If computers had been in use in the Wild West of the last century, buying software would have been a snap. Wander in off the trail, park the horse, and mosey into the general store to see if any new applications had come in on the weekly stagecoach. A bit fanciful, perhaps, but let’s continue anyway.

As the word spreads that you can get floppy disks loaded with new recipes for the chuck wagon and games to while away the hours while the dogies snooze under the stars, some software marketing genius takes a good idea (from Sears or Montgomery Ward) and distributes a software catalog. Now you can order software and long johns for easy delivery by mail and not have to rely on the random programs left on the shelf after a long cattle drive.

And that, if the scenario were more than a dusty dream of the Y2K-OK Corral, is probably where the problems began. The push to get computers and software in the classroom, as well as the healthy chunks of budget and grant dollars available to spend on it, have created a thriving marketplace, and no market is more wide open than the online mail order mall of the internet.

Ordering on the web has become an easy way for schools to get software and other products quickly and cheaply. But, like the street bazaars and sidewalk stalls in Gopher Gulch, there are plenty of snake oil vendors, hucksters, and charlatans. Even if you avoid pirated copies of programs, second-rate bargains, or outright sales scams, there are plenty of dark alleys and loose boards to trip the unwary.

The Federal Trade Commission and state consumer protection officials are the federal marshals and local sheriffs trying to protect unwary customers in this $20 billion a year market, but even if you are prepared with knowledge and net savvy, it can be rough. Unlike big discount stores that buy in quantity and line the shelves with multiple copies of popular software titles, online discounters often do not warehouse products.

The law of “bait and switch” makes it unlawful for a retailer to “refuse to show, display, sell, or otherwise provide the goods advertised in accordance with the terms of the advertisement.” In other words, retailers are supposed to sell what they market. But often web dealers don’t even know what they are selling. Two recent examples come to mind.

Early in May, a computer guru colleague told me that Insight (which claims to sell more than 100,000 computer products on the web) was advertising Microsoft Office 2000 Developer Edition for a really good price and promising to ship orders in early June. Because the Developer Edition contained all of the Office 2000 components, as well as handy programming tools, I ordered one.

When the shipment arrived in June, it was not the “Developer Edition” but a package labeled “Developer Tools.” It took me hours on hold, listening to a vague explanation about mix-ups, being told that the product I wanted was several hundred dollars more, arguing about who should pay the shipping charges for the return (the customer service supervisor wanted me to pay, even though he admitted the ad was for the wrong product; I won), and more calls to get them to actually pick up the unwanted software before my “quick and easy” saga of bargain software was finally over.

Trying another vendor, Provantage, I got better results, even though the process was again less simple than point, click, and pay. I ordered a package of software utilities that was advertised to include Partition Magic, which I wanted to use to subdivide my hard drive. When the package arrived, it contained version 3.0, which was not only way out-of-date, but would not work on my 12-gigabyte drive.

After one phone call to Provantage, they contacted the maker and arranged to have a replacement upgrade to version 4.0 shipped via air. The additional charges? None. I felt like a Texas schoolmarm after Judge Roy Bean brought law West of the Pecos.

The lessons abound like tumbleweed. The consumer sheriffs can’t police all the mistakes and sloppy marketing that occur online. They won’t help you fight the small print restocking charges and return shipping fees. It’s still every customer for himself out there, so be careful and learn about the marketplace before you spend your school’s dollars on the web. Saddle up, head ’em up, and move ’em out!