Businesses sometimes engage in the rather strange practice of sending out samples of their products and then asking consumers to pay for them. We say strange, because consumers generally don't like being tricked into buying unsolicited supplies, especially as they're things they didn't ask for.
Surprise! Now here's a bill.
Unsolicited supplies are goods or services that are supplied to someone who hasn't asked for them or agreed to pay for them. It's not as common as it used to be, but the practice of sending out unsolicited supplies does still happen.
Small businesses may find they've received stationery supplies without ordering them – along with an invoice asking them to pay.
The same applies to services you haven't ordered, such as extra work done on your car when you put it in for a service, or extra expensive treatments applied to your hair without checking with you first.
With the rise in online shopping, you may find you receive something in the post that you haven't ordered, either because it has been sent to the wrong address or the order has been mishandled.
The Australian Consumer Law makes it unlawful to:
- ask for payment for unsolicited goods or services
- ask for payment for unauthorised advertisements or directory entries
- send out unsolicited credit or debit cards.
It's also unlawful for a person or business to send out an invoice for unsolicited goods or services unless:
- they reasonably believe they have a right to be paid
- the invoice has a clear warning with really big print that says "This is not a bill. You are not required to pay any money."
There are large maximum penalties that apply to persons or businesses that don't comply with these laws – $1.1 million for a corporation and $220,000 for an individual.
What can I do if I receive unsolicited supplies?
If you receive unsolicited goods, you don't have to pay for them. But don't just throw them away or break them, because you may have to pay compensation if you purposely damage unsolicited goods within three months of receiving them.
This three-month period is called the recovery period, when the supplier can recover the goods. This can be reduced to one month if you send a written notice to the supplier saying you've received unsolicited goods that you don't want, and that they can be collected from a certain address. Keep some proof of the date you notify the supplier – an email, postal receipt or registered post, especially if the item is something quite valuable.
If the supplier doesn't collect the goods within the recovery period, you can keep them without having to pay anything for them. But you can't keep unsolicited goods if you:
- knew that the goods were not supposed to be sent to you – for example, if there is another name and address on the parcel
- unreasonably refuse to let the supplier collect the goods during the recovery period.
Unsolicited services are services you did not agree to before they were provided.
Say you engage a painter to paint your front fence, and you explain very clearly to him that only the front fence needs painting. What if the painter takes it upon himself to paint your front, back fence and side fences too, and then wants to be paid four times the original price?
You don't have to pay unless you agreed to it before he performed the service.
Some years ago there were a lot of examples of dodgy operators sending out official looking invoices for entries in professional or trade directories or magazines. Some businesses went ahead and paid these invoices without checking if they were legitimate. These invoices must now be printed in the most prominent text on the invoice, THIS IS NOT A BILL. YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED TO PAY ANY MONEY. Then again, many of these invoices were scams anyway, and scammers are not really going to pay much attention to the law. So it's best to keep looking out for these dodgy invoices, with or without the warnings.
Unsolicited credit or debit cards
As a general rule, a bank or other financial institution or business can't send out a credit or debit card without prior written authority.
Credit cards include cards that can be used to purchase goods or services on credit – for example, store-branded credit cards. Debit cards are cards that can be used to access an account to deposit or to withdraw cash or to obtain goods or services.
Issuers must not send you a credit or debit card unless
- you sent a written request to the issuer
- it is a replacement, renewal or substitute card.
ASIC is the appropriate body to handle complaints about unsolicited credit or debit cards.