How does consumer law apply to computers and software? We get many calls from consumers - and retailers - wanting to know their rights.

Your questions answered

When I bought my computer the retailer told me I could upgrade the graphics card on it, but the motherboard doesn't have the right slot.

Under the Consumer Guarantees Act (CGA), goods must match their description. The retailer should pay for a new motherboard which can accept a better graphics card or, if this is impossible, provide a refund.

How long should repairs take?

It depends on the type of problem, and whether parts need to be sent back to the manufacturer. Some retailers tell us they aim to fix problems within two days, but in our opinion two to three weeks is more likely. If you ask how long the repair will take you're entitled to rely on their answer. If they take longer than that time, you have rights under the CGA.

Repeated "fixes" of my new DVD-writer haven't worked. Am I entitled to a replacement?

Yes. When a fault is serious or cannot be fixed within a reasonable time, you are entitled to a replacement or refund.

My 6-month old printer has developed a substantial fault that cannot be fixed. I've been offered a refund of half the purchase price because of "depreciation". Is this fair?

No. As long as a fault is sufficiently serious to warrant a refund, and you reported it promptly, the CGA requires that refund to be of the price paid.

I've moved away from the town where I bought my computer. Do I have to pay the costs of sending it back for repair?

In our opinion, if the repair is covered by the CGA and/or warranty then the customer should not be stung for the cost of freight within New Zealand. We consider freight to be a reasonably foreseeable consequential loss caused by a product fault, which the retailer is liable for. It is reasonably foreseeable that customers move towns.

However, this isn't an open chequebook. You should ensure you use the cheapest transport option available to you, and if you have moved overseas you won't have a case at all.

I know there's a problem with my computer, but the retailer can't find anything wrong with it.

As long as you've identified the problem clearly and given them a reasonable chance to sort it out, you should get it looked at elsewhere. If a different service outlet finds the problem, you can claim the costs back from the original retailer.

We use our computer at home for our small business. Are we still protected by the CGA?

Probably not. The CGA covers products ordinarily bought for domestic or personal use. These days there's not much difference between a home computer and a business one.

However, when goods are bought for commercial use the retailer has the right to contract out of the CGA (which they must do in writing at the time of purchase, for it to be effective). Most do. However, even if you're not covered by this Act, you may still have rights under the Sale of Goods Act.

I want to bill the retailer for the hundred hours I've spent dealing with my unstable computer.

Wasted time and stress is frustrating, but under the CGA you can only claim compensation if you offered the trader the opportunity to fix the problem early on, and can also show an actual consequential loss in monetary terms.

Unfortunately "my time is valuable" doesn't usually count. Even if you use your computer for business and have lost clients or contracts because of downtime, the CGA won't entitle you to compensation, because this is a business issue outside the scope of the Act.

My faulty mouse can't be replaced because it is now obsolete.

You can choose between a refund of the purchase price or a similar model of the same value. If you opt for a similar model costing more you'll have to pay the difference.

The retailer has agreed to replace my printer, as it cannot be fixed. But can I keep it as well as the new one?

No. Consumers can't have their cake and eat it too!

My monitor developed a fault just after the warranty expired.

The CGA is not limited by manufacturers' warranties. It says goods must work properly for a reasonable length of time. Ask the manufacturer or other traders for their estimate of a reasonable lifespan for your monitor, then - if yours should still be in the prime of life - make the case to your retailer for a free repair. You can also have a look at our Appliance life expectancy report to see what we think.

My granddaughter put toast in the CD drive of my new computer. Do I have any comeback under law?

Neither the CGA, nor your warranty if you have one, will cover a fault occurring through "improper use" such as assault by toast. Your insurance company may help, depending on the type and wording of its policy.

If a computer part is replaced under warranty does the warranty period start afresh?

Not usually. But the new part is subject to the CGA's requirement for goods to be durable, which takes into account their age.

While my computer was away being fixed the technician reinstalled Windows, overwriting several of my important files.

All service providers have to use reasonable care and skill when fixing things. If you weren't warned that your files would be deleted, and can show monetary loss, the company should compensate you. However, you will probably find it very hard to prove your case, and most files like photos are priceless. Always back-up your important files before handing over your computer.

A laptop I bought for university study had problems from the outset. Can I get a temporary replacement while it's being fixed?

Retailers do not have to offer stand-ins during repair time. However, if you can prove that your laptop is essential for urgent assignments or exams, and is the only option available, we think you've got a good case for claiming back the costs of renting one. Remember to ask the retailer for a stand-in first.

I bought a game as a gift for my son, but he doesn't like it. Can I return it?

You can try, but the retailer is under no obligation to replace or refund goods because of a change of mind. If you're not sure you're buying the right thing, find out first if you will be able to exchange it. Some stores may offer a trial period or exchange cards. But many don't accept returns of software at all.

The computer game I bought wouldn't work properly without a "patch", which took hours to download.

Almost all software on the market can be patched. Patches help fix bugs, streamline the operation, and allow programs to cope with changing technology. However, if a piece of software is essentially unusable at purchase, we think you have the right to return it. Having already done the download, though, you may decide to stick with it. You're not due any compensation, unless you had to pay for the patch and were misled about whether you would need it.

Can we buy just one item of software and install it on two computers at home?

It depends on the licence agreement. Most software products allow one or two users on a licence.

If the licence information isn't on the outside of the box, ask the retailer, or try the manufacturer's website.

A second-hand computer I bought at auction turned out to have a virus.

Goods sold at auction are covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act and the Fair Trading Act (FTA). If the auctioneer told you the computer was virus-free, before you successfully bid for it, you're entitled to compensation.

I bought a computer from Trade Me that claimed to have 20GB of RAM. But it only has 10GB.

Private sales are not covered by the CGA or FTA. But the Contractual Remedies Act gives protection against misrepresentation, so if you bought the computer because of this claim, you can seek compensation. If the seller refuses, take them to a Disputes Tribunal.

Consumer law says

  • A product must be of acceptable quality and fit for its purpose (Consumer Guarantees Act).
  • Spare parts and repair facilities must be available for a reasonable time, unless you are notified otherwise at the point of sale (Consumer Guarantees Act).
  • Services must be carried out with reasonable care and skill (Consumer Guarantees Act).
  • Consumers cannot be misled about the nature of a product or service (Fair Trading Act).