Taking on a dodgy dealer
Fifteen-year-old takes shady trader to Disputes Tribunal – and wins. What are your rights if you buy a faulty second-hand product online?
James de Hair, a 15-year-old schoolboy from Kāpiti College, was looking for a phone. He decided on an iPhone XS Max, which sells for about $2349 new.
In June 2021, having saved money from odd jobs and hoarding Christmas and birthday card cash, James found a second-hand version for sale on Facebook Marketplace for $800, haggled down to $750.
Aware of the risks that come with buying second-hand, James did his research and asked all the right questions: Did the phone have its original battery? Would his SIM card be compatible? The seller assured him it was all good. The phone was advertised as being in perfect condition.
“He was a verified trader on Facebook. So, I assumed it was in perfect condition and hadn’t been broken. I took his word for it, basically.”
James and his dad, Francis, went to the seller’s home to collect the phone. While there, they checked it was working as it should be and left believing the phone was in the condition claimed.
Later on, they realised the seller hadn’t given them a charging cable. When they returned, they found him in his back shed.
“That night we picked it up, and we see this dude in a shack with all sorts of soldering tools,” James said.
James’ dad, Francis, said: “He had a workshop in the back of his garage full of screen boxes, Apple products, and monitors. In the back there was a workbench set up and there were open laptops on the floor and bits and pieces all over the place.”
The unusual sight made the pair uneasy, but James’ phone was working fine so they left it at that.
It worked well - until it didn’t
Three months after buying the phone, it suddenly stopped receiving a cellular signal, which made it unusable.
James took the device into an authorised Apple repair centre, which said it couldn’t fix it as the SIM card tray didn’t match the phone’s serial number.
“At this point I was stumped at what to do, because if Apple wouldn’t repair it, who would? I still needed a phone.”
He contacted the seller who said he couldn’t help.
James and his dad then took the phone to a second repair shop. Within five minutes of leaving the store they got a call saying the phone had major water damage. There was visible rust along the edge of the frame. The battery had been replaced, contradicting the seller’s claim of “perfect condition”, and it was being held in place by a piece of tape.
A fix would cost more than the phone was worth.
James contacted the seller, asking what he would do to put this right. After a lot of back and forth the seller offered either a $400 refund if James gave the phone back, or to repair it for $150. He wouldn’t budge.
James’ aunt, who has a legal background, suggested he could go to the Disputes Tribunal.
“I wasn’t going to get my money back any other way,” James said.
“I thought, let’s take him to the tribunal – what’s the worst that can happen? It’s only 45 bucks to file it.”
What is the Disputes Tribunal?
The Disputes Tribunal is a quick and inexpensive way to settle disputes without going to court. Used for small claims up to $30,000, the tribunal is like an informal version of a courtroom.
A lawyer can’t represent you in the hearing and there is no judge or jury. Each hearing is run by a referee who will consider whether it is appropriate to help parties reach a settlement on a case-by-case basis. Where this is not considered appropriate, the referee will make a final binding decision on the dispute.
James filled out forms, paid the $45 and prepared his case.
“It’s pretty easy to file online – just go to the Disputes Tribunal website – fill it out online – you’ll get a confirmation email and then you’re off to the races,” he said.
“The whole process was relatively straightforward.”
His school friends were surprised he was taking a grown man to the Disputes Tribunal, but his parents weren’t worried about the age difference.
“We’ve taught James that everyone’s the same. Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time. It doesn’t matter if you’re a captain of industry or you ride the back of a rubbish truck, we’re all the same, we’re all equal,” his parents said.
For them it didn’t matter if he won or lost either. It was about the principle.
“We felt that it was a really valuable experience if James wanted to pursue it – a bit of a challenge and a stretch but good growth experience.”
At the hearing, James turned up in his school uniform with his evidence printed chronologically so he just had to read it out.
He didn’t know what to expect going into it, but he went with the flow.
“You say a thing, the referee says what he thinks. You present evidence and we went straight into settlement after the first piece of evidence. It was quite streamlined and informal,” James said.
Everybody has the option to bring a support person if they choose. This person must be a silent presence - unable to speak as part of the tribunal process. James’ uncle attended as his support person.
According to his uncle “it wasn’t like going to TV court - it was quite personal, just talking it over, unconfrontational. The referee walked everybody through discussing what laws applied while trying to reach a resolution.”
The seller tried to say that the phone was fine and had never been tampered with. The referee ended up writing all the issues and problems on the board and said it was pretty clear it was misrepresentation.
They reached a settlement. The seller agreed to pay back the $750 and James had to give the phone back.
After his win, James thinks a future in law may be on the cards. “It would be a pretty cool thing to be able to look back and say I won my first case at 15.”
His family say he’s grown more confident in his rights. Shown when he returned to Facebook Marketplace to buy his next phone – no dodgy garage this time.
“It seems like a better trade – but I’m ready for anything. If I get ripped off, I know what to do.”
James’ advice for going to the Disputes Tribunal
- Compile your evidence. Photos, reports, messages, eye witnesses – everything that confirms what you are claiming.
- See if you have a strong case. If you have a fair amount of the above, or a couple of really strong pieces – you’re good to go.
- Make sure you know your rights. Check what laws apply to your specific situation to ensure you're covered. Consumer NZ, Citizens Advice Bureau and Consumer Protection websites offer free advice online. Consumer NZ members can contact our consumer advice line to speak to an adviser.
- File your dispute. Tribunals can only hear claims for up to $30,000. The lowest fee is $45, if the total amount sought under the claim is less than $2000. And the highest fee is $180, for a claim between $5000 and $30,000.
- Wait. It usually takes six weeks until your hearing date at the Disputes Tribunal.
- Present your evidence. Show up to the tribunal and present your evidence. Know that whatever the tribunal rules is the final say and must be followed.
Looking at buying online? Know your rights going in. Check out our guide on dealing with sellers online.