Internet shopping: now safer than ever PDF Print E-mail
When the Consumer Protection Act comes into effect in October, South African shoppers will be among the most protected consumers in the world. Georgina Guedes looks at how the Act affects online shoppers.

When Nicola Jenvey was invited to her 20-year high school reunion in 2007, the organisers suggested she register with a site called www.namesdatabase.com, which allows people to connect with friends in a similar way to Facebook. She had to pay a small annual subscription fee, and the site`s small print indicated she would be reminded each year when the subscription was up, in time to pay for a renewal. But things didn`t work out that way.

"I have never had a renewal reminder, but each year they deduct the annual subscription fee," says Jenvey. "I cannot find a means on the site to cancel my subscription, and e-mails are returned as undeliverable."

 

Although Jenvey`s story isn`t a dramatic tale of digital exploitation, it`s an example of the kind of sticky situation that people who conduct transactions online can find themselves in. Handing over your credit card number, in the absence of a bricks-and-mortar establishment with real service consultants willing to deal with complaints, is considered to be risky by many.

Even respected sites like Amazon.com can be tricky to navigate in the instance of a complaint or query that doesn`t fall within the parameters of their usual FAQs.

However, fears of credit card fraud, non-delivery of parcels or services, or the final product not living up to the online shop`s promise aren`t holding online shopping back, and it`s a growing way to transact in South Africa and the rest of the world.

The digital arm of the law

Thanks to the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), which will be signed into being on 24 October 2010, South Africans will have a great deal of protection when transacting in the online space.

"The Consumer Protection Act will protect consumers in many different ways," says John Giles, a director of OnlineLegal.co.za and a partner of Michalsons Attorneys. "South African consumers will become some of the most protected in the world."

Although the CPA will protect consumers generally, online shoppers were already quite well protected under South African law. "Online shoppers have already been protected for some time," says Giles. "The Electronic Communications and Transactions (ECT) Act was enacted in 2002 and contains consumer protection provisions for electronic transactions - like shopping online."

And the good news is that wherever there is an overlap between the provisions of both the Acts, our legal system is required to err in favour of the Act that offers the consumer the most protection.

Know your rights

To break it down, the ECT Act offers the following protection:

  1. The vendor must provide the consumer with certain specified information of the vendor (section 43);
  2. The vendor must provide the consumer with an opportunity to review, correct or withdraw from a transaction (section 43);
  3. The vendor must implement a specified secure payment system  (section 43);
  4. The consumer has a cooling off period of seven days (section 44);
  5. The consumer has certain options in the event of a vendor offering unsolicited goods, services or communications (section 45); and
  6. A vendor must perform within 30 days from which the order was received, or a time period alternatively agreed with the consumer (section 46).

In addition, the CPA will require that:

  1. A vendor may not require a consumer to buy other goods or services as a condition of offering to supply certain goods or services (section 13);
  2. Goods must correspond to the sample and description given to a consumer (section 18(4));
  3. A vendor must disclose information on goods or services in plain English (section 22) and not in a way to mislead the consumer or prospective consumer (section 24(2));
  4. Any provision in an agreement with a consumer that: limits the vendor`s liability or risk; assumes risk or liability on the consumer; or requests the consumer to indemnify the vendor, must be drawn to the consumer`s attention (section 49);
  5. A vendor must deliver goods or services of good quality, free of defects and reasonably suitable for the purpose for which they were required. Where a consumer specifically informs a vendor of a particular purpose he wishes to acquire goods or services for, the consumer can expect the goods or services to be suitable for that purpose (section 55); and
  6. A vendor must offer goods or services in its business name (section 79).

Between the two Acts, online shoppers are protected as well, if not better, than they are in the real world. The ECT Act`s cooling-off period is a great example of a right that not many shoppers know they have, but one that could prove particularly useful in the wake of a late-night, caffeine-fuelled online shopping spree.

"An online shopper in SA has a cooling off period of seven days to cancel any transaction," says Giles. "So, if in the heat of the moment, a person buys an expensive coffee maker online, they can cancel that transaction once they have `cooled down`. They have seven days to do so after having placed the order. And all online stores are obliged to tell online shoppers about this right on their sites."

The online shopper would still be liable for the cost of posting if the product was shipped within that seven-day period.

The world at your fingertips

The beauty of online shopping is that it allows South Africans to spend their money in digital stores around the world. But is the ECT Act and CPA limited only to South African retailers? According to Giles, no.

"Most countries have laws similar to our CPA, so if they comply with their laws, to a large extent, they comply with ours," he says. "All online stores that sell things to South Africans should ensure they comply with South African laws."

Despite this, very few sites operational in South Africa comply with all the regulations laid out in the ECT Act, so it seems unlikely they will immediately educate themselves about the requirements of the CPA after October this year, either. But regardless of whether the site is compliant, the consumer will be able to take legal action against it if it doesn`t deliver the goods.

"Parliament has gone to a lot of trouble to give the CPA and the ECT Act teeth - structures that will make them enforceable for the person on the street," says Giles. "Once the structures are functioning, online shoppers will be able to get protection. Online stores should get their houses... well stores... in order."

Having said that, the responsibility rests with consumers to educate themselves about their rights, and to stay aware when shopping online.

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