Know the risks before clicking

AS WITH most people these days, I purchase many products online. The majority of the sites are Malaysian-based while others are located overseas.

I have had my fair share of complaints in terms of product delivery when purchasing online. With Malaysian-based companies, I have managed to resolve issues rather easily as most websites that I use have land line numbers that I can contact.

When it comes to purchasing online from overseas companies, though, I have not been able to resolve issues as easily. First case in point was when I purchased some books online – not from the large bookstores like Amazon, but a smaller US-based online store – about two years ago. The payment was taken from my credit card almost immediately upon purchase, but no delivery was made. After three months without any books in sight – the website said delivery would take six weeks – I emailed their customer service and enquired about this.

Unfortunately, I never got a reply, despite various attempts at e-mailing them. I also realised then that they did not have a customer service telephone number I could call. I decided – foolishly, perhaps – to write this off as a bad experience and to learn from my mistake.

From then on, whenever I wanted to purchase anything online from a foreign business, I would research the company in question extensively, to see what other customers from around the world had to say about their service. I would also ensure that they had a telephone number I could call in case of unexpected issues.

For the next two years, things went pretty much smoothly. Which then brings me to my second case in point which occurred a few weeks ago.

I wanted to purchase a transcription software which had been recommended to me by someone in the industry. The company in question was a US business entity, but the online purchases went through an Irish-based company. They seemed to have all the customer service support required in place and I proceeded to purchase the software as a download. Although a CD-based software purchase was possible, I did not opt for this as my laptop doesn’t have a CD function.

The problem began when I tried to instal the software – it just wouldn’t happen. I went through all the customer support PDFs they had online and tried all their suggestions but to no avail. Finally, out of sheer frustration, I decided to cancel my purchase. This was three days after I had purchased and downloaded the software.

To my surprise, the bank said that they could not recover my money for me via a charge back as it had already been taken out of my account by the online vendor. After a whole lot of questions, it finally became clear that the bank only acted as an intermediary in the transaction, and as it was an international one, there was very little they could do about it.

I then contacted the online vendor through their customer support service and told them my problem. I wanted their assistance in installing the software, and failing that, for a refund of my purchase. Till today, that issue has not been sorted out. They have replied to my queries and given suggestions, but none of them has worked.

I am left with this growing belief that the software I paid US$300 (RM1,203) for will never be installed and I am going to be left paying for something that doesn’t work and which I have no recourse to obtain a remedy for.

This essentially is the problem with borderless purchases in the digital age – consumers’ rights. How can you possibly chase down a foreign company to get your money back when they do not deliver the product or if you have problems with the product?

The Australian Commission and Consumer Commission states the situation succinctly on its website. It says: “If you buy from an online seller based overseas, you should be aware that you may experience practical difficulties in obtaining a remedy from them.”

In Ireland – which is technically where the company I purchased the software from is based – the law with regards to digital downloads is pretty clear. Any rights to a cooling-off period that they have in Ireland – during which I can return the goods purchased and demand a refund without giving any reason – is over as soon as I download the product. Which puts me in a bind, as with the software download, I downloaded it as soon as I purchased it.

In the UK, consumer laws cover faulty digital downloads, which is the situation I am in. The Consumer Rights Act 2015 provides for a situation like this, where you can write to the vendor and ask for them to repair and resend your digital download, or failing that, to refund your purchase.

The problem with any of these laws is the practicality of obtaining a remedy. If you are based in Malaysia and you have purchased from a company overseas, the foreign company is bound by consumer protection laws of the country they are based in. As a consumer from Malaysia, you can write to them, but if they choose to ignore you or are unable to assist in sorting out the situation, there is very little you can do from a practical point of view.

So here is a lesson for us all when buying things online from businesses based overseas. Know you are undertaking a risk and that you may very well be left out of pocket.

It really is frustrating and there’s very little to be done about it except to think very carefully before making an online purchases with foreign companies.

  • Sheila Stanley is a writer, TV producer and PR/media consltant based in Kuala Lumpur. She vows to think twice before purchasing anything online from now on. You can get in touch with her via e-mail at