The devil’s in the detail: ACCC conducts “internet sweep” into online shopping fine print

If you sell goods online make sure your fine print is up to scratch, as the consumer watchdog is conducting an internet sweep of websites today as part of an international campaign.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission‘s sweep is part of annual co-ordinated action by 40 consumer protection agencies from around the world to focus on fine print in online shopping as part of the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network.

The worldwide sweep is targeting traders using confusing or misleading fine print to avoid their obligation to consumers, with the theme this year being “I bought what?”.

It will focus on how rights are represented to consumers online and identify tricks used to try to fool consumers into believing such rights do not apply online.

The ACCC is stressing that consumers who buy online have the same rights as if they bought a product in a local bricks and mortar store.

Consumers are guaranteed the right to ask for a repair, replacement or refund if a product or service broadly is faulty or unsafe, doesn’t match its description, doesn’t do what the salesperson said it would do and, in the case of a service, isn’t delivered with due care and skill or within a reasonable time.

Businesses who do not comply face fines of up to $1.1 million and $220,000 for individuals.

ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard told SmartCompany all too often fine print is used to trap unwary consumers and force them to accept substandard products.

The consumer watchdog will investigate whether consumers are being told the right things about their rights.

“We want to be active and vigilant as we do see circumstances where people are misled about their rights,” says Rickard.

Rickard says one example is when consumers are told they have to return a product within 10 days or when they are told they have no rights.

The ACCC is also warning about dishonest merchants who bill consumers for monthly ‘membership fees’ and other goods and services not authorised.

These rights do not only apply to businesses based in Australia.

“If consumers are buying goods in Australia from an overseas trader then they do have rights but they are much more difficult to enforce, so think about who you are doing business with,” warns Rickard.

She says the ACCC responds to complaints and monitors online sales regularly but today it has a team of staff dedicated to spending its day looking at the issue.

“In past sweeps we have written to hundreds of traders who had incorrect claims, organised refunds and got websites taken down,” says Rickard.

“I’m sure today we will find sites which aren’t telling people anyone about their rights and I wouldn’t be surprised if we find sites who tell people the wrong thing.”

Rickard’s advice to SMEs who are concerned about being caught up in the sweep is simple.

“First of all, make sure you are telling consumers the right thing and are not misleading them; and, secondly, when consumers have a complaint, deal with it honestly,” she says.


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