National Mail Order Association



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National Mail Order Association

 Consumer Guidelines for Shopping Direct 
Welcome to the National Mail Order Association's (NMOA) Consumer Information Department.

Note: Links in this document will open a new browser window.

This page provides you with information and tips about mail order shopping and your rights as a consumer. At the end of this section you will find links to popular mail order catalogs you can order and shop from.

The NMOA is a professional association of businesses and individuals who sell their products and services directly to consumers by catalogs, magazine and newspaper advertisements, Internet and websites, direct mail, as well as radio and television advertisements. For purposes of this discussion, collectively we will call these types of companies "Direct Marketers."

Tips for buying from Direct Marketing companies

Shopping and ordering products from a direct marketing company (sometimes referred to as "distance shopping," "remote shopping," "shopping direct," or "mail order shopping") can be a safe, fun, and time-saving way to buy almost anything you may want or need. Most direct marketers are honest and reliable companies that provide toll- free ordering and fast delivery to meet the needs of their customers. A direct marketing company cannot last long in business without keeping happy customers that will buy from them again.

Whether you're an experienced mail order shopper or just a beginner, you may occasionally have questions about dealing with a direct marketer. In an effort to make your shopping experience the best it can be, we have assembled these ten tips to help you shop at a distance.

Three Quick Tips

1. All direct marketing companies must abide by the FTC's Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule (the "30-Day Rule"), which is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, as amended effective March 1, 1994. It now applies to orders placed by telephone, by mail, by computers, by fax machines, and pre-recorded messages.

2. Keep in mind that common sense is required when shopping at a distance. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

3. Whenever possible, especially when dealing with companies you have never heard of before, use a credit card or PayPalTM for ordering.

Ten helpful tips for mail order shopping

Tip One. Before ordering, check the company's return and substitution policy. Keep in mind that if you order carefully, you probably won't need to return the merchandise. Read the advertisement before ordering and be clear about sizes, weights, colors, contents, and other product information. If the order calls for a measurement, be precise.

If what you order is not available, some companies may offer you the option of allowing the company to substitute a product of comparable quality. If you do not want a substitute, be sure you say so clearly on the order form.

Although most companies accept returns and have satisfaction guaranteed policies, be sure of this before placing your order to avoid problems or disappointments if you don't like the item or it doesn't fit. In most cases, you must pay for postage to return an item if it doesn't fit correctly or you changed your mind.

Tip Two. Keep a record of your order, including the company's name, address, and telephone number; identifying information about the item you purchased; your cancelled check, a copy of your money order, or the credit card used; and the date you placed the order.

Keeping order information is crucial. If you don't, it may be hard to remember where and when you sent or telephoned your order, what you ordered, and the price. If you order by telephone, you may want to keep a copy of the filled-out order form for your records.

Tip Three. If merchandise arrives damaged or defective, contact the mail order company immediately. If you're asked to return it, get a receipt from the shipper and keep it. Suppose you order a set of dishes, but several plates arrive broken. You might wonder whether to send back the broken plates or the entire set. Do neither unless the instructions on the package tell you to refuse it if damage is obvious. First, tell the company some dishes were broken on arrival. Provide all the information that identifies your order, including your account and/or order number.

Keep a copy of your letter or a note of your conversation with the company's customer service representative with their name or ID number, along with all other items that prove you placed and paid for the order. Then, depending on the company's instructions, return the broken dishes or the entire set. In most cases, the mail order company will pay return postage for damaged or defective merchandise.

NOTE: Many bigger companies now provide a return label in the box along with your order. Others will provide you with a "Return Merchandise Authorization" (RMA) number when you call.

Tip Four. If you don't receive your order, and your package is lost in transit, the mail order company will probably take responsibility for tracing it. If the item you ordered never shows up, and you contact the company and learn that your package was lost in transit, first try to work out a solution with the company. The company should be responsible for tracing the item. If your package cannot be located, most companies will replace it. Remember, they want to keep you a happy customer.

Some direct marketing companies will ask you to add a nominal insurance fee to the total cost of your order up front, or they preprint the insurance fee on the order form. This additional fee assures you that the company will replace lost or damaged merchandise immediately, without delays for tracing lost merchandise or filing claims for damaged items. Whether or not you choose to pay the insurance fee should not affect the initial shipment of your order.

Tip Five. If your prepaid order isn't shipped when promised, you may cancel the order and get a full refund. If the company didn't give you a shipping date in its solicitation (for example, "allow four to six weeks for shipment"), the company must ship your prepaid order within 30 days of receiving enough information to process it. This is required by the FTC's 30-Day Rule. This requirement applies regardless of which medium was used to advertise the product – a catalog or other direct mailing, television, radio, Internet, magazine, or newspaper. If your order can't be shipped within 30 days, or within the time period specified, the company must let you know. The 30-Day Rule applies to orders for which you have sent partial payment (if the company accepts partial payment) as well as to those fully prepaid.

NOTE: The Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule does not apply to certain purchases. These include: services, such as mail order photo finishing; orders for seeds and plants; magazine subscriptions and other deliveries in a series, except for the initial shipment; and cash on delivery (C.O.D.) orders. In cases where you apply for credit with the mail order company, the company is allowed an extra 20 days (50 days total) to establish the account and ship your merchandise, if it has not otherwise made an express shipment promise.

If you call the company to place an order and are told the merchandise cannot be shipped as quickly as promised in the ad, the new shipping date they give you becomes the applicable shipment date if you decide to order the product. If there is a shipping delay after you have placed your order, the seller must notify you and let you cancel the order at no cost, such as by providing a toll-free telephone number or a postage- paid postcard. The company can notify you by calling or writing.

If this delay is for 30 days or less, the seller will assume that you are willing to wait for the merchandise, unless you tell the seller you want to cancel the order. If the delay will be indefinite, longer than 30 days, or if you are notified of an additional further delay, the seller will assume that you want to cancel the order, unless you tell the seller that you are willing to wait.

When you cancel a prepaid order, the company must mail you a refund within seven business days. If the purchase was charged on your credit card, the company must credit your account within one billing cycle following receipt of your cancellation request. (More on credit card billing in the next tip.) You should get a full refund, which includes any shipping or handling fee, insurance, and taxes.

Tip Six. As stated, if you cancel a mail order purchase charged on your credit card, the seller must credit your account within one billing cycle. The Mail or Telephone Order Merchandise Rule requires this. In addition, the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) provides a procedure to help correct or explain apparent credit account billing errors and a means to dispute problem purchases. All billing errors, such as errors in amounts or items charged to your credit card, may be disputed under the FCBA. You may withhold payment for the item disputed and any related finance or other charges during the dispute period. You still must pay for any undisputed part of the bill, including finance charges on the undisputed amount.

To dispute problem purchases, such as defective merchandise, you must meet certain requirements. You may withhold payment for the disputed item and any related finance or other charges if you first make an attempt to resolve the problem with the seller. Also, if the card you used is a bank card or other card not issued by the seller, you can withhold payment only if the purchase exceeds $50, and it occurred within your home state or 100 miles from your billing address.

NOTE: If you are having irreconcilable troubles with an uncooperative company, and you placed your order using a credit card, call your credit card company immediately to file a payment dispute form.

Tip Seven. If you return merchandise to a company, get a return receipt from the shipper. Sometimes things get lost in shipment or packages are mislaid. Ask the shipper for a return receipt when you send back an item to a mail order firm. The receipt may cost extra, but you'll have proof that you returned the merchandise.

Tip Eight/ When you buy CDs, video or cassette tapes, books, collectibles, etc. by mail through membership in a negative option club or plan, the FTC's Negative Option Rule gives a minimum of 10 days after you receive notification in which to decide if you want to receive the selection. If not, you must notify the seller within that time.

Unlike a typical mail order purchase, negative option clubs usually work like this. You receive a special introductory offer when you agree to buy a certain number of items. For example, if you agree to an introductory offer of "X" items for $1.00, you also may be agreeing to purchase "Y' selections, within a specified time period.

Promotional material from a negative option club must state the terms of the plan including: (1) how many items you are required to buy in a period of time, (2) how often the company will send you offers, (3) how you can let the company know if you do not want the selection, (4) how to use your right to cancel your membership after fulfilling your obligation, and (5) whether billing charges include shipping and handling.

Suppose you receive the club notice of selection late (with less than 10 days to decide) and receive a selection you didn't order. The Negative Option Rule requires the seller to give you full credit and pay the shipping cost for the items returned. In addition, any special introductory merchandise must be shipped within four weeks of receipt of your order, unless the seller encounters circumstances beyond its control. Each time you receive an announcement about a new selection, the company must enclose a form clearly telling you what to do if you do not want the selection.

Tip Nine. Never send cash through the mail. Send a check or money order or use a credit card. When using credit cards, special credit rules apply. Sending cash is an unnecessary risk when shopping by mail. Aside from possible theft or loss, you will have no proof of payment if a problem arises. A money order receipt, cancelled check, or monthly credit card statement is written proof of payment.

Tip Ten. If you ever get something that you didn't order (and it is not from your negative option or club plan) you can keep it without paying for it. According to the FTC, it's your legal right.

If you ever receive an unordered item, you may feel obligated to pay for it or return it. Don't. If you didn't order it, and it isn't being sent as part of a negative option or club plan, you can keep it for free. If you are billed for merchandise you did not order, advise the company that unless it can demonstrate you ordered it, you will treat it as a gift. If you have any questions about unordered merchandise, the FTC website offers details at

Where to find help if you have problems

If you have a problem with a mail order purchase, first contact the company. Provide your account and/or order number, and copies of any other information (such as cancelled checks or credit card statements) that will help identify the problem. Keep your original documents. Remember, for direct marketing companies to stay in business they must have a base of happy customers. The vast majority of companies will do whatever they can to resolve problems and to keep you happy.

However, if you still are not satisfied, you can contact the organizations listed below for assistance.

Your local Postmaster
Get the name and contact information to your local Postmaster. You can find them at The United States Postal Service (USPS) also has a complaint page at

Your state or local consumer protection office or your Attorney General's office
Most are listed in the government pages of your telephone book, or the office located nearest the company. The Consumers Action website has most of these local agencies listed.

The Better Business Bureau where the company is located
Find a location at l

The book, magazine, or newspaper publisher or broadcast station that carried the advertisement
Publishers and station managers often try to resolve problems between the public and their advertisers.

The FTC complaint page at

If the company is a member of the Direct Marketing Association, you can file a complaint with them at

If the company is a member of the National Mail Order Association, you can file a complaint by letter with them.
Mail to:
NMOA member complaint
2807 Polk Street NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418
Please use the DMA complaint form available at the link provided above.

This information has been written and compiled from various sources by the National Mail Order Association (NMOA), the Direct Marketing Association (DMA), and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Miscellaneous Questions

How do I get my name off mailing lists?
While it's almost impossible to erase your identity when it comes to having marketers sending you mail, you can significantly reduce the amount of national mail you receive by using the Direct Marketing Association's DMA Choice Program at You may also send your name and address requesting removal to:
DMA Mail Preference Service
Box 643
Carmel, NY 10512
DMA members filter their mailing lists against this list to eliminate you.

Important note about using the mail preference service
If you enjoy getting mail from a particular catalog or company that is a DMA member, you will no longer get it, because your name will be filtered. If there are specific companies that you do not want to get mail from, you can send them a letter directly asking to be removed from their lists.

Keep in mind that most legitimate marketers do not want to send their offers to people that do not want them. Postage and paper are expensive, so if there were a magic bullet available for marketers to use to eliminate people not wanting their offer, they would do it.

How do I stop telemarketers from calling me?
To reduce the amount of unsolicited telemarketing calls you receive, you should register with the Federal Trade Commission's National Do Not Call Registry at or by phone at 1-888-382-1222.

NOTE: Some organizations are exempt from using the FTC registry. Exempt Organizations include charities or certain non-profit organizations, organizations engaged in political solicitations or surveys, and sellers or telemarketers that call ONLY consumers with whom they have an established business relationship or from whom they have obtained the express written agreement to call.

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National Mail Order Association, LLC
2807 Polk St. NE Minneapolis MN 55418-2954 USA
Tel: 612-788-1673

Office Hours: Monday-Friday, 9:00am to 5:00pm Central Time

General Information:
For specific inquiries, please see our contact page

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