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Protect yourself when buying from private uniform companies

Jun. 2, 2008 - 11:15AM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 2, 2008 - 11:15AM  |  

This is the second in a series on uniform purchases from unofficial suppliers.

Some readers have complained that uniforms purchased through Military Accessories and Community Support, also known as MAACS, of Portland, Maine, never arrived, and they haven't gotten their money back, either.

Sound familiar? Last week, we detailed some troops' complaints about a company called Armed Forces Military Clothing Sales Store in Jamaica, N.Y.

Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Johnson ordered the new airman battle uniform from MAACS on Dec. 10, and the company charged his credit card $155.60. By mid-May, he said, he had received neither his uniform nor his money back — and the company had stopped returning his calls and e-mails.

At the time he ordered the ABUs, they were not available in the military exchange because of a shortage.

"I felt it would be a good thing to lead by example and get the ABUs," Johnson said.

His chief was referred to MAACS from another airman who had ordered from the company and was satisfied.

The chief also put in an order in December, and he, too, has not received his uniform, Johnson said.

Johnson, who is stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., has since bought his uniform from the exchange. "I'm worried about the junior enlisted or junior officer" who could face a financial crunch while waiting for a refund from the commercial store, he said.

The Better Business Bureau is investigating MAACS, said Paula Fleming, spokeswoman for the BBB serving eastern Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont. The company has an unsatisfactory record with the BBB as a result of 37 unanswered complaints and 31 unresolved complaints.

The Maine attorney general's office has received 14 complaints about MAACS in the past month or so, said Jim McKenna, an assistant attorney general. "To date, none have been resolved," he said, although he noted that "just because a complaint has not been resolved doesn't mean that the consumer is right and the business is wrong."

Allison MacDonald, the company's owner, said MAACS has been "overwhelmed" with ABU orders: "We never expected this much of a backlog."

She said the company — which has only three employees — has pulled the ABU off its Web site.

As of May 19, the site acknowledged customers' frustration and stated, "Effective immediately, we are only displaying the items we currently have in stock and will be shipped promptly."

But the next day, a message on the Web site stated: "The ABU backlog is starting to clear up! We have confirmed we will be getting regular shipments."

"It's been such a mess industry-wide," MacDonald said, referring to the ABU shortage. "We're trying to fill orders as fast as we can. We have everything else in stock. We're asking customers to be patient."

She said the company is also giving customers credits to help resolve the problem, she said.

Customers should go to the MAACS Web site and log in to the ticket system to submit a request. "We will handle it as fast as we can," she said.

This system was implemented in early May. MacDonald said the company has issued about $200,000 in refunds and has about 1,500 back orders.

A number of companies sell a variety of military uniforms. As you decide where to buy yours, here are some points to consider:

• The military exchanges are the only Defense Department-authorized vendors for uniforms.

Even if a company touts some sort of Defense Department connection or logo, it is not a Defense-authorized uniform vendor.

• Use your credit card, rather than your debit card, to make online purchases. You have more protections when disputing charges and a better chance of getting your money back. If you are not satisfied with a company's response, you can contact your credit card company to report that the items billed to you were not delivered.

• Read the terms and conditions on the company's Web site carefully. Unless you specifically agree to a longer term, the company must ship the merchandise within 30 days, or you have the right to cancel the order and get a refund.

• Confirm the company's physical address and phone number, and make sure you understand its return policy.

• Check out the company's complaint history with the Better Business Bureau at http://www.cbbb.org">http://www.cbbb.org.

As for Armed Forces Military Clothing Sales Store, the subject of last week's column, Leslie Fields, chief finance officer, said in an e-mail that the company has "initiated a customer awareness program" and has "appointed a liaison to resolve any and all customer problems and dissatisfactions."

The liaison also will work with the New York BBB to answer all complaints on file about Armed Forces MCSS, Fields said.

Questions or comments? Contact staff writer kjowers@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from ArmyTimes.com reader">Karen Jowers at cposhopper@militarytimes.com">cposhopper@militarytimes.com.

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