When Shivam Shrivastava, 30, saw an ad on Facebook for a smart wallet around nine months ago, he was instantly sold. The wallet had features like Wi-Fi hotspot capability and wireless charging, all for a fairly reasonable price of 1,500. It was being sold by a US-based manufacturer on a little-known e-commerce website, and after some research, Shrivastava, who runs an architecture firm, decided it was genuine. “It seemed like a good deal so I ordered it. When it arrived, I was shocked to find that the package contained an ordinary wallet, which you can buy in a market for around 100," he said.

Shrivastava realised that he had been duped. His calls to the customer service of the website went unanswered, and the person who had delivered the item to him didn’t seem to have any idea about the product.

More and more people are now shopping online. According to a joint study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India and Resurgent India Ltd, as many as 108 million Indian consumers shopped online in 2017, with mobile phones becoming the preferred device. The number is expected to clock an annualised growth of 115% this year, the study added. As demand increases, there is more supply. It’s not unusual to find a new ad from an e-commerce website pop up every time you log into your social media account. This, in turn, has led to a spike in the number of cases of fraud. According to credit rating agency Experian’s Digital Consumer Insights 2018 report, close to 25% Indians have directly experienced fraud while transacting online. The study also states that many Indians are rather tolerant of fraud, with 46% reporting that they would not switch retailers despite facing cases of fraud.

“These websites often don’t even have the contact information of the seller, leaving the customer no way to get in touch with them if they don’t receive what they ordered, or if they are unhappy with the product," said Arun Saxena, president of International Consumer Rights Protection Council (ICRPC), a non-profit NGO dedicated to securing consumer rights.

With various e-commerce sites coming up with their festive sales, we tell you what to keep in mind when shopping online to avoid getting defrauded and what is your recourse if you still end up getting cheated.

How not to get duped

Do your due diligence: If you are shopping from an unknown site, one of the first things you should check is whether the site has information about the seller and a valid contact number. Other things to watch out include checking product specification, understanding the return and refund policy and comparing prices with similar items available on other sites. Don’t forget to save screenshots of the product page and invoice.It also helps to check the rating and reviews, although these can sometimes be misleading.

Go for cash on delivery: If you still want a particular product you can’t get anywhere else, go for cash on delivery. “Websites which deliver fake products usually do not accept cash on delivery and insist on payment upfront. This is a big warning sign," said C.S. Sudheer, founder and CEO of IamCheated.com, a site that registers and addresses consumer complaints for online fraud.

Read the fine print: It’s not always the small, anonymous sellers that you need to be wary of. Buying from a larger portal can also land you in trouble if you don’t read the fine print.

Lucknow-based professional photographer Arun Pushker, 42, ordered a mobile handset online at a discount of around 500 from a reputed e-commerce website. When he received it, he realised it was a refurbished product. He had missed the fine print on the website which stated that the item was second hand. The fact was listed along with other specifications. “I contacted the seller and said I wanted my money back, but they kept transferring my calls to different people and making me wait for extended periods of time," said Pushker. After trying for months on end, he finally gave up following up with the seller.

“While large e-commerce portals are a much safer bet than smaller websites, people can still get cheated. In these cases, customers are usually duped by middlemen like logistics partners or vendors," said Harsh Jaiswal, founder of Voxya, a consumer complaint redressal platform. Voxya lets consumers file complaints for free and launches social media campaigns to resolve the issue. They also draft a professional legal notice to be sent to the company, but for a fee.

Another thing to watch out for in the fine print is the return clause. Some items are not eligible for return and websites usually mention that.

What’s your recourse

Like Shrivastava or Pushker, if you do end up getting cheated when making an online purchase, not all hope is lost. While some consumer forums and NGOs specifically work in the area of online shopping frauds to help customers, there is legal recourse too.

When Pushker got neither his money back nor a clear answer from the website, he logged on to Voxya. They sent the seller a notice threatening legal action, following which the refund came.

Bengaluru-based government employee Chitra Vittal, 44, also decided to take up the matter with an outside agency when she had a similar experience. Vittal had ordered flowers and a cake from an online delivery service for her husband’s birthday. The items never arrived. She tried to call the customer care number but received no response. When she finally got through to them, she was rudely denied a refund after a heated argument.

Vittal then approached ICRPC, which sent an email to the vendor informing them that they had conducted Unfair Trade Practices under Section 2 (1) (r) of the Consumer Protection Act. The message stated that if the vendor did not refund the full amount and offer compensation for harassment and inconvenience, severe action would be initiated against them. Soon after, Vittal was contacted by the delivery service and offered a hefty amount to settle the matter out of court. She decided to settle for just the refund amount and an apology. “We send a notice to the company and go public on social media, press or the ICRPC website with the name and details of the offender. This usually prompts the company into responding and settling the issue. If that fails, we help the consumer to file a case," said Saxena.

Taking legal recourse may be the best option if all that doesn’t work. “The consumer needs to file a complaint before a district consumer court under whose jurisdiction they fall. 90% of the cases are disposed in favour of complainants," said advocate Nishant Prateek, partner at law firm Bandaru & Bandaru Advocates.

You can also log on to the government’s consumer helpline portal, the Integrated Grievance Redressal Mechanism (INGRAM) to register your complaint. You will be given a docket number, and a notice will be sent to the concerned company for redressal. Follow-up reminders will be sent at stipulated intervals if the issue is not resolved.

To avoid all this and more, it’s best to cheat-proof your online shopping.

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