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ACCC warns (softly) on offshore online purchases

The ACCC has finally warned Australians of the dangers of purchasing products from overseas retailers not constrained by Australian consumer protection and safety laws.

ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard: ‘If consumers are buying goods in Australia from an overseas trader then they do have rights but they are much more difficult to enforce.’

The ACCC has advised consumers to avoid potential safety issues by ensuring their online purchases meet mandatory Australian Safety Standards.

While this can really only be achieved by purchasing products already passed as safe by Australian safety authorities (ie, from authorised local distributors), the ACCC is promoting an international product recall notification website run by the OECD as a means to avoid products subject to recall overseas. Consumers can check international recalls on the website, GlobalRecalls.

ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said it is important for consumers to understand the potential product safety risks when they buy online.

‘Mandatory standards and bans apply to some products sold in Australia. Even though products sold here are legally required to meet these requirements, people may be able to purchase products online which don’t meet these standards or have been recalled in another country,’ she said.

The ACCC recently initiated the Australian recall of 205,000 baby seats to fit a safety harness after it became aware of a product recall in the United States.

‘This portal has been designed to help consumers, business and government to keep up-to-date with product recalls in different countries. Australia, the United States, Canada and the European Union are current contributors to GlobalRecalls, but we are encouraging as many countries as possible to join,’ said Ms Rickard.

A review of the site shows a range of camera products which have been recalled in the US.

The ACCC ran a blitz of local online resellers in September to catch out local retailers who are mis-representing consumers rights (which possibly led to HP falling foul of the consumer watchdog).

The ACCC says 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. (But try telling that to B&H or some retailer out of Hong Kong!)

These obligations do not only apply to businesses based in Australia. While Australians who purchase from overseas retailers theoretically have the same rights as those who purchase locally from online retailers, the ACCC well knows it is powerless to enforce those rights. This has the effect of giving the offshore retailers yet another free kick in addition to GST-free sales.

‘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 Ms Rickard.

The ACCC has never attempted to take action against an overseas trader. This is the ACCC’s advice to consumers if they have a problem with an offshore online retailer:

‘Consumers who have difficulties with an international business can complain to the consumer protection agency in the country where the firm is located. They can also log‑on to, a multilingual complaint site that is used by consumer protection authorities around the world as an initiative of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN).

A report to will go into a complaints database, shared with consumer protection agencies in other countries, which can use it to investigate companies and individuals, and to uncover scams. There is no guarantee that an international agency will follow up individual complaints. That depends on its policies and practices.’

– Consumer Protection Online (ACCC)

COMMENT: If the ACCC was genuinely interested in ensuring all Australians are protected by Australia’s robust consumer and safety laws – which are an added  cost to local distributors and retailers – it would be doing a much more robust job of highlighting their vulnerability when purchasing from offshore online sellers. Instead it is more inclined to bury this kind of information, and accentuate the joys of shopping overseas, leading close observers to ponder whether the ACCC is simply a sub-branch of the Productivity Commission.



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