawyer (or get the offending party to believe you are one) to get some justice. The site is trying to organize a consumer boycott of the companies that refuse to come to the aid of their customers in order to prod them into action. For example, customers who don't get satisfaction from the Internet Zahav sales site have been canceling their ADSL subscriptions with that company. Let this be a lesson to the rest of us; the best way to avoid trouble with suppliers and credit card companies is to know what you're getting yourself into, and to make sure you don't jeopardize your money by agreeing to waive your rights, which, unlike in other countries, you can apparently do here. Don't buy anything from a Web site until you read their "consumer contract." Some of them let the seller completely off the hook, no matter what happens to your merchandise or whether you even receive it (the claim being that the site just hosts products for the sellers, and takes no responsibility for what transpires in the sale). Internet sales are almost all credit card affairs, and the law does afford you some protection in this area. If, for example, you paid for a product with extended payments and haven't received (or don't expect to receive) the goods, you can legally demand that the credit card company stop further payment on the item; however, if the full amount was charged in a single payment, you're out of luck. With Internet sales, though, you have an added advantage; as a "long distance sale," where you don't have a chance to handle the item, by law you have 14 days from the date of delivery to return the item and demand a refund. Consumer protection laws and other information are all on display at the Israeli Consumer Union site (, in Hebrew only). I've been reviewing forums and e-mails from burned consumers, giving suggestions as to how to battle bad businesses, and, while there are lots of ideas out there, it seems to me that the best one for computer equipment buyers is something along the lines of the following: Find the best price that you can on the Internet and then walk into a neighborhood store that has the item you want in stock and that you can see in action before you hand over your money. Then ask them to match the price you found on the Internet. Repeat until successful, and you'll get what you want at the price you want to pay - without getting the headache and heartache you don't want.