In this unprecedented situation where we are either in lockdown or partially, many are using the internet to buy goods and services they never have before. 

This may range from purchasing your groceries from a local supermarket to buying gadgets and items that you did not know existed but suddenly found you needed. 

In theory all your usual consumer rights apply when you shop with an Australian online business. This is the first thing you should check when buying a product online. Not only do you have the advantage of the business being in Australia, the goods are in Australia dollars and hopefully they have a registered office and phone number that you can contact if you have an issue. 

Those rights to remedy a problem also apply when you buy from an overseas company online although it may be very difficult, if not impossible, to get your product repaired, replaced or a refund because the business is not locally based or easy to communicate with. It goes without saying that if you buy from an online seller based overseas you should be aware that if the product does not match what you were promised, is defective or faulty, you may have practical difficulties in obtaining a refund or remedy. You could always try writing to the supplier, which you may or may not get a response, or if you are looking for an authority to make a complaint to, then the “Federal Trade Commission” (protecting Americas consumers) has a website which lists the country, competition agency and the consumer protection agency. I notice that however, surprisingly China does not have a “consumer protection commission” whereas other countries such as the EU, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, and Japan, just to mention a few, do. 

We have all heard of stories about people being scammed. Online shopping scams also involve fake websites or fake ads. Often the fake retailer websites look like genuine online retail stores. This may also include sophisticated designs, reproduced logos, even the matching domain names and stolen Australia Business Numbers (ABN). These websites are often involved with popular brands of jewellery and electronic prices, more often than not, at very low prices. 

Often the warning signs will be evident on these websites, when you are asked to pay using a money order, a preloaded money card or cash transfer. There are reports of new versions of online shopping scams which involve social media platforms. After making several sales, these stores disappear. 

One way you can research a business is to search for reviews before purchasing. Other warning signs can be the unrealistically low price of advertised benefits that sound too good to be true. Social media-based stores may also have very limited information about delivery and other return policies. 

It is a good idea to search the website for any refund or returns policies and stick to the more well-known platforms that have been around for some time and have a history. If you are using a retail website, do your research and find out whether or not it is an Australian company or where the company is physically based as this could create huge problems in the future if you are not happy with the product and the company is overseas. 

You should avoid any arrangements with a stranger that asks for a money order, wired transfer, international funds transfer, a pre-loaded card, or an electronic currency like bitcoin. 

The following tips may help you protect your rights when shopping online:

  1. Consider buying only from online sellers in Australia or overseas sellers that: 

a. have a good reputation

b. a clear process for returns and refunds 

c. have a clear policy for protecting the security of your personal and financial details

d. have a business registration number, a phone, and a physical address. 

  1. You should always check the terms and conditions carefully, so you are aware of what you are paying for and that there are no hidden costs or restrictions.

  2. Always check the currency, because often goods are advertised in dollars however they are US dollars and you may get a surprise when you get your credit card statement with a much higher price then you originally expected because of the currency differences. Now the Australian currency is certainly low when compared with the US dollar or Euro . 

  3. Make sure your computer or device you are operating from has updated anti-virus software.

  4. shop around, look for the pictures of the product you are buying and compare prices on different sites. 

  5. Before making the transaction:

a. never give your bank pin number or password,

b. check that the site is secure. It should have a padlock symbol and an address starting with https://. 

  1. A good sign also means that you can check the progress of your order online and that you get a confirmation email from the retailer confirming your order. You should keep copies of all documents, receipts, electronic records or auction bids, the item descriptions, and emails, just in case you have a problem later. 

  2. All payments overseas should be made through payment services such as PayPal or a credit card transaction. 

  3. If you are paying by credit card and you do not receive the item, then contact your credit card provider immediately. 

If you do have an issue, then the following step may help:

Contact the business or supplier immediately that you received the product from. If you are buying from within Australia, then a phone call may be all it takes. You will need to keep your proof of purchase as businesses can ask you for that. When purchasing anything, you should always ask for a receipt so that you can match it with your credit card statement. You should always keep receipts and records. 

What are your rights

Under Australian Consumer Law, if you buy products at a retail bricks and mortar shop or online, all products come with an automatic guarantee/warranty that they will work and do what they were advertised to do. If a product or service you buy fails to meet the consumer guarantee, you have the right to ask for a repair, a replacement, or a refund under Australian Consumer Law. The remedy that you are entitled to will depend on whether the issue is a major one or a minor one.

In certain circumstances, you may be able to seek compensation for damages and losses you suffered. When buying specialised items for a specific purpose, seek advice as to whether would be suitable for the that purpose. If you have informed them of your needs it makes it harder for them to dispute a claim. Proving that you did provide that information is easier said and done, unless you have a written record of it including either an email to the supplier or notes taken which could also be argued to be self-serving. 

Under our consumer law it is illegal to make false or misleading claims about the product and services you buy. You need to have clear proof of those statements which may be a copy of the ad or promotion or the spruiking by the supplier. 

In relation to cash back offers, these are promotions that are used to encourage you to buy certain products. You need to be careful as these offers are usually limited in time and have special conditions before you get the cash back. Always enquire as to the terms and conditions if you are relying on a cashback for a discount. The same applies with gift cards and discount vouchers, they more likely than not have time limits, restrictions and the types of participating businesses. Do not assume anything, as it is all in the fine print, that is what fine print is used for.

Whilst the terms and conditions may not be of interest to you at the time, they certainly will be, if you are not happy. Loyalty schemes are also a way in which suppliers can persuade you to buy their products. Loyalty schemes do not exist just to reward your loyalty. If you have to provide personal information combined with information gathered from other sources, including your social media and web browsing habits, a detailed profile can be built to send you targeted advertising. 

If you have every booked a flight by using frequent flyer points be aware that you have to pay taxes and other charges on top of your points. In certain situations, the cost of purchasing an airfare without using points, might be as much as the taxes and charges you will pay when using your points. Using points you’ve earnt in a loyalty scheme, see when your points expire, as if you don’t continue to participate in the arrangement you may be disappointed. 

A business in the eyes of the law should not make misleading price claims and should not charge a payment or excessive surcharge. If you have been charged an excessive surcharge on credit, debit, or prepaid cards then the ACCC can investigate your complaint and take enforceable action if necessary.

So, if you are buying any items online you should:

Preferably buy an item from an Australian supplier with a phone number, address, and email address.

Ensure that you are buying in Australian dollars and always keep your receipts, invoices, delivery confirmation and a description of the goods purchased.

When paying, make sure you use a secure payment process such as BPay, PayPal or a credit card that would allow you to obtain a refund if you have been scammed or there is fraud involved.

Read the reviews and comments by others who have purchased from the supplier.

If the deal is too good to be true, it probably is not true. 

COVID-19 and the Consumer 

Consumers should, if your flight, cruise, or tour has been cancelled, receive a refund or such other remedy as a credit note or voucher. Check the fine print. Often the cheaper flights have limited recourse to refund under the terms and conditions of the ticket. The terms and conditions that apply are those at the time you purchased your ticket and the supplier is not able to change the terms later to deny you a refund. 

Keep an email trail of any communication you have with the supplier when purchasing the ticket to ensure that you have a record. If you receive a credit notice or voucher there will be an expiry date which should be long enough to allow you to use the credit note or voucher. You can often renegotiate that date.

If you have bought tickets to an event and it is cancelled, then you should receive a refund or other remedies including a credit note or voucher. The devil is in the fine print you may not have read when  purchased. If the event is cancelled, contact the promoter and seek a refund or credit note. 

The Australian Consumer Law prohibits business from taking payments for goods or services when there are reasonable grounds to believe that the services will not or cannot be supplied. This may apply to your gym membership when lockdown is in place. Some gyms charge freeze or holding fees to pause your membership, this may be appropriate if it is in the terms and conditions.

Weddings may have to be cancelled because of restricted numbers. If you paid a deposit and for services that you no longer require as your wedding is unable to proceed, approach the supplier of each service to see if they are prepared to offer a refund, credit note or voucher. Compensation will depend on the terms and conditions at the time you made the booking.. You may also have rights under Contract Law where the contract can no longer be performed as anticipated in “force majeure” clauses or  some types of “frustration” events. 

You may find, however, that it is very difficult to return your unworn wedding dress, shoes, bridesmaids dresses and other items as you are only entitled to a remedy if your product fails to meet the standard you ordered or is faulty in some way. 

In these uncertain times more caution is required. Depending on the value of the item, the fault with the item, the time and effort in obtaining an exchange product or refund, all needs to be considered prior to purchasing the item. More often than not, your online transaction may happen without incident, then everyone is happy. 

Remember is you need sound legal advice in relation to your consumer rights, then “Paton Hooke Lawyers” can always help.

James Paton

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