Your rights if a merchant charges you but delays shipping

No law requires prompt delivery of goods

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Dear To Her Credit,
I have placed a couple of orders with a merchant, and I notice that she has a disclaimer on the amount of time it might take to fulfill orders. My most recent order was placed on July 17, and on Sept. 16, she finally charged my card. In her disclaimer, she states it should take five to 10 days after your card is charged to ship, but may take a bit longer. My last order took about 30 days after my card was charged to mail the items. This time it has already been 15 and still counting. This store always has huge sales, but takes forever to process orders.

If her practice of charging and not shipping in a timely matter can be proved, is there some way to legally get her to fulfill and mail orders faster? In two or three months, one tends to forget what they have done. Even with a disclaimer, one would think that she would still have to be made to process online orders a bit quicker. I know I don't have to order again from her and most likely won't. But I'm not the only one out there complaining. Bottom line -- once she charges my card how long does she have before shipping?  -- Lori


Dear Lori,
Other than not ordering from her again, you can't do much about a merchant taking forever to ship. An online merchant who is always behind on shipping, unless she's making some kind of in-demand, custom orders, is unlikely to stay in business long.

If she's a sole proprietor and suddenly gets behind on shipping, it's possible there's a health crisis or other temporary emergency going on. Some years ago, I had been inquiring about a late shipment from a small merchant, and was about to get a lot noisier and more demanding when I received a handwritten note from the seller's daughter, saying she had been in the hospital. I'm so glad my huffy little letter never went out.

On the other hand, if a seller is perpetually late, and you don't want to wait forever, why would you continue to do business with her?

The seller is not breaking federal law by charging your credit card before she ships. The Fair Credit Billing Act and the Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule protect you so you don't have to pay for merchandise you order but never receive.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, however, many credit card issuers do not allow merchants to charge your credit card before they ship. If you want to pursue this, you should contact your credit card issuer and ask about its policies for prematurely charging your account. You can then send a complaint letter with specific information about this merchant. According to the FTC, "If you can't ship within the promised time (or within 30 days if you made no promise), you must notify the customer of the delay, provide a revised shipment date and explain his right to cancel and get a full and prompt refund."

If you don't receive your order and want to dispute the charge on your card, you should write to your credit card company. You can find the address on your statement. Be sure to use the address for billing inquiries, not the address to which you send your payments. Your letter should include your name, address, account number and a description of your problem. Include receipts and other documentation.

Use certified mail, receipt requested, and keep a copy of your correspondence for your files.

Some card issuers use the expected date of delivery, not the charge date, as the start time the 60-day window to dispute charges. So, send your letter within 60 days of the date the first bill containing the charge was mailed to you. It's important to keep track of emails or other documentation of an expected delayed shipment. If the shipment was delayed, the issuer will probably allow you more time.

See related: How to win a credit card charge-back dispute

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Updated: 03-23-2019