When shopping online, consumers who have not yet tried it may be reluctant for the very reason that they are nervous about their legal rights. File Photo: IOL

JOHANNESBURG – It’s a common saying: know your rights before you enter into any agreement. But when it comes to shopping online, many consumers who have not yet tried it may be reluctant for the very reason that they are nervous about their legal rights. 

The bottom line, however, is that there are numerous laws in place these days to protect online consumers and, in many ways, these are even more rigorous than the rights that protect over-the-counter shoppers.

“It is important to remember that, when you make a purchase or order a service online, you are entering into a legal agreement, just as you would be doing if you were conducting this business in a real brick-and-mortar shop or face-to-face with a supplier,” says Rami Sassen, CEO of online retailer Teljoy.

“However, it is equally important to be aware that there are numerous laws protecting online consumers, and knowing the basics about what these laws are, is vital to keeping yourself safe online and knowing that you are dealing with a reputable online business.”

A South African company with a longstanding history of servicing its customers as a rent-to-own retailer of home electronics, appliances and furniture, Teljoy took the decision to move away from its brick-and-mortar outlets to a fully online store as far back as 2014, and considers its cyber relationship with its existing and potential customers as the most important part of its business.

Sassen is therefore also well placed to offer consumers good advice towards ensuring their online transactions are safe. 

“First and foremost,” he notes, “is for all consumers to be aware that the primary law that protects them in the country – in other words, The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) – is as much in place with online purchases as it is for any other purchased product or service.”

However, additional protection for online shoppers comes in the form of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act (ECTA), which specifically safeguards numerous online transactions for consumers. For example, this clause particularly comes into effect when consumer receive substandard goods which are vastly inferior in quality to what they thought they were purchasing.

Another concern of potential online shoppers is the need to enter their bank details when making a purchase, but all online suppliers have the obligation to ensure that their payment systems are secure and meet certain technological standards. 

“If these are not in place and secure in terms of the safety of the consumer, the supplier will be liable to the consumer for any damages, such as financial loss, that result.”

Shoppers may also be nervous about how their personal information is being used, as one of the conditions for signing up on most commerce sites is the need to create a personalised account. This is where relatively new legislation known as the Protection of Personal Information Act (or “POPI”, as it has become known) kicks in.

“Online retailers need to take very specific precautions to ensure that your information is protected,  and that you have access to your account at any time to amend your details. The information can absolutely not be used for any other purpose, other than the business you are transacting with on the site, without your full consent,” says Sassen.

The ECTA also kicks in when your personal information has been captured by a client, for example in the provision of your email address which enables many suppliers to add you to their mailing lists for marketing purposes.

Sassen explains: “ECTA states that a supplier must provide customers with the option to be removed from their mailing list. This usually appears as an ‘unsubscribe’ button at the bottom on any marketing correspondence you receive as email.” 

Any reputable online shopping site will also outline all terms and conditions of an agreement: “On the Teljoy site, for example, you can link directly from our home page to our terms and conditions. Potential clients can see upfront exactly what a rental or service agreement looks like.”

Online terms and conditions are there to protect both the business as well as the consumer, notes Sassen: “It is one of the ways of ensuring that you are dealing with a legitimate site, and my advice to any consumer shopping online is to check that these exist before proceeding with any agreement – even before setting up a personal account through which to shop.”