Consumers advised to be aware of law before deciding to buy online.

It's that time of the year when stores posing as Santa and his evil helpers will try to empty your wallet.

It's an uphill battle to keep hold of the folding stuff every festive season. It's worth the effort, however, unless you want to wake up to a financial hangover in the New Year.

We all know that we should create a spending plan to see us safely into next year, buying what we need on sale, setting spending limits for presents and generally trying to beat the marketers at their own game.

Avoiding the malls and shopping online works well for some Kiwis. Shopping with a mouse beats fighting the mall hordes. It can also save money.


Christmas shoppers do, however, need to be wary when committing credit card numbers to the ether. Online shopping does come with risks. Knowing what they are can help mitigate them.

Hayley Miller, a partner at Kensington Swan, says consumers should be aware of the law before buying online.

When buying new or secondhand items that are of a kind "ordinarily bought for personal, domestic or household use or consumption" online from traders, consumers are automatically covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act.

The exceptions are goods bought by auction or by tender. The only time goods bought on online auction sites are covered is if the "buy now" option is chosen and the seller is a trader. Goods bought from a private individual selling off their own belongings are not covered.

"That is the default position," says Miller. There are, however, circumstances where the parties can agree that the act doesn't apply. Websites often have fine print in their terms and conditions which say that goods bought for the purpose of a business are excluded from the act. By ticking the box to agree to those terms and conditions the business opts out - sometimes without realising what it has done.

A business buying gifts or Christmas cards for its customers or clients needs to be wary of this, says Miller. Gifts and cards are personal or domestic goods and therefore covered by the act.

A classic example is the terms and conditions on the EB Games New Zealand website: "If you are acquiring, or hold yourself out as acquiring, goods or services for the purposes of a business in terms of section 43(2) of the Consumer Guarantees Act 1993, the provisions of the act will not apply."

Any business buying through such a website says goodbye to its rights under the act. This should also be a warning to anyone considering buying personal items through their business.

Miller says it might be better for a business to buy domestic goods in a high street store. It's less likely the retailer would ask the business to sign away its rights under the act.

It is worth reading the returns policy of a website before making any online purchases. I noticed, for example, that The Warehouse's returns policy goes above and beyond the Consumer Guarantees Act and Fair Trading Act offering "a 12-month money-back guarantee with printed proof of purchase".

Unless being returned because they are faulty or defective, the goods must be in a resalable condition. EB Games, however, offers just seven days, and some businesses do not offer returns at all for goods where the buyer has changed his or her mind.

Buyers make assumptions about online shopping that aren't always correct. For example, here in safe New Zealand we often believe counterfeit items to be the real thing even if the prices are too good to be true. Another example is that it is widely believed consumers can return goods to online retailers simply because they don't like them.

"Just because it is a Christmas present doesn't mean you can return it because [the recipient] already has one." Sometimes, Miller says, it can be worth paying a little bit more at a website that offers better terms and conditions.

Miller adds that while some physical stores such as Farmers may offer gift exchange certificates for returning goods, these conditions are more than is required under the law and not all businesses follow suit.

The Consumer Guarantees Act is being updated and there should be more protections in place before next Christmas.

Assuming the Consumer Law Reform Bill passes into law in its present form, online auctions will also come with protection and online traders to whom the act applies will have to state clearly to potential buyers that their offer to sell is made in trade. This will help buyers identify more easily which goods are covered by the act's guarantees.

Another issue online shoppers need to be aware of is that tenders aren't covered by the act either. Some motor vehicle dealers get buyers to sign tender documents for this reason.

Consumers who, like me, shop online at overseas websites for some Christmas presents, need to be aware that they are not covered by the act, says Miller. They will likely be covered by the laws of the country where the purchase is made - which in some cases may be similar to or better than our laws. Even so, it may be difficult and expensive to enforce your rights from a distance.

One way to lessen the risks of online shopping is to pay by credit card. I wrote about this a few weeks ago and the article can be found on the Herald's website at

In short, it is possible to reverse a credit card transaction if the goods haven't arrived, were the wrong goods, or a service was not carried out.

Banking ombudsman Deborah Battell has to deal with such cases. She recommends only making purchases from reputable sites, and that you:

•Keep your antenna finely attuned. If something looks amiss, give it a miss;

•Know the identity, location and contact details of the online retailer;

•Have done a web search for reviews of the retailer; the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment recommends searching the business' name and the word "scam" and "review" to see if anything awry comes up;

•Use websites that have third party seals of approval;

•Consider keeping a separate credit card with a lower credit limit for online purchases.

Other advice from the ombudsman includes keeping a record of your purchase, a paper trail of any correspondence, and consider taking a screen shot of the details of the sale.

There are also standard security procedures that everyone should use if shopping online. They include using antivirus software and a firewall, keeping your web browser up to date to ensure it has the latest security safeguards, make sure your order is correct before hitting the "buy" button, always log out when you have finished shopping and only pay through secure servers that have https:// in the address bar. There will usually be a padlock symbol as well. Registering your cards with Verified by Visa or MasterCard SecureCode makes shopping safer.

If criminals and dodgy dealers aren't enough of a worry, internet shoppers also need to factor in a hit by Customs for GST or duties. Customs has a calculator at the website, which helps shoppers work out if they will be stung.

I don't want to put readers off buying online. There are lots of great bargains to be had and if you're time-poor like me buying online can be worthwhile. More and more overseas websites are delivering here. This has to be balanced, however, against the benefits of having local stores and keeping fellow Kiwis in jobs.