Consumers are being encouraged to exercise caution when shopping online as technological advances in the digital age have facilitated a rapid growth of the global e-commerce sector, leaving current consumer protection legislation lagging behind.
The Consumer Affairs Commission (CAC) says concerns about the lack of available avenues for redress are growing among the 150 member countries of Consumers International – the UK-based umbrella organisation of the global consumer protection movement.
The CAC notes that although online shopping is a small part of the digital economy, it is growing locally and requires increased attention in getting shoppers to be more vigilant, especially when sharing personal information online.
The CAC explains that digital innovation is consumer-led and industry-driven, so regulators are struggling to keep pace with machines designed to think and make decisions in a more efficient way than humans – artificial intelligence (AI). The commission said that integral to AI is the Internet of things – the linking of various electronic devices that communicate with each other or operate remotely and semi-independently without the human interaction – which is emerging as an integral part of daily life.
Chief executive officer of the CAC, Dolsie Allen, said the new dispensation, however, offers consumers convenience, immediacy as well as excellent price points for goods.
“However, the challenge is that various platforms on the Internet use consumer behaviour as a monetised service or product and sell this information to third parties without any opportunity by the consumer to opt out or disagree with this exchange,” she said.
Allen said consumers can feel relieved that most of the established retail shopping sites have a fairly secure platform favourable to consumer privacy rights and e-commerce activities so consumers, therefore, need to carefully select the sites they visit.
Allen is calling on consumers to do their due diligence when shopping online. She said that while some protection is provided under the 2007 Electronic Transaction Act (ETA), a former minister of commerce had acknowledged that “it is in need of urgent review” in order to meet the global rise of doing business online in banking, trade and communication.
In fact, Allen said the primary rights legislation, which underpins Sections 27-32 of the ETA and the Consumer Protection Act (2012) CPA, is also in need of updating.
“As we speak, a review is being done on several clauses in our Consumer Protection Act, and we are going to be moving towards some level of amendment to the act,” she pointed out.
Protections under Electronic Transaction Act
CAC communications specialist Dorothy Campbell pointed out the ETA has some protection in mandating that an accurate summary of the goods and services being offered online being made available to potential customers. This must also include all terms and conditions associated with the purchase.
Other areas include security of online payments, wherein the supplier is responsible for the security of payments and payment information and full disclosure of price.
The ETA also gives consumers the right to demand the total breakdown of taxes, packaging and transportation/shipping costs.
“Some local pop-up online stores often do not respond to pricing queries, yet consumers readily make payments for items and, consequently, are alarmed at the amount charged to their credit cards for a purchase,” she said, again urging caution with online purchases.
In the area of delivery of goods, she said the ETA states that if no delivery time is stated, the consumer has the right to receive the goods within 30 days of purchase. The ETA also states that the consumer should be informed immediately of the unavailability of goods and a refund should be made within 30 days of the date of the transaction.
A consumer can, without notice, cancel a transaction within seven days of receiving the goods or signing a credit agreement for the supply of the services. However, the ETA indicates that there are exceptions for certain goods such as personalised items or those bought through an auction, gaming or lottery services, perishables and certain financial transactions, including insurance and banking services.
“For a refund policy: a consumer should be able to access online the supplier’s return, exchange and refund policy. The Consumer Affairs Commission is advising consumers to always be vigilant and take care that if there is no refund, replacement or exchange policy or you are not able to identify a brick and mortar location or a valid contact number for securing redress, that you are not to do business with the entity online,” Campbell said.
How to protect yourself when buying online
While Jamaicans await the updating of local legislation, Campbell said there are other things consumers can do to protect themselves online, and reduce incidents of abuse, such as identity theft and fraud.
One such measure is to ensure that there is a closed padlock to the left of the web address in the browser, denoting a secure connection. Consumers can also check for an ‘s’ added to the http to create https in the address, which also means secure.
She is also advising consumers to avoid clicking on email links even if it is a great buy sent by a friend.
“Don’t respond to messages which ask for your personal financial information whether the message comes from a text, email, phone call, or an ad. Use established store brands to make retail purchases. Online stores must have a verifiable address and working phone number; a website, with reviews which you can test, prior to disclosing or entering your banking details,” she said.
“The CAC is warning consumers to stop making purchases from [social media] posts and pictures. Do your due diligence,” she warned.
She further advised consumers not to send money or input bank card details into any site they do not know or send cash to an account number received via social media.
“Family or not, confirm the identity of the person. Read your bills and online statements regularly to ensure that cancelled transactions are indeed cancelled,” she added.
Citing recent natural disasters such as Hurricane Dorian, which devastated The Bahamas, she said that consumers should give only to charities which are established.
She also cautioned against purchasing medication online, especially those that claim to be a ‘miracle drug’. This, she said, is dangerous as the consumer could be hurt.
“Do not invest in land-buying schemes in exotic spaces or shared rental schemes,” Campbell added.
“Before investing, research the company’s directors, review annual reports and other historical data available. Contact the Financial Services Commission if you still have doubts. There is no such thing as a sure thing in investment,” she added.
Other tips to protect yourself
IT infrastructure manager at MC Systems, Collin Burgess, said the four most common threats affecting consumers are application-based, web-based, network-based and physical.
“Application-based threats happens when people download apps that look legit, but [which] skim data from their device. Examples are spyware and malware that steal personal and business information without people realising what’s going on,” he explained.
Burgess said web-based threats are subtle and tend to go unnoticed. This happens when people visit affected websites that seem fine on the front-end, but in reality, automatically download malicious content on to your device.
He said network-based threats are especially bad, because cybercriminals can steal unencrypted data while people use public Wi-Fi networks.
“Physical threats happens when someone loses their mobile device or has it stolen. Because hackers have direct access to the hardware where private data is stored, or where they have access to data, this threat is especially dangerous to enterprises,” he explained.
Burgess said securing a consumer device goes beyond a simple virus protection software and has more to do with consumers improving their mobile security practices.
• Check the permissions apps request before approving the download
• Review the source of the software
• Install an antivirus
• Look out for emails with bad grammar. These can include misspelt words
• Check changes to domain names
• Educate yourself
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