Mail order, also known as direct marketing, is a large industry. Many firms sell good products and give outstanding service. Yet there are many mail-order companies offering magic and miracles. Here are some tips for avoiding the ratbags of the industry and dealing with problems you may encounter.

Spotting the ratbags

To reduce the risk of dealing with a ratbag, look for:

  • A written money-back guarantee if you're not happy for any reason.
  • A New Zealand office and street address. Never buy from a company that just gives a postal address.
Some 0800 telephone numbers are for the ordering office of Australian companies and this means that if you have a problem, you may have to ring Australia.
Some 0800 telephone numbers are for the ordering office of Australian companies and this means that if you have a problem, you may have to ring Australia.

Some 0800 telephone numbers are for the ordering office of Australian companies and this means that if you have a problem, you may have to ring Australia. Some people have experienced long delays in getting things put right or getting refunds when dealing with an Australian company.

When ordering, ask if the company is a New Zealand one. This is an advantage because if you have problems and go to a Disputes Tribunal, New Zealand companies can have tribunal decisions enforced against them. For overseas companies you may wish to stick with large and well-established firms.

Ask if the company is a member of the Marketing Association. Members are required to meet the association's code of ethics and follow its recommendations.

Changing your mind

Once your order has been accepted, there's a legal contract. But if you want to change or cancel an order, contact the company straight away - many are happy to oblige, especially if the goods haven't been sent.

If you receive goods and then decide you don't want them, there's usually not much you can do. That's because as long as the goods match their description, the sale is perfectly legal. However, if there is a no-strings money-back guarantee you can send the goods back within the specified time and get a refund.

Faulty goods

The Consumer Guarantees Act requires that products be of "acceptable quality". This means they must be fit for all purposes they might commonly be used for, be acceptable in appearance and be safe and durable. Goods must also be fit for any purpose claimed by the seller and must be the same as any description of them. Where goods fail any of these guarantees, consumers can ask for them to be replaced or for their money back.

Return mail costs

If you return an item with a money-back guarantee simply because you've changed your mind, it's reasonable that you pay the return postage yourself. But if it's faulty or doesn't match its description, you have a right under the Consumer Guarantees Act to have the cost of return postage refunded to you.

Overpriced goods

If goods match their description and you knew the price before you ordered, you can't get your money back just because you found them cheaper somewhere else.

Non-arrival of goods

If a company has agreed to deliver goods to you it must do this or refund your money. If goods were lost in the mail, it is the company's job to sort this out.

But it may depend on how the goods were delivered and if they were stolen. If they arrived in the mail and disappeared from your letterbox, you may not be able to claim. But if a courier left them and did not hand them over in person, you may still be able to claim.

Goods you did not order

Under the Fair Trading Act, you don't have to pay for something you didn't order.

Companies which use “inertia selling” – sending you goods such as magazines or greeting cards in the expectation you’ll buy them – can’t demand payment from you. If you do get something you didn't order the company has 10 working days to collect the goods. After that, they’re yours to keep as an unconditional gift.

You have to make the goods available for collection by the company at any reasonable time during the 10 working days. But you’re under no obligation to contact the company or arrange for the goods to be returned.

It’s an offence for the company to assert or appear to assert a right to payment for unsolicited goods. The company must clearly inform you that you’re under no obligation to pay for goods when they’re delivered.

Taking it further

  • The Marketing Association will help settle disputes involving members and, if possible, non-members.

  • Alternatively, you can file a claim with a Disputes Tribunal. Forms are available from your nearest District Court.

  • If you paid by credit card, contact the card issuer with the details of payment. They should credit your account for goods that have not arrived, but where payment has been accepted. If there's a problem over the quality of the goods, they may also be able to help.

Whatever the problem, you stand the best chance of getting it resolved if you've kept all the paperwork, including the ad or catalogue you ordered from. Keep copies of letters you send and make notes of phone calls, including the date and the names of the people you spoke to.

For problems with telemarketers see our Telemarketing article.