Three years back, Chithra Rajan ordered a Dell laptop from a major Indian e-commerce company. There was an ‘offer’ on the laptop – while it usually cost over Rs 40,000, the offer was for Rs 27,000. “The laptop was delivered to my office, and I only opened it when I got home. I was shocked to find that the laptop was not manufactured by Dell at all, but by some unknown company. It also did not have Microsoft OS installed as mentioned in the product description,” Chithra says.
When she called the customer care number of the e-commerce company, she was redirected to different customer care executives. “They would give me a complaint number and say that I would be informed of the action taken in seven days or so. And then there would no communication from them. This went on for one month and a half,” she says.
Even after she went to the company’s office, she could not find a grievance officer in charge of resolving complaints. “Finally I gave up, and decided to use the same laptop. I got the OS installed myself, paying an additional Rs 2500,” Chithra says.
She also mentions a similar situation her brother faced when the shoes he ordered from an e-commerce site turned out to be of much smaller size than was described in the site.
Online shopping is now quite popular in cities because of convenience and the wider options it offers. But buyers are left dissatisfied or cheated in many instances as well. Dr Pratima Narayan, a lawyer who works on consumer law and e-commerce, says that many e-commerce consumers have been filing complaints at consumer forums/commissions.
“The most common complaints are about not getting a refund or replacement, late delivery and misleading promotions,” says Pratima. These complaints are filed as per the Consumer Protection Act, 1986; Citizen Matters had earlier published a guide on how to file complaints. While the Consumer Protection Act also applies to e-commerce, there are no regulations specific to e-commerce in India now.
What laws govern e-commerce?
- Consumer Protection Act, 1986
- Information Technology Amendment Act, 2008
- Policies laid down by regulatory bodies like Reserve Bank of India, Indian Medical Association (IMA) etc, depending on the product/service sold. For example, IMA regulations will apply in cases where medicines are sold online.
When are you an e-commerce consumer?
If you order a product/service online you are an e-commerce consumer, irrespective of whether you paid for it online or offline. This includes ordering the product through a website, app or TV shopping show.
Even when you buy from an unregistered entity – like a Facebook page selling earrings – you are legally an e-commerce consumer. Products like phones and books, and services like e-wallet and food delivery are commonly sold online. Digital products like software and online games that are given under a usage license — like MS Office — also come under e-commerce, when bought online.
The e-commerce company you buy from may either have an inventory-based model or a market-based model. In the former, the same company manufactures the product or provides the service, and sells it online. The online shopping site of the furniture company Pepperfry, or the ticket booking site of the airline company Indigo are examples.
In the market-based model, the e-commerce company serves as a marketplace for products/services offered by multiple companies. The website is only an intermediary that facilitates the transaction. Flipkart and Makemytrip are examples.
Dr Pratima says that of all the consumer rights under the Consumer Protection Act, ‘right to be informed’ is crucial in the context of e-commerce. As per this, details like weight, contents, MRP etc should be compulsorily displayed on products. “E-commerce companies have a greater responsibility to give detailed information as the consumer relies only on this description to make the purchase. The more information a website gives, the more reliable it becomes for the consumer,” she says.
Tips for safe online shopping
- Research unknown e-commerce companies before you buy from them. If in doubt, avoid the purchase
- If you are buying from a site for the first time, opt for cash on delivery
- Understand cancellation, return and refund policies
- Ensure that customer care details like address, email, phone number/helplines of the e-commerce company are available
- Understand product and warranty description, and check if the adequate quantity of material that you need is available
- Before making payment, confirm that the product is deliverable to your postal pincode
- Take a screenshot of the product/service you purchased, in case the company changes the price or product description later
- Beware of claims like no exchange or refund, handling charges for refund etc. Under Consumer Protection Act, companies are required to provide exchange/return/refund if the product/service is deficient
- Before making payment, check for encryption key – a small key symbol – in the payment portal to ensure that the transaction is secure.
- Do not tamper with or use the product if you are dissatisfied with it. Call the customer care number of the e-commerce company to file a complaint. The company may resolve the issue at this stage or direct your complaint to the manufacturer/service provider. If the issue is not resolved at this stage, here is what you should do further.
- Every e-commerce company is supposed to have a grievance officer as directed by the Information Technology Act, whose details should be on the company website. Escalate your complaint to this officer. However, Dr Pratima says that many companies are unaware of the provision for grievance officer.
- Some e-commerce companies have an arbitration policy, which can help resolve the issue.
- If these options do not work, collect the name and address of both the dealer and the manufacturer/service provider. Write a complaint letter to each of them, clearly stating the nature of the problem, proof of purchase, and the relief you claim. Always insist on a written reply from them, and mention a deadline for replying.
- Send the letter by registered post, so that you get acknowledgement of them receiving it. You can complain to both these parties since the flaw in the product could have occurred at any part of the supply chain and either of them could be responsible.
- If you don’t get any response after the deadline, approach the consumer forum/commission. Take help from a local consumer group if needed. According to an order from the Supreme Court dated August 2017, e-commerce consumers can file complaints at the consumer forum in their own city. The Consumer Protection Act doesn’t allow this, but SC had passed the order for online shoppers’ convenience. Dr Pratima says, “In some cases, e-commerce companies that are intermediaries, try to pass on the liability to the manufacturer saying that the payment finally goes to them. But there are provisions, such as in the IT Act, that require e-commerce companies to exercise due diligence.”
- Publicise the outcome of your case so that other consumers become aware.
|There are many consumer rights organisations across the country that work with citizens and government agencies. You can join these organisations to strengthen the consumer rights movement, or seek their help in resolving your complaint. Here are some of them: