Shopping by Phone, Mail or the Internet

The Dial-A-Law library is prepared by lawyers and gives practical information on many areas of law in British Columbia. Script 256 gives information only, not legal advice. If you have a legal problem or need legal advice, you should speak to a lawyer. For the name of a lawyer to consult, call Lawyer Referral at 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland or 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in British Columbia.

This script discusses shopping by phone, mail order or over the Internet, as well as what to do if you receive unsolicited phone calls, faxes and mail after making such a purchase.

Shopping online or by phone or mail order has its pitfalls
Buying goods or services by phone or mail order or over the Internet can be a convenient way to shop. Sometimes you can buy things not available in local stores. Many reputable firms use these sales methods. But shopping this way also has its dangers. There may be shipping delays, or the quality of the item may not match the advertised description, or you may pay for something but get nothing in return.

What is a “distance sales contract”?
When you buy goods or services by phone or mail order or over the Internet, you may be making a “distance sales contract.” The Business Practices & Consumer Protection Act says that before you enter into a distance sales contract, the seller must clearly disclose the following things:

  • the seller’s name, address and telephone number
  • the seller’s email address, if available
  • a description of the goods or services
  • the total price and a detailed statement of the terms of payment
  • the currency under which amounts owing are payable
  • an explanation of how the goods will be shipped to you
  • the seller’s return or exchange policy, if any

You must be given a copy of the contract
For the contract to be legally binding, you must receive a copy of it within 15 days after making it. An email copy is sufficient. The contract must contain the information that the seller was required to disclose to you before you bought the goods or services, along with the following:

  • your name as the consumer
  • the date of the contract

Can you cancel a distance sales contract?
Yes. You may cancel in the following circumstances:

  • If the seller doesn’t disclose the required information or the contract doesn’t contain it, you have up to 7 days after receiving the contract to cancel it.
  • If you don’t get a copy of the contract within the 15 days after making it, as required, then you have up to 30 days to cancel it.
  • If you don’t receive what you ordered within 30 days of the supply date, you may cancel the contract anytime before the goods or services are delivered.
  • If you don’t receive what you ordered within 30 days of the date of the contract, and a supply date wasn’t provided, you may cancel the contract anytime before the goods or services are delivered.

How do you cancel?
It’s best to cancel the contract in writing by fax, e-mail or registered mail, or by delivering a notice to the seller saying that you’re cancelling. This will be proof that the seller received your cancellation notice within the allowed time. Keep a copy so you can prove that you cancelled.

Will you get a refund?
If you cancel because the seller didn’t disclose the required information or the contract doesn’t contain it, the seller must refund your money within 15 days after you give notice of cancellation. You have to return the unused goods within 15 days after getting them or within 15 days after giving notice of cancellation, whichever is later. The seller is responsible for the reasonable cost of returning the goods.

What can you do to protect yourself?

  • Check the reputation and product of the phone, mail order or online company.
  • Pay with a credit card.
  • Make sure the website is secure if you pay online.

How can you check the reputation and product of the company?
Contact the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any recent complaints, and if so, if the complaints were resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Their phone number is:

  • 604.682.2711 for mainland BC
  • 1.888.803.1222 toll free for the interior
  • 250.386.6348 for Vancouver Island

For an online company, look for a reliability seal from a reputable online consumer protection program. Check with the Better Business Bureau, to see if the company has a “BBB Accredited Business Seal for the Web.

Or see if the company displays the Canadian Marketing Association member logo, meaning that the company follows a code of ethics.

How is paying with a credit card safer?
When ordering goods, you may be able to pay by Visa or MasterCard and give your card number and its expiry date. This can actually be safer than sending a cheque or money order. If you cancel a distance sales contract, you can ask your credit card issuer to cancel or reverse the credit card charge and any associated interest or other charges. The credit card issuer must acknowledge your request within 30 days of receiving it. Then if your request meets the requirements in the Business Practices & Consumer Protection Act, the credit card issuer must cancel or reverse the charge within two complete billing cycles or 90 days, whichever is earlier.

So, for example, if you don’t get what you bought within 30 days and you cancel the contract before the goods arrive (if they ever do come), your credit card issuer must cancel or reverse the charges if you ask them. On the other hand, if you pay by money order or cheque and never receive the goods, there is not much you can do.

How can you ensure a website is secure for online payments?
Look for the letter “s” in the prefix “https” to the website address or an unbroken lock and key symbol, usually in the lower right-hand corner. Never send financial information by e-mail. It's not secure.

What can you do if you receive merchandise you never ordered?
The Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act says that you do not have to pay for unsolicited goods or services unless you expressly tell the supplier in writing that you intend to accept the goods or services. So if you simply get something out of the blue that you never asked for, you don’t have to pay for it. But to protect yourself, you may want to return the item and keep copies of all correspondence.

What can you do to prevent unsolicited phone calls, email, faxes, and mail?
Sometimes after making a phone, internet, or mail order purchase, you may find yourself on various mailing and phone lists, and end up receiving piles of brochures, advertisements and sample products, and endless phone calls and emails from telemarketers and others. The emails may be phishing scams. And they often have spyware and malware that will harm your computer and steal your personal information and identity. To avoid this flood of junk mail (or spam) and calls, and the dangers they pose, here’s what you can do:

  • Contact the Canadian Marketing Association:  click on the “For Consumers” link to find their voluntary "Do Not Mail Service". Follow the registration instructions to have your name deleted from member phone and mailing marketing lists. This won’t eliminate the problem but it can greatly reduce the amount of unsolicited calls and mail you receive. You’ll be placed on their “Do Not Call” list for three years.
  • Register with the National Do Not Call List: The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission—or CRTC—requires that telemarketers maintain “Do Not Call” lists and respect such requests for three years. Telemarketers must also issue a unique registration number for each “Do Not Call” request, so keep the number as proof of your request. But the CRTC has no control of businesses and people outside Canada, and they often ignore the list and continue to call.
  • Block the number that is calling you if you have that feature on your phone. But telemarketers can constantly change their calling number so even if you block them, they keep getting through.

Canada’s anti-spam law started July 1, 2014
Canada’s anti-spam law started on July 1, 2014. It aims to protect people and businesses from spam (junk email and text messages) and online threats (spyware, malware, phishing scams, etc.) originating in Canada. It’s called the Electronic Commerce Protection Act. Unfortunately, the law cannot control businesses and people outside Canada, and they produce huge amounts of spam and online threats. One part of the law created a private right of action. It would let you sue for violations of the law, and it was due to take effect on July 1, 2017. But the federal government has suspended it indefinitely to review it.

Consent is required—a key section of the law requires senders of commercial emails and text messages to have the consent of the person they’re sending the message to (the recipient). The law also prohibits installation of computer programs and collection of electronic addresses without consent, as well as false and misleading representations.

Two types of consent: express and implied. There is implied consent if there is already a relationship between the sender and recipient of a commercial message. It lasts for 2 years. Recipients can cancel implied consent any time. Senders of commercial messages can ask recipients for express consent (the recipient agrees to receive messages) to send commercial messages. It does not expire. Senders of commercial messages must keep records to show they obtained the recipient’s consent. The Canadian government’s anti-spam website compares implied and express consent in detail. 

Senders must identify themselves and let recipients unsubscribe—in addition to getting consent from recipients, senders of commercial messages must identify themselves and include an unsubscribe option in the message so recipients can stop receiving messages. 

Three federal government agencies enforce the law: the CRTC, the Competition Bureau, and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Details on the law are available on the Canadian government’s anti-spam website.

What should you do if you have a complaint?
If you have a complaint about delays in delivery, an error on your bill, or the quality of the goods, write the company (don’t phone). State the nature of the problem and what you want done. Keep a copy of all your correspondence, as well as a copy of the original advertisement for the product. If you don’t receive a reply to your first letter, send another, this time by registered mail. In it, refer to your first letter and keep a copy of it as well. Hopefully this will resolve the problem.

More information

[updated June 2017]

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