Online shopping and auctions are quick and convenient ways to make purchases, but they can also expose you to fraud unless you know how to protect yourself.
Unlike in-person shopping, which gives you an idea of the store and its staff, online shopping and auctions offer fewer clues as to whether the site or seller is trustworthy. For example, you could purchase a product that is prohibited, counterfeit, not as advertised, poor quality, recalled, mislabelled (e.g. display the wrong hazard symbols, first aid statements or ingredients), or may not work as it should.
Before you confirm your online purchase or make a bid, know how to protect yourself.
On this page
- Finding legitimate online vendors
- Private sales
- Checking online product information
- Entering an online purchase contract
- International online purchases and associated fees
- Recognizing potential online transaction scams
- Protecting yourself from online auctions and bidding scams
Finding legitimate online vendors
Before making online purchases, make sure you are dealing with reliable, legitimate online vendors.
Check for the online vendor's:
- Physical location and contact information (i.e., address, email address, telephone number)
- Terms of sale as well as shipping, complaints, return and exchange policies
- Links to legitimate consumer reviews
- Membership to industry associations or the Better Business Bureau
It’s also important to determine if you’re buying directly from the retailer or from a third-party seller. A third party seller is an independent vendor who sells their consumer products on an online marketplace.
To spot third-party seller, look out for:
- Key words like “sold by,” “shipped by” or “fulfilled by” near product descriptions
- Sections of the retailers’ website that are labelled “marketplace” or that feature a list of “partners”
The third-party seller will likely be responsible for setting their own prices for items, handling order fulfillment and consumer service issues, including returns, even though you are buying from a different retailer’s website. In addition, the third-party seller may be responsible for shipping-related matters, including delivery. This is important to know in advance should you run into a shipping or return issue.
For more information on third-party sellers, visit the Check Out the Seller Before You Checkout page on the Competition Bureau’s website.
Canadian companies are subject to privacy laws. For more information, visit the Privacy Commissioner of Canada's website.
A private sale is a sale between individuals, instead of between a consumer and a business. Most consumer legislation does not cover private sales. If something goes wrong, your consumer affairs office may not be able to recommend a suitable redress mechanism or complaint process to resolve the issue. You will need to deal directly with the seller. If you’re unable to get the collaboration of the seller, your next step could be court action. If the amount of money you want from the seller is under the limit established by your province or territory for small claims court, you could file a claim. Check with your provincial or territorial consumer affairs office for more information.
Checking online product information
Reliable online vendors should provide detailed and accurate information about their products and services to help you make an informed buying decision.
That information includes:
- Product details such as the size, colour, weight, and material of the product
- Condition of the item—whether it's new, in the original package, refurbished or used
- Price, including shipping and handling costs
- Certificate or seal of quality when applicable
Remember to save or print this product information. Should you buy the item and be dissatisfied with the transaction, product or service, you will need this information when making a complaint.
Entering an online purchase contract
You enter into a contract when you choose to buy a product online. Reputable vendors provide the terms of this contract on their websites. Read them and keep a copy for your reference.
Make sure the online vendor provides:
- Complete and understandable terms of sale
- An explanation of how the company handles shipping, complaints, returns and exchanges
- Secure payment options
- A delivery date for your product
International online purchases and associated fees
Buying online from other countries can be risky because consumer protection laws and standards may not be the same as those in Canada. Resolving issues may be difficult if something goes wrong.
Taking steps to protect yourself against risk when buying internationally is important. In addition it's worth noting that you may find yourself paying service fees on top of any potential duties and/or taxes owed when you purchase something from an international seller.
Protecting yourself when making international purchases
Here are some things you can do before you buy from another country:
- Ensure all goods imported into Canada are declared.
- Check the Canada Border Services Agency website to find out what you can, and cannot, have shipped into the country.
- When calculating the purchase price, remember to factor in shipping and handling costs, as well as taxes and additional service fees.
- Don't forget to account for the exchange rate. Use the Bank of Canada's Currency Converter for daily exchange rate conversions.
- Verify if the product is safe. To find out what the Canadian safety standards are for the item you plan to purchase, visit the CSA Group website.
If you have a problem with a foreign online vendor, consider reporting the incident to econsumer.gov. This reporting service, run by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN), helps authorities to spot trends and combat fraud.
The difference between Government of Canada customs duties and taxes and service fees set by private companies
In a transaction where you are purchasing a product from outside of Canada as a consumer, a casual (non-commercial) import is taking place. Where applicable, customs clearance may require that you pay import duties/or sales taxes to the Government of Canada.
Service fees—such as customs brokerage fees, transportation fees, courier fees, or clearance fees charged by international couriers or customs brokers—may also apply when you are importing a product from outside of Canada. These administrative fees are charged by private, third-party companies, not levied by the Government of Canada, and are sometimes billed after the delivery The Government of Canada does not regulate the collection of these additional service costs by private companies. Before placing an order, it's important to get an estimate of the fees you will be asked to pay.
Couriers and/or Customs brokers are required to provide their clients with copies of the accounting documents submitted on their behalf. Where copies of accounting documents are not available, the customs broker is to provide to the importer a receipt which reports the following details of the transaction:
- (a) the customs transaction number, including line number where applicable;
- (b) a description of goods;
- (c) the value and tariff code of each item;
- (d) the exchange rate;
- (e) the rates of duties and taxes; and,
- (f) the amount of duties and taxes paid or refunded.
However, on billing documents provided by brokers or couriers, fees are not always broken down in a way that allows customers to tell private third-party fees apart from duties and taxes. Lumping together service and administrative fees with the customs duties and taxes makes it difficult for consumers to find out how much they are paying the courier or broker for service fees that aren't part of customs duties and taxes.
Some online retailers might make fees and the use of the services of a specific customs broker or courier a condition of the sale. Look for this information in the terms and conditions at the point of sale. If this is the case, and you do not wish to pay the service fees set by the company, you may want to consider purchasing from a different retailer.
For more information on importing, visit the Canada Border Services Agency website.
Recognizing potential online transaction scams
To protect yourself and your financial information, be aware of common tricks and scams that disreputable online vendors, or fraudsters, may use.
Consider walking away from a potential transaction if the online vendor:
- Asks for credit card information before allowing you to enter a secure website
- Tries to rush you into making a buying decision
- Sends spam emails—they can hide computer viruses (Do not reply to spam messages but you can report them)
- Uses "browser traps" like disabling your browser's "back" button, opening new windows every time you try to close one, or other tactics that make it hard for you to exit a website
- Does not provide the terms and conditions on its website
- Provides terms and conditions that are so complicated and detailed that they're impossible to understand
Report a health and safety concern on imported products
In Canada, consumer products are regulated under the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act and cosmetics are regulated under the Food and Drugs Act. Both laws include prohibitions on the sale of products that may pose a risk to health or safety. These laws apply to products manufactured in or imported into Canada.
If you experience a health or safety problem with a consumer product:
- submit a consumer incident form to Health Canada
- report it to the manufacturer or retailer that you bought it from
If you bought a consumer product that has been recalled:
- stop using the product immediately
- check the Recalls and Safety Alerts Database for follow-up actions you can take
If you bought a consumer product that does not meet safety requirements in Canada:
- contact the vendor to arrange for a return, if possible
- dispose of the product safely
Protecting yourself from online auctions and bidding scams
In an online auction, where buyers place competing bids on the same product, scammers can also participate in the bidding process. This may have an impact on the final price for an item because the scammer could use tactics that may leave the buyer and the seller in an uncomfortable position. Always remember to check out the auction website, including the refund policies and dispute resolution processes prior to participating in auction. Whether you are buying or selling in an online auction, it’s recommended that you use an escrow service for payment transfer. When using an escrow service, the payment will only be released once the buyer has received the product.
Take time to consider the following when participating in an online auction:
- The possibility of a false or misleading representation of an item
- If the shipping provider used by the seller delivers to your area
- If the seller allows the use of an escrow service for payment
- Watch out for suspicious boosts of low and very high bids using different account names
- Watch out for withdrawal of the highest bids right before auction closure
- Ask questions if a seller requests that you send payment before the auction closure
Consumer protection laws may not protect you if you decide to participate in an online auction. Learn more about how you can protect yourself when participating in online auctions in the Competition Bureau’s page on Scams that target Canadian consumers.