There's no doubt that online shopping has risks. It's hard to know when a company's trustworthy; you could end up paying for goods that never arrive, and who knows what happens to the personal information you provide before you buy?
But with some simple precautions, shopping online can be relatively trouble-free, so make sure you ask the following questions when buying online.
Who am I dealing with?
Information about the trader should be clear. You should have either email or phone contact details, and be able to check on its reliability.
How much is it going to cost me?
The price should be clearly displayed and include all costs – look for information about delivery charges, taxes and currency conversion.
What am I buying?
You should be able to easily identify the product. This is especially important online because you often can't see the goods themselves.
Is there stock available?
Stock availability should be displayed clearly.
What delivery methods are available? Are there different options for delivery methods and prices? Will they deliver to my country?
You should be provided with information about options and prices for different delivery methods.
How do I know when I've confirmed my order?
There should be a clearly defined ordering process for you to follow. You should also receive a receipt of the order, either by email or in the post.
How can I pay for my item?
Payment options available should be clearly displayed. Expect the majority to accept credit card, with some stores also accepting PayPal, non-internet payment, debit card or Cash On Delivery (COD).
What personal information are they asking for? What will they do with it?
Only information needed for the sale should be requested. If you're asked for personal information, there should be an explanation of how the information will be used, and who it will be given to.
Where can I complain if something goes wrong?
Contact the online store using the information provided in the website's Contact Us section. If you can't locate a Contact Us section on the website, or receive no replies or action from your email and/or phone complaint, try locating the company on social media. You can do this by putting the online retailer's name and "Facebook" or "Twitter" into a web browser search.
Once you've located their page, "like" or "follow" them and try posting your complaint on their social media page. Generally, the public-facing nature of social media makes companies more reactive to complaints. If your post is removed, don't be afraid to re-post as many times as necessary.
If you don't get a reply, get advice from your local fair trading/consumer affairs authority. Under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) regime that came into effect at the beginning of 2011, retailers of all kinds are required to follow strict guidelines when it comes to returns, exchanges, the quality of goods and the representations of goods through marketing and advertising.
How long will it take to get my goods?
Check for a stated target time for delivery, and that you'll receive an email to tell you when it's been dispatched.
I've got my goods, now what?
Your item should arrive in good condition, with an invoice and an explanation of how to return the product if necessary.
When do I pay?
Your account shouldn't be debited before you receive the goods. The amount you pay should be what was stated when you ordered, with allowances for any currency conversion.
What if I don't like the product, or it's faulty?
The returns procedure should be easy to follow, with clear indications of the steps involved and who to contact if the returns procedure fails. The ACL regime requires retailers to accept returns if the product's faulty or doesn't match its advertised description. However, retailers aren't required to accept returns if the customer changes his or her mind, though the better retailers tend to offer exchanges or store credit.
How much is it going to cost to return goods?
Any extra costs should be specified in the returns policy, so check before you finalise your transaction. There should be no additional costs involved in returning goods other than those specified.
Can I get a refund?
Most of the time, there should be no problems getting a refund. It should be just like regular shopping, provided you have the physical address of the trader. But it's a lot harder to chase up a virtual shop – one without a bricks-and-mortar address – through consumer protection agencies like NSW Fair Trading or Consumer Affairs Victoria, to be extra cautious when shopping on lesser-known sites. There are also some legal questions that may make getting a refund more complicated if you shop overseas, though most major overseas retailers will do the right thing.
Avoid the online shopping pitfalls
Fear of getting ripped off is one of top reasons Australians avoid shopping online, but there are several simple ways to avoid getting fleeced.
- Protect your details. Never give your personal password to anyone, including the business that helped you set it up. Legitimate businesses don't ask for security details via email or phone.
- Have up-to-date security. Install antivirus software on your computer and keep it up to date. A good security suite will protect you against viruses, Trojans, spyware and other malware, along with phishing and other online scams.
- Use strong passwords. Don't use the same password for different sites, and create strong passwords with a combination of letters and digits. Password management software can help.
- Look it up. If a website's unfamiliar, research the company using web searches, read buyer reviews and call the contact number. Also, check the refund, returns, privacy, delivery and guarantee policies, just to be on the safe side.
- Don't be diverted. Always re-check that the domain name matches the website. For example, www.cols.com.au might be a fraudulent copy of www.coles.com.au.
- Note contact details. If you have problems, being able to contact the retailer is crucial, so always note down the phone number and physical address of an online store before buying.
For further help
www.consumerlaw.gov.au — The ins and outs of the latest consumer protection laws.
www.accc.gov.au — Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
www.econsumer.gov — for international consumer advice and cross-border complaints.