Cyber-shopping is fast, convenient and opens up a whole new world of access to goods. Nevertheless, it's not all smooth sailing (but what is?). When you shop on the internet, ask yourself the following questions:
Do know who you're dealing with?
Look for contact information that includes a physical address, phone number and Australian Business Number (ABN) (for an Australian business). This shows that the company is a registered company with legally binding obligations to consumers.
Is the product what you want?
How well is it described on the website? If in doubt, confirm the exact description (e.g. a model number) by email.
What does it cost?
Make sure you know the total price in Australian dollars (don't assume an Australian company quotes its price in Australian dollars, often they quote U.S. currency for the international market), including the credit card company currency conversion charge and delivery costs e.g. freight.
Can I confirm the order?
Look for a site that confirms the sale and offers the opportunity to change your mind before you complete the purchase.
What will happen to my personal information?
How will you pay?
Most online payments are made by credit card, so make sure the business uses a secure payment system. The site should tell you that you are entering a secure online environment before you start to provide your credit card details.
Look for the unbroken 'padlock' icon in the bottom of the browser window, and the letters 'https' in the address for the website (instead of the usual 'http' - the 's' means that it is a secure server), to be sure your information is secure during transmission.
If you are uncomfortable with online payments, ask if you can provide your credit card details by phone. Nevertheless, every safeguard can be compromised, so you pay online at your own risk.
Have I shopped around?
This is easy with today's search engines, but be wary if the price is substantially lower at one site (the Golden Rule - "if it looks too good to be true, it usually is"). If possible, make a price comparison with the same product in a physical store, including all additional costs that will accrue to the online purchase (insurance, freight and handling, customs duty, foreign exchange rates and credit card charges).
Do they have a refund policy?
If it's not explained on the site, contact them by email and ask for details. Australian sites will be covered by consumer legislation.
When will it be delivered?
Make sure you know how long it should take to deliver the product, especially if it has to arrive before a particular date e.g. Christmas. Reputable sites will have this information, and contact details to report delays. Some sites will allow you to track your order online thru a purchase number.
Is there a complaints handling procedure?
Will you be able to talk to a real person if you have a complaint?
TIP: Do not buy from an online seller who has contacted you via unsolicited email (spam). Keep printouts of the web page describing the product, as well as all email correspondence. Never give out your bank account details to anyone – not under any circumstances!
Online terms and conditions
The ACCC has surveyed the top consumer web sites, and come to some disturbing conclusions about the use of "Terms And Conditions". Over 50% had a clause that attempted to disclaim responsibility for the information on the site.
Given that you cannot physically see the goods for sale online, it is crucial that what you buy corresponds to its description.
If this turns out not to be the case, you should get in touch with your Consumer Affairs or Fair Trading Office. It may be a breach of the Australian Consumer Law or Trade Practices Act. The ACCC invites consumers to contact the ACCC Infocentre with complaints on 1300 302 502.
Buyer beware checklist
- Can I afford the purchase?
- Does the product suit my needs?
- Have I shopped around for the best price and service?
- What available remedies are there if something goes wrong?
- Is there a valid guarantee? What is the store's refund policy?
- What is the total price, including all charges, credit card fees, and GST?
- Have I researched the product?
- Should I wait a little until I have cooled off?
- Is this impulse buying?
- Do I feel pressured by the sales person?
- Should I check with anyone else (e.g. my spouse)?
Last Updated – February 2014