COVID-19 has dramatically changed our world: from our workplaces to our social lives, it feels like almost everything has been affected.
If you've had to cancel future plans or stop doing the things you regularly do, you might be wondering whether you're entitled to a refund for something you've already paid for.
The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented situation, and we're all scrambling to adapt to the new way of life – and so are businesses. Some are handling it well and being proactive in giving refunds, but others aren't so clear on their game plan.
"Although the current government shutdown means that the rules are a bit different at the moment, a lot of businesses will work with you to try to figure out a refund, credit note or another suitable arrangement," says Julia Steward, CHOICE's head of policy and government relations.
"It never hurts to ask, especially if you're finding times a bit tough at the moment."
What are your rights?
Under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), a business isn't allowed to keep charging you for a service they're unable to provide, so you'd be well within your rights to stop payments for a service you're no longer receiving, like a gym contract.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has made things more complicated. If an event or service is cancelled due to government restrictions, then your rights under the ACL aren't so black and white if you're seeking a refund.
Normally, the consumer law allows you your choice of a refund or a suitable replacement if a service isn't provided with due care and skill (or isn't provided at all). But if an event or service can't go ahead because of the government-directed shutdown, this can affect what you're due under the ACL. Instead, you'll need to rely on the terms in your contract or even common law or state legislation. Check out the ACCC's page about your consumer rights relating to COVID-19.
If you're not sure if you're entitled to a refund, it's worth getting in touch with the business to ask what they're planning to do. They might offer you a credit note or voucher, or perhaps they're looking into different ways of delivering a service to their customers at a reduced rate. It can't hurt to ask and see if you can find a solution.
"You should never be embarrassed about asking a business for a refund – keeping customers happy is at the core of every business, and they can't help you if they don't know you have a problem," says Julia.
How to ask for a refund
If you've never had to do it before, asking for a refund can seem like a daunting process, so we've broken it down into simple steps to make it easier for you.
1. Gather your evidence
Before you do anything, make sure you have proof of purchase like a receipt. If you've lost your receipt, here are some other forms of proof of purchase:
- Credit or debit card statement
- Lay-by agreement
- Receipt or reference number given for phone or internet payments
- Warranty card that has the date and amount of purchase, plus the supplier's or manufacturer's details
- Serial or production number linked with the purchase on the supplier's or manufacturer's database
- Copy or photograph of the receipt.
There are even apps you can use, like the ACCC Shopper app, which saves photos of your receipts, which is a great option if you're prone to losing things!
CHOICE tip: regardless of the COVID-19 situation, the usual rules still apply for faulty products: you're still entitled to a refund, repair or replacement.
Check out the company's refund policy before you get in touch with them so you know where you stand. But remember that you're entitled to a remedy under the ACL if you have a faulty product on your hands, which leads us to the next step…
2. Know your rights
Before you do anything, make sure you know what you're entitled to under the Australian Consumer Law. Check out our consumer rights information, or bone up on your consumer rights knowledge via your state or territory's consumer affairs or fair trading body.
Normally, if an event were cancelled you'd be entitled to a refund under the Australian Consumer Law. But COVID-19 has made things more complicated – if an event has been cancelled because of a government ban, you may not be eligible for a refund.
But you can always ask, and some businesses might be willing to offer you a credit note or another solution. The worst they can say is no, so don't feel bad about asking!
3. Choose your contact method
Are you more comfortable talking to someone on the phone, or do you prefer communicating via email so you have time to think through what you're saying? Perhaps you're better face-to-face (although this option could be difficult due to social distancing measures).
Decide how you'd like to approach the business, then find their contact details.
4. Get in touch (but practise first)
Before you get in touch, practise what you're going to say. You could ask a friend or family member to help.
If you're planning to email, re-read your message several times before you send it, or ask someone else to take a look to make sure all the information is there.
CHOICE tip: Lost for words? Our templates and phone scripts will help you get started.
Remember, manners go a long way. You'll likely be dealing with busy customer service staff who often bear the brunt of customers' frustrations. Being polite won't cost you anything but it will make the whole experience more pleasant for both you and the customer service staff.
5. Not happy?
If you don't get the response you'd hoped for, here are some next steps:
- Ask to speak to someone more senior: sometimes junior staff aren't as familiar with the Australian Consumer Law as they should be, or might not be able to negotiate with you to find a satisfactory solution.
- Contact your local consumer affairs or fair trading body: organisations such as NSW Fair Trading can offer advice and support.
- Go to choice.com.au/yourrights: our website has a wealth of information on consumer rights.
- Contact your bank: You might be able to ask for a chargeback if you paid with a credit card, and you can ask your bank to cancel any future direct debits for ongoing payments like gym memberships.
CHOICE tip: not sure who to contact? Our list of useful consumer contacts is a great place to start.
Bought tickets to a gig that's been cancelled? Can't go to your gym because of social distancing measures? Had to cancel your holiday plans?
Here are some specific situations in which you could be entitled to a refund.
You're entitled to a refund if an event is cancelled – unless the government has ordered the cancellation (or a ban on large gatherings) due to COVID-19. In this case, the event organisers don't necessarily have to provide you with a refund. But many of them are proactively offering refunds as a gesture of goodwill.
For instance, ticket-holders to the Formula One event in Melbourne were offered refunds, and Ticketek has committed to providing refunds for cancelled events.
You might have a bit more trouble getting a refund if you've bought your ticket from a reseller, unfortunately. Viagogo, in particular, doesn't have a good track record of providing refunds. If you're in this situation, still make a complaint and be prepared to escalate to your state or territory consumer affairs body if needed.
CHOICE tip: According to the ACCC, if an event organiser gives you a credit note or voucher, it should have an expiration date which is long enough to allow you to use it.
If you've bought tickets to a small, community-based group or arts organisation, you could choose to show your support for them by not asking for a refund – but base these decisions on what's right for your budget.
The ACL is pretty clear: businesses can't keep taking your money for something they've stopped delivering. Under the ACL, gyms can't keep charging you if they're no longer open – but it gets complicated when they're closed by the government.
"A business isn't allowed to keep charging you for a service that it's unable to provide. Your gym should offer you a suspension of fees or cancellation as they close. If you've paid fees in advance, talk to your gym about your options," says CHOICE spokesperson Jonathan Brown.
"The Australian Consumer Law works a little differently if you've paid for a service that is cancelled because of government restrictions rather than business failure to deliver. Look closely at your contract and see what options are available – many gyms are providing proactive refunds or credit notes for future use."
Some gyms are offering alternatives for members, such as membership freezes, online classes at reduced rates, small weekly payments to help keep the business afloat, and other options.
But remember that you don't have to accept these alternatives if they don't work for you.
Travel is a particularly tricky area for refunds, especially if you've booked through a third party like a travel agent rather than directly through the supplier.
CHOICE's travel experts have been hard at work examining your rights when it comes to travel cancellations due to coronavirus. Here's what you need to know: