There are many ways you can shop, from in-store to online, auction, mailed catalogue, phone or television infomercial.
This page includes information on:
Your consumer rights
Buying from an Australian business
When you buy products and/or services from an Australian business you are protected by Australian Consumer Law. It doesn’t matter whether you shopped in-store, online, via a mailed catalogue or television infomercial.
The law provides you with automatic consumer guarantees that the product/service you purchased will work and do what you asked for.
These guarantees mean you have the right to expect acceptable quality, proof of purchase and any product documentation, truthful advertising, and a remedy if things go wrong.
Businesses must provide these automatic guarantees regardless of any other warranties they give or sell you.
This is not usually the case when buying from a private seller, sharing economy platform, online auction or group buying.
Buying from an overseas business
If you buy online from an overseas business, they must comply with the consumer protection laws in their own country however the Australian Consumer Law also applies to anyone conducting business within Australia, including overseas businesses.
Overseas businesses may also have their own refunds and returns policy with additional rights, so it is best practice to check their policy before making a purchase. You also need to be aware that if a business is overseas, you may experience practical difficulties benefitting from a warranty or getting a refund, replacement or repair if the goods/services you receive are defective.
Before purchasing from overseas you should make sure you can get any repairs done in Australia.
Buying from a private seller in Australia or abroad
Australian Consumer Law does not apply when you buy from a private seller (eg buying a second-hand item from an individual on eBay) because they are not acting in trade or commerce like a normal retailer.
When you buy from a private seller, it is called a consumer-to consumer transaction and contract law applies. However, you still have the right to expect the title on the goods (full ownership) after purchase and that it is free from any security or charge on it, unless told otherwise before the sale.
We recommend seeking independent legal advice if you have a problem regarding a consumer-to-consumer transaction.
There are many different ways to shop, click on the titles below to learn about them.
The sharing economy (also known as the peer-to-peer or collaborative economy) is an online marketplace that connects consumers to people who have products or services to sell, hire or lease. It includes platforms like Airbnb and Uber.
Watch our video on the sharing economy:
The sharing economy allows you to find products/services that better suit your needs or preferences at a potentially cheaper price. You can also view consumer ratings and reviews for products and services you’re interested in.
Make sure you are aware of the terms and conditions associated with each purchase and seller before you buy. The platform may offer some consumer protections, but not always and sometimes at a cost. It is better to check before you click ‘buy’.
Before participating in an online auction it’s important to read the terms and conditions and understand your rights, the procedures and costs. That’s because when it comes to online auctions, your consumer rights vary depending on whether you buy from:
- a traditional auction
- a private (individual) or business seller at a marketplace site like eBay
- an Australian or overseas seller.
Traditional auction conducted online
At a traditional auction, an auctioneer acts as an agent for the seller. Online auction houses use a website to create a virtual auction and interested parties visit the website (rather than a physical location) to bid for goods.
When you purchase something at a traditional auction, you have limited protection under Australian Consumer Law, however you still have the right to expect:
- truthful representations, statements or claims about the goods or services
- that goods are of acceptable quality, safe, fit for purpose and match the advertised description
- the title on the goods (full ownership) after purchase, unless told otherwise before the sale.
Marketplace online auctions
Online businesses like eBay operate ‘virtual marketplace’ websites where buyers and sellers from any country can buy, sell and bid for goods. In this type of auction, the site operator may not be directly involved in the auction process or act as an agent for the seller. This is different to a conventional auction (see below).
The site operator provides a set of rules and guidelines for transactions on the site, but it is mostly left to the individual buyers and sellers to deal directly with each other, including negotiating payment and the delivery of goods.
The site operator cannot see the contract between the buyer and seller so it is not liable for claims made about the goods, non-delivery or damages.
Products purchased at a marketplace website like eBay are not considered to be an auction (as defined in Australian Consumer Law). This means that products sold by Australian businesses on such a website are covered by the automatic consumer guarantee.
Learn more about online auctions in Being a savvy consumer.
Group buying and daily deal sites
Group buying sites (like Cudo and Groupon) sell vouchers or coupons for goods and services at a discounted price. In some cases, vouchers are offered on the condition that a minimum number of buyers take up the deal. If you want to buy an offer, you must enter your payment details online, then you’ll receive a voucher to claim your purchase with the business directly.
Daily deal websites (like Catch of the Day) offer discount deals on goods and sometimes services for a limited time. Stocks are limited and items often sell out before the offer ends.
Provided you purchase from an Australian site, you are entitled to the same consumer protections you would expect from a physical retailer. As these sites offer sale or discount items, there are usually terms and conditions associated with purchase. Remember, terms and conditions do not forfeit your right to receive a product that works and does what you expect it to. Learn more in Being a savvy consumer.
An auction is a public sale where consumers bid for goods. The seller may be a private individual or a business, and the goods are sold to the person who makes the highest bid. Final bids are usually binding.
When you purchase something at a traditional auction, you have limited protection under Australian Consumer Law, however you still have the right to expect the auctioned goods to be sold with ‘clear title’. This means the seller must have the right to sell the goods. If there are any restrictions on ownership such as debts or mortgages, these must be disclosed before the goods are auctioned.
For example, if a car was purchased with a loan, and the owner wanted to sell it at an auction before the loan was repaid, the debts associated with the car loan must be disclosed before the auction takes place, so potential buyers know what they are getting.
It’s important to note that auctioned goods do not have to meet consumer guarantees concerning:
- acceptable quality
- the product being ‘fit for purpose’
- accurate description
- the availability of spare parts and repair
- manufacturer’s warranties.
As such, we are unable to help in most disputes about auction purchases. We can help you if the seller did not provide clear title or the auctioneer misrepresented the goods you purchased.
Some auctions are covered by specific legislation, including auctions of motor vehicles and real estate.
Infomercials often involve direct response television marketing. Direct response television relies on getting viewers to place orders for goods while, or immediately after, they are shown on television. These promotions urge viewers to respond quickly and to use credit cards to make a purchase.
Be careful, sometimes infomercials and television product placements aim to trick shoppers into believing the products are featured on their merits rather than because someone is paying for them to be shown to you.
Provided you purchase from an Australian commercial or shopping network, you are entitled to the same consumer protections you would expect from a physical retailer.
Mail order shopping is when you buy out of a catalogue. Goods are then delivered to you (usually by mail or courier). Mail order companies can sell just about anything.
When you buy from a catalogue you enter a contract with the seller. If the goods you purchase never arrive, it is the business’ responsibility to trace them, replace them or give you a refund. By law, you are entitled to your money back because the contract was never completed. However, this can become a case of their word against yours if the business can prove that they sent the goods.
If the goods you purchased are damaged in transit, the business might be responsible. This is usually outlined in the business’ repair, replacement and refund policy. You should read these terms and conditions before making a purchase.
Provided you purchase from an Australian seller, you are entitled to the same consumer protections you would expect from a physical retailer. Learn more about being a savvy consumer.
Have a problem?
- Contact the business/individual in the first instance and explain the problem. For the sharing economy, daily deals, and online auctions this will be the business/individual offering the goods/service, rather than the website platform it is offered on.
- If the matter is complicated and not urgent, you could write an email or letter. We have tips and sample letters to help you.
- If you’re unable to resolve the matter with the seller, you should contact the relevant organisation, industry body or ombudsman for dispute resolution for example, eBay or Groupon for shopping online, or AdStandards for infomercials.
- If this fails and you paid via credit card, debit card or PayPal, you can contact your payment provider/service and ask about a chargeback or refund. You will need to act promptly as time limits may apply.
- If a credit card provider or online payment service doesn’t resolve the problem, and the transaction was in Australia, you can contact the Australian Financial Complaints Authority.
- If you’re still unable to resolve the matter, contact us for help on 13 32 20 or make a complaint online.
- If the matter is in relation to a purchase from an overseas business and is unresolved, you can make a complaint through www.econsumer.gov. Econsumer.gov is an initiative to the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network and is a partnership of more than 35 consumer protection agencies around the world.
Be a savvy consumer
Here are some tips to help you shop safely online, through the sharing economy, auction and by mail.
General shopping advice
- Compare products and prices to make sure you are getting value for money. It helps to shop around and compare prices, uses, abilities and quality. Read the product description carefully for words such as 'second-hand' or 'refurbished'.
- Safeguard your personal details. A reputable business will never ask you for your bank account and password information. Never give these details out.
- Pay by credit card or PayPal. Paying by credit can provide extra protection when shopping. If you have concerns, you can promptly contact your credit card provider and request a chargeback while the matter is investigated. You can also use a service like PayPal for online transactions.
- Keep transaction documents. If you’re shopping online from a computer or mobile device save or print a copy of your order once you complete your purchase. You should also keep any acknowledgement email with information about your order. You might need to refer to these records later if there is a problem.
- Work out the total cost, don’t just rely on the headline price. There may be additional fees that depend on length of use or stay, such as booking or cleaning fees.
- Always read the seller’s refund and return policies before making a purchase.
- Before you purchase anything, follow these essential tips to protect yourself.
- Electrical and audio visual equipment bought overseas may have compatibility issues. Domestic electricity supplied in the United States is 110 volt, while in Australia it is 240 volt. This means that electrical equipment made for the United States will not work in Australia unless it’s connected to a transformer, or the device has a self-switching power supply.
- Compare the total cost. If you’re considering buying goods from overseas, remember to include all handling, shipping, insurance and currency conversion costs as well as any import duties and taxes in the total price. It might not be such a good deal after all.
- Clothing and shoe sizes vary around the world so check the size conversion table before making your purchase.
- Check with Australian Customs whether an item can be legally brought into Australia. Australian Customs can also tell you the import duty or tax you’ll need to pay before you can collect the goods.
- Secure your online passwords. They should be very difficult for someone else to guess.
- Check the web page security. Only fill in credit card details on a secure web page. A secure website begins with https://
- Monitoring children’s access to shopping sites can help you avoid bill shock due to unexpected purchases by your kids.
- Check your credit card statement to make sure you’ve been charged correctly for purchases. If there is a charge that looks suspicious, contact your credit card provider immediately and request a chargeback while they look into it.
- Keep your computer or mobile device secure. Make sure the operating system, browser and antivirus software on your computer or mobile device are always kept up-to-date.
- Check the online seller’s reputation. Knowing who you are dealing with can help you avoid sellers with a reputation for not supplying goods, misleading descriptions and poor quality items. If you’re buying from overseas, Australian Consumer Law may not apply and your protection may be limited.
- Online sellers should still have a physical address and telephone number. Confirm this before you make a purchase.
- Beware of scams. Do a web search with the name of the seller or web address and include words like 'scam' or 'review'. This should show you if anything bad has been published about the seller.
- Read the platform’s terms and conditions and understand their complaint management process, if they have one. Don’t forget, you have consumer rights and might be able to cancel the contract and obtain a refund if things go wrong.
- Sharing economy platforms often show reviews and ratings. Use them.
- Some platforms offer lots of information (like cost, photographs, location, reviews, ratings and amenities) so you can make an informed decision.
- Some platforms offer you protection if things go wrong. Make sure you understand what you’re covered for – and what you’re not. If in doubt, ask the platform.
- Understand pricing. Some platforms may charge higher amounts during peak time. There may also be penalties for cancelling a service. Understand how the pricing works before you sign up.
- Watch out for scams. Don’t arrange payment to a trader outside of the platform. This is how scammers operate.
Group buying and daily deals websites
- Check the terms and conditions on group buying sites carefully, including expiry dates on vouchers.
- Be prepared for delays when making bookings. Group sales can create a lot of demand.
- Check the voucher validity period and the refunds policies if for instance, the supplier is unable to provide the service in this time, stocks run out or the supplier goes out of business before the goods or services are supplied.
- Before registering or joining an online auction site, read the terms and conditions and understand all the fees and charges. These can include registration or administration fees or being charged to bid even if you don’t win the auction.
- Check if the site has buyer protection policies, complaint handling procedures and a dispute resolution process.
- Before buying at auction, check seller reputation using the feedback ratings and do some research on the product (eg check the quality and average market value of the goods).
- You should always check the seller’s terms and conditions (as well as the website’s own conditions), and the refund and exchange policies to avoid disappointment and disputes later. If you are unsatisfied with your purchase, you have less ability to seek a remedy than you otherwise would if you purchased from an Australian business.
- Do not enter into an arrangement with a seller to buy privately outside the auction site. This could expose you to a scam and void buyer protection policies provided by the site.
- In lots of auctions, the seller is a private individual which means any disputes are a civil matter, not a Fair Trading issue.
- Advertisements and catalogues can make products appear better than they actually are. Is it possible to inspect the goods before buying them? Can you return them and receive a refund if they aren’t what you wanted?
- Is the price really lower than what a regular store would charge? What do the postage and packaging add to the price?
- Do the goods come with a warranty?
- To stop a company sending you unsolicited mail, write and ask them to remove you from their list. If you’d prefer not to have any personalised direct mail sent to you at all, contact the Australian Direct Marketing Association (ADMA). They will add your name to a database that is distributed to their members on a regular basis.
- Help if you’re having trouble paying your debts.
- Watch our videos on the sharing economy. They focus on five main topics: remedies, cancellations, disputes, advertising and reviews.
- Read our research on online shopping market research:
Can’t find the information you’re looking for? Call us on 13 32 20 or submit an online enquiry.