Buying goods online via auction and resale sites – should buyers beware?


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An online auction site has reported a significant increase in new customers in 2020, and a 256% rise in the number of new businesses registering with them during the various pandemic-induced lockdowns. 

However this uptake in online shopping naturally gives rise to an increased chance of unsatisfactory transactions, where a Customer risks receiving goods that are not as described, or which are not fit for purpose. It is therefore useful to understand the protections afforded to online shoppers, as these differ depending upon where you shop and from whom you buy.

Buyer's Rights
When purchasing goods, whether this is online or in a shop consumers have a varying degree of protection over that transaction.  Most of these protections are provided by the Consumer Rights Act 2015 (the CRA). However, the extent of a consumer's protection depends largely on the status of the seller and, in particular, whether the seller can be classed as a "Trader".

For the purposes of the CRA, a Trader is defined as someone acting in the course of their business.

As such, if an online seller is selling goods in their capacity as a trading business, any buyer will be afforded a wide range of protections under the CRA, which states that goods must be of satisfactory quality, be as described, and be fit for the buyer's purpose (if this purpose has been made known to the seller). 

However, if the seller is selling in a personal capacity, for example someone selling unwanted items online in their spare time, the protections afforded to a buyer are not be so extensive.  

In this situation, a buyer is only entitled to rely on limited protections, these being that the seller owns the goods and that the goods must come as described. There is no obligation on the seller to disclose any faults with the goods. 

This is based on the age-old principle of 'Caveat Emptor' or 'buyer beware' which means that the buyer is purchasing the goods at their own risk and that the goods are sold "as seen".

In theory, the difference between buying from a trader and a non-trader may be relatively straight forward. However, in practice, it is not always easy to make this distinction, particularly when buying from online platforms.

Buyer Protection
There are practical steps that a buyer should take before purchasing goods, especially if the identity of the seller is not immediately obvious, so that they are afforded the best possible chance at recourse should there be problems with the goods. Especially if the item being purchased is of significantly high value, such as cars or jewellery.  

Initially a buyer should try to identify who they are buying from and, in particular, whether that person is selling in the course of their business or as a private individual. If this is unclear, a buyer should seek to clarify this with the seller before purchasing the goods. 

Buyers should also consider any reviews of the seller from previous purchasers and check the description and any photographs that may accompany the online listing for the goods. If a buyer is unsure or requires clarification on any point, queries should be raised before completing any transaction.

The buyer should always try to make the purchase, or payment, using a medium that affords greater protection, such as PayPal or a credit card where at all possible. If bought via an online sales website, they should also refer to the site's terms and conditions for any assistance this may provide. 

Whatever the buyer decides to do, they should always be aware of the risks – the maxim 'caveat emptor, or 'let the buyer beware' still applies.

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