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Johannesburg - You needn’t be a Luddite to view online shopping with suspicion. You’re doing business with a virtual retailer, submitting card and other personal details, in the hope of getting what your ordered.

You can’t beat the convenience though: you don’t have to drive to a centre, pay for parking, do comparative shopping, and lug your purchases back home. Plus, there’s often a cost-saving too, with many online retailers offering better prices than you’d find in a bricks and mortar outlet.

But with the advent of secure payments, what is most discomforting is that consumers are at an informational disadvantage, so they can’t inspect goods or test them before payment.

Byron Xypteras’s experience with bidorbuy.co.za, which acts as an online marketplace for buyers and sellers, reinforces the Latin injunction, caveat emptor or buyer beware.

Xypteras bought a MacBook Air second-hand for R5800 (plus R300 delivery) on the site which turned out to be a dud. When he complained, he was told to get a report from the iStore, which said the machine was obsolete. But even armed with the evidence, Xypteras isn’t getting anywhere.

And yet, bidorbuy promises safe and secure shopping through its “buyer protection programme”, which is “designed for your peace of mind”.

“You’re covered up to 100% in the unlikely event that something goes wrong with your purchase on bidorbuy. We will protect you if a seller does not send you the item you purchased or if the item is materially different from what was advertised.”

How it works is buyers need to contact the seller to try to resolve the issue. If that fails and the seller doesn’t respond within three days, the buyer is to contact the platform to lodge a dispute. If bidorbuy can’t resolve the issue, the “buyer protection” kicks in which covers buyers 100% for the “deal of the week”; up to R5000 for verified sellers; and other sellers up to R1000. They also offer cover up to R7500 if the purchase was through a basic store; up to R10000 through an advanced store; and up to R12500 through a premium store.

Xypteras bought through an “other” seller, so only qualifies for R1000 refund.

Armed with a built-in b-s detector and a legal background, Xypteras wasn’t satisfied with the weak offer - he’d bought the MacBook on their site, so they cannot escape liability. But bidorbuy isn’t budging: David Berry, their head category manager, told me the buyer and seller are in dispute over the operating system, which only needs to be installed to get the machine to work properly.

If that were the case, why would the iStore - the experts in all things Apple - declare the machine obsolete? Berry didn’t say.

“We advised the buyer to return the item to the seller for a refund which the seller initially agreed to. Later on the seller became uncontactable.”

No surprises there - the seller sold Xypteras a useless machine, which no second-hand retailer or pawn shop would accept because they would test it prior to concluding the sale.

Berry said bidorbuy was “happy to process a Buyer Protection claim for the customer if the item had been returned, however”.

And then the response gets even more ludicrous: “We are still willing to process the claim of R1000 for the buyer, provided the item is returned to the seller.”

“We are not party to the transaction in dispute, however, we do attempt to mediate disputes which arise as a result of purchases on our platform to ensure a fair outcome for both parties. In this particular matter the buyer would need to dispute the matter with the seller and not with bidorbuy. We will, however, assist where possible, such as when a lawful request for personal details of the seller is received.”

Berry then offered to assist Xypteras to get the MacBook working: “I have done some research and have managed to find a working version of the operating system the buyer requires. As a courtesy to the customer I have offered to assist in having this installed on the machine, as the operating system is freely available online from Apple themselves. The iStore, however, will not assist as the unit is an older model. Unfortunately, this offer was declined by the buyer.”

Bidorbuy has subsequently barred the seller from trading on the platform, “until such time as this matter has been resolved with the buyer”.

It’s not much of a sanction for someone who sold an obsolete machine online and managed to make a few thousand off the deal.

In Consumer Protection Law in South Africa, authors Evert van Eeden and Jacolien Barnard observe that consumer protection for e-commerce hasn’t been given holistic consideration, “hence we find a somewhat fragmented approach” made up of the common law, industry-specific self-regulatory codes, the Consumer Protection Act, the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act (Ecta) and the Protection of Personal Information Act.

Ecta, they note, is aimed at promoting legal certainty and confidence in electronic transactions to ensure there is a “safe, secure and effective environment for the consumer, business and government to conduct and use electronic transactions”.

It provides consumers with a seven-day cool-off period, during which they can cancel any electronic transaction or related credit agreement - without having to provide a reason. It also gives the consumer the right to cancel the transaction within 30 days: they are then entitled to a full refund, with the only charge that may be levied on the consumer the direct cost of returning the goods. Online marketplaces such as bidorbuy seem to function in a grey area though - they are a third party, viewing their liability as limited.

Xypteras is unimpressed: “They do not want to accept any liability in the matter, notwithstanding the fact that I bought the laptop off their website and for which they derive a benefit. “They do not acknowledge me as a customer and/or consumer and therefore state that they will try to ‘mediate’ a resolution between me and the seller, all of which has been fruitless, since the seller is equally not accepting liability in the matter.”

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ConsumerAgonyAunt