Gaithersburg reader Denise McQuighan was ordering a pair of $269 Mission D3C roller hockey skates for her son, Patrick, from an online Canadian sports-equipment retailer recently, but she stopped cold when the order form required her Social Security number.
"The Web site indicated that this was needed by the U.S. Customs agents for some reason," says McQuighan, who knows better than to hand out her Social Security number (SSN) to just anyone who asks for it.
McQuighan told Patrick to find different skates -- from a U.S. company. "But could you tell me," she asks via e-mail, "is there some requirement to provide a SSN to order something from Canada?"
The policy statement at the retailer's Web site, www.hockeygeeks.com, says: "We require a Social Security number for U.S. customers or else products cannot cross the border and failure to provide this information will result in delayed or even non-shipment."
With the news that new passport rules would require U.S. citizens to have passports to reenter the United States from Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean starting in 2008, such a "requirement" seems plausible. But consumer experts say there's no such SSN stipulation for cross-border orders.
"It's really none of their business," says Pam Slater, executive director of Consumers for World Trade, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes global commerce.
Charlie Underhill, senior vice president of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, says it's "a reach" for a foreign retailer to say it needs a customer's SSN, and "we can think of a hundred reasons why not to do it."
The proliferation of identity theft has made Americans more aware of the threat of criminals stealing Social Security numbers and other data, he says.
"The advice everybody is giving consumers is, 'Don't give this personal kind of information out.' "
Matt Perry, manager at HockeyGeeks.com, says the Web site's Social Security number requirement was initiated soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when security was tightened. HockeyGeeks' distributor asked the retailer to collect customer SSNs to avoid possible customs hassles when bringing orders across the border.
"It was never anything malicious on our part," Perry says. "But we've been getting customers saying they don't want to give this, and that's horrible for our business."
So the company has recently stopped asking for SSNs, he says, except for orders of more than $2,000 -- the standard limit above which U.S. Customs requires formal import paperwork.
But U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Barry Morrissey says, "There is no requirement for a consumer to provide their Social Security number to a foreign supplier of goods."
The Council of Better Business Bureaus announced last week that it's creating an easy-to-use dispute resolution service to handle complaints between consumers and merchants in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Partnering with two British commerce groups, TrustUK and WebTraderUK, the CBBB says the free service is voluntary and nonbinding for consumers, who can submit complaints online. Retailers who are members of the BBBOnLine program or are affiliated with its foreign partners are committed to participate in the dispute resolution process.
"If the company isn't a member, [the organizations] will still use their best efforts to get the dispute resolved," says the CBBB's Underhill. "Their best efforts may not be good enough, but it will still be a quantum leap forward."
In the past, when a consumer complained to the BBB about a foreign merchant, the complaint was passed along to www.eConsumer.gov -- a government consumer-protection site that forwards such complaints to enforcement agencies in 19 nations. However, as with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, those agencies rarely tackle individual complaints.
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.