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* Most catalog shoppers agree that the best way to mail order is by phone with your credit card in hand.

Although fraud is rare when it comes to mail-order food, it's wise to deal with companies that come recommended. Most reliable companies offer some sort of guarantee, often stated in the catalog.

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Order well in advance. Most mail-order companies are swamped around the holidays. When placing your order, check on delivery dates. Early orders will be held for later delivery as you request.

These steps will also help ease the process:

* If you are sending perishables, make sure the recipient will be home, or that the foods sent are packaged to spend an extended stay at the post office.

* Read the fine print. Many catalogs contain critical details about ordering procedures and charges (shipping, handling, insurance). Make sure that the catalog is up-to-date.

* Have any questions ready when you place your order.

* Write down the date of the order, the name of the person who took your order, and a confirmation number.

* Keep the catalog page of the item or items you've ordered or copy down the details of the description.

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* Some companies will automatically put you and/or the recipient on a mailing list. Specify if you're not interested.

What if something arrives in bad shape? Most companies want to know and will fix it, either by replacement, credit, or refund. Call customer service.

If you have any complaints that are not resolved with the company within 30 days, write to the Mail Order Action Line, Direct Marketing Association, 1101 17th St., NW Suite 705, Washington, DC, 20036-4704.

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