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E contracts and online buying

E contracts and online buying

This information is about E contracts only. For more information about contracts generally go to Contracts.

What is an E contract?

A legally binding contract (electronic contract) made by buying goods or services through the internet between an electronic agent and the parties who have no personal contact or pre-existing business relationship. Some examples of  E contracts are:

  • online grocery shopping
  • online shopping (eBay), and
  • online auctions.

Does the general law of contract apply to E contracts?

Yes, the standard legal principles of contract law apply to internet transactions such as online shopping and banking.

What should I think about before making an E contract?

Resolving disputes when purchasing goods over the internet can be complex depending on where the trader is located. Australian traders are subject to specific laws that give the consumer rights of protection. However, if the trader is located overseas, different laws may apply to the transaction and you may not have the same level of consumer protection. It is important that you always carefully examine the internet provider's company policy on returns, refunds and dispute resolution.

When buying goods online ensure that the trader has a physical address so you can contact them later if a dispute arises.

For more information and useful tips about entering into E contracts read the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) publication Tips for a fine time shopping online.

How do I sign an E contract?

You usually sign an E contract by clicking on the "I agree" or "I accept" button. You should always read any terms of the contract carefully, including the fine print before clicking on the "I agree" or "I accept" button. Always ensure that you print out a copy of your agreement (contract).

What can go wrong with my E contract?

Although online shopping has many advantages, there are common problems, which can occur. These include:

  • ordering the wrong product
  • receiving the wrong item
  • difficulty in returning the product
  • security issues
  • privacy issues
  • the goods are not delivered
  • the goods delivered do not match the online description
  • the goods are not delivered on time
  • the seller failed to disclose all relevant information about the product or terms of sale
  • the goods are damaged in transit, or
  • scamming.

What is a scam?

Scammers pretend to sell a product (often very cheaply) so they can steal your credit card or bank account details. Similarly, they may take your money but send you a faulty or worthless product instead or even nothing at all. For a list of identified scams in Australia and tips for protecting yourself from scams refer to the ACCC booklet The little black book of scams and the MoneySmart website under the heading Online shopping.

For more information about how to protect yourself and your family from scams refer to Scamwatch.

Click here to view an ACCC film for Indigenous consumers on scams.

What can I do if I have been scammed?

For information about how to report a scam refer to Scamwatch-reporting a scam and the Department of Commerce WA Scamnet or contact the Department for Commerce  WA- Consumer Protection Division on 1300 304 054.

Do I have any legal protection if I bought goods on the internet, eg buying from eBay or online auctions?

Goods bought online or overseas

Yes, you have the same basic rights online as you do offline when you deal with traders operating in Australia. However Australian Consumer Law operating from 1 January 2011 may not apply to a seller based in another country. Even if the law does apply, the distance might make resolving any problems difficult. If unsure about which laws apply get legal advice.  For information on good and services bought before 1 January 2011 see the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission website.

Goods bought at an online auction

There are many different kinds of online auctions and generally a consumer's rights are limited. Consumers who buy goods at a private auction where an auction house sells for a vendor are not likely to have the usual consumer rights. This includes for online auctions. As the auction house is not part of the contract between the buyer or seller they are not obliged to provide a solution (remedy) if goods are not fit for their intended purpose. If this applies to you get legal advice.

For more information about internet auctions and your rights refer to the ACCC webpage Online auctions.

What are the steps I should take to resolve my E contract problem?

Always try to resolve your E contract problem directly with the person or company who you either sold to or purchased the goods from. For example, Joe bought an item from Mary via eBay. Joe wants a refund, as the item does not match the description given in the eBay advertisement posted by Mary. In this case Joe should firstly try to negotiate directly with Mary. Sometimes a problem can be solved with a simple conversation between the seller/buyer. You should keep a diary and any records of any conversations you have with the person you either bought from or sold to.

If you can't resolve the problem by dealing directly with the seller/purchaser contact the online shopping site (eg eBay) you used for the transaction and check what (if any) after sales service they offer to assist you with your problem.

If the problem cannot be resolved contact:

If all negotiations and attempts to reach an agreement fail then you could apply to the court to decide the matter. Get legal advice before starting court action.

For more information about resolving problems with online purchases refer to the ACCC publication Tips for a fine time shopping online.

What if I don't know the name or contact details of the person I bought/sold with?

You may not know the name or contact details of the person/people you bought or sold from. Most internet service providers have a process to assist online consumers with contractual disputes. You should go to the internet service provider's home page to see whether they have a "help centre" or "online help" service, for example, eBay Australia provides an online process through which the buyer and seller can communicate with each other to resolve disputes.

Does it make a difference what online payment system I used?

Yes, some eligibility for buyer protection services is determined by the payment method you use and also the country site where the item was purchased. If you paid by credit card and a problem arises you may be able to contact your bank and ask them to reverse the transaction.

The safest way to avoid problems with online buying is to use a secure online payment system.

What court do I enforce my contract in?

Often the buyer and seller live in different states or even different countries. It can be difficult with internet contracts to work out where the contract was made. As the law that applies to the agreement and the place to start legal action depends on where the contract was made, it is sometimes the case that buyers or sellers cannot force the other person to meet their obligations under the contract made on the internet. You should get legal advice.

What if I bought my goods from an overseas trader?

If you bought your goods from an overseas trader it may be harder for you to enforce your rights. It may even be difficult to work out where and in which country you should make your claim. If this applies to you get legal advice.

For more information about resolving problems with online purchases from a trader operating overseas refer to the ACCC webpage on shopping online. 

Where can I get more information?

Last reviewed: 14/11/2014

Last modified:


The information displayed on this page is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. If you have a legal problem, you should see a lawyer. Legal Aid Western Australia aims to provide information that is accurate, however does not accept responsibility for any errors or omissions in the information provided on this page or incorporated into it by reference.