Consumer also protected when buying online

Consumers’ online shopping habits have started to stabilise in 2019
Consumers’ online shopping habits have started to stabilise in 2019

Three days ago my mother went online to book two international flights for May.

She knew exactly what she wanted — British Airways’ direct flights to London — but being somewhat challenged when it comes to technology, she made a rookie mistake.

Instead of going directly to British Airways’ website, she Googled “BA flights” and clicked on what she thought was BA’s site. It wasn’t.

She paid R22,431 to eSky Travel and then tried to call the company when she hadn’t received a booking confirmation.

“It was like trying to call the municipality,” she told me. “Press this, press that, but no-one picks up.”

Then she phoned BA, which did pick up, and told her that they had no record of her booking or payment. So now she’s applied for chargeback with her bank.

The advice: Before you confirm your travel booking, check that the web address for the airline or travel company is legitimate. Pay special attention to the domain name (that’s anything before the .com or .co.za);  for example, make sure you’re on ba.com and not something like badiscountdeals.com.  Also check for https:// (rather than http://), which should always appear on the payment page.

There are many pros to buying goods and services online, hence the massive growth, albeit off a very low base in SA.There’s the convenience, of course. You can shop late at night on your bed, having compared products and prices with a few clicks and, unlike when you buy from a physical shop, you have the advantage of a week in which to change your mind and send it back for a refund, provided it’s in a resaleable condition. (When you buy the traditional way, you’re only entitled to your money back if the product fails in some way within six months of purchase.)

And if you pay by credit card, you have the protection of chargeback if you don’t get what you paid for — essentially, your bank gets your money back from the merchant’s bank.

But often those protections are not honoured by the online merchants, or they don’t work the way the buyer thinks they will.

Early in the new year, Jessica Neethling of Durban ordered figurines from a Cape Town-based online retailer, paying a total of R374, including delivery. She changed her mind and asked for a cancellation and refund before they were delivered, but the owner refused, saying: “We don’t do cancellations or returns unless goods are defective.”

I wrote to him, pointing out that, in terms of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act (ECTA), if a consumer orders something online they have seven days from date of delivery to return it, for no particular reason, for a refund, although they can be made to bear the cost of returning the unwanted item.

I asked how he justified operating outside of the law.

“This is a small business, so some things may go under the radar for me,” he told me. “In four years and thousands of orders we have never had a request to return goods, so I was unaware.

“We will update our terms to allow such returns, at the customer’s expense,” he said.

So Neethling will be refunded. The reality is that many online retailers, both big and small, either intentionally or unintentionally, flout this ECTA consumer protection.

That business owner told me: “Being able to return something for no reason is just such a strange concept to me; but I mean if that’s the law I have zero issue with it.

“If I went and bought goods from 10 small businesses online, and asked for a refund before even receiving goods, I guarantee more than half would tell me to kick rocks.

“I had a quick browse of some random sites earlier and found some offering either no refunds or only with a ‘valid’ reason.

“I would send you their sites but being a small business myself, I understand all the obstacles we already face in this struggling economy so wouldn’t want to burden them further.”

It’s for that reason — and his promise to amend his Ts and Cs — that I won’t be naming that little business, for now, but I will be checking to see if he follows through.

The advice: take the time to find and read an online company’s Ts and Cs, especially around costs and refunds. If they don’t include that 7-day “no-reason return for a refund” clause, avoid.

If it’s a international site, know that you may well be made to pay customs duties and VAT when it gets to your local courier or post office.Sadly, my dear mom no longer trusts herself not to get caught online, and has vowed to stick to shops she can walk into — including reputable travel agencies.

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