Shopping Online, by Phone, or by Mail (No. 256)

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This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by People's Law School in June 2017.

Buying goods or services over the internet or by phone or mail order can be convenient. But shopping this way has its dangers. Learn your rights and what to watch for.

Understand your legal rights

You may be making a “distance sales contract”

When you buy something over the internet or by phone or mail order, you may be making a “distance sales contract”. This is a contract for goods or services that is not entered into in person and where (in the case of goods) you don’t have the opportunity to inspect the goods before buying.

Under the law in BC, before you enter into a distance sales contract, the seller must clearly disclose the following things:

  • the seller’s name, address and telephone number
  • the seller’s email address, if available
  • a description of the goods or services
  • the total price and a detailed statement of the terms of payment
  • the currency under which amounts owing are payable
  • an explanation of how the goods will be shipped to you
  • the seller’s return or exchange policy, if any

You must receive a copy of the contract

For the contract to be legally binding, you must receive a copy of it within 15 days after making it. An email copy is sufficient. The contract must contain the information the seller was required to disclose to you before you bought the goods or services, along with:

  • your name as the consumer, and
  • the date of the contract.

You can cancel a distance sales contract

You may cancel a distance sales contract in the following circumstances:

  • If the seller doesn’t disclose the required information or the contract doesn’t contain it, you have up to seven days after receiving the contract to cancel it.
  • If you don’t get a copy of the contract within 15 days after making it, as required, then you have up to 30 days to cancel it.
  • If you don’t receive what you ordered within 30 days of the supply date, you may cancel the contract anytime before the goods or services are delivered.
  • If you don’t receive what you ordered within 30 days of the date of the contract, and a supply date wasn’t provided, you may cancel the contract anytime before the goods or services are delivered.

Common questions

How do I cancel?

If you want to cancel the contract, it’s best to do so in writing. You can cancel by email, fax or registered mail. Doing so gives you proof the seller received your cancellation notice within the required time.

Consumer Protection BC’s website includes cancellation forms you can use to send to the seller.

Keep a copy of your cancellation notice so you can prove you cancelled.

Will I get a refund?

If you cancel because the seller didn’t disclose the required information or the contract doesn’t contain it, the seller must refund your money within 15 days after you give notice of cancellation. You have to return the unused goods within 15 days after getting them or within 15 days after giving notice of cancellation, whichever is later. The seller is responsible for the reasonable cost of returning the goods.

What should I do if I have a complaint?

If you have a complaint about delays in delivery, an error on your bill, or the quality of the goods you bought, write to the seller. (Don’t phone, as you won’t end up with a written record of your complaint.) State the nature of the problem and what you want done.

Keep a copy of all your correspondence, as well as a copy of the original advertisement for the item you purchased.

If you don’t receive a reply to your complaint, send another. Send this follow-up by registered mail. In it, refer to your initial correspondence. Keep a copy of this correspondence as well.

What can I do if I receive goods or services I never ordered?

Under the law in BC, you do not have to pay for “unsolicited goods or services” unless you expressly tell the supplier in writing you intend to accept the goods or services. If you get something out of the blue you never asked for, you don’t have to pay for it. But to protect yourself, you may want to return the item and keep copies of all correspondence.

What can I do to protect myself when shopping online or by phone?

To protect yourself:

  • check the reputation of the seller and their goods or services
  • pay with a credit card
  • if you pay online, make sure the website is secure

How can I check the reputation of a seller and what they’re selling?

Contact the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any recent complaints, and if so, whether the complaints were resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Their phone number is:

  • 604-682-2711 for Mainland British Columbia
  • 1-888-803-1222 toll-free for the interior
  • 250-386-6348 for Vancouver Island

For an online business, look for a reliability seal from a reputable consumer protection program. For example, check to see if the company has a BBB Accredited Business Seal for the Web. Or see if the business displays the Canadian Marketing Association member logo, meaning that the business follows a code of ethics.

How is paying with a credit card safer?

When ordering goods, paying by credit card (such as Visa or Mastercard) can actually be safer than sending a cheque or money order. If you cancel a distance sales contract, you can ask your credit card issuer to cancel or reverse the credit card charge and any associated interest or other charges.

The credit card issuer must acknowledge your request within 30 days of receiving it. Then if your request meets legal requirements, the credit card issuer must cancel or reverse the charge within two complete billing cycles or 90 days, whichever is earlier.

So, let’s say you don’t get what you bought within 30 days and you cancel the contract before the goods arrive. If you paid by credit card, you can ask your credit card issuer to cancel or reverse the charges. If you paid by money order or cheque, you’re left to fight it out with the seller.

How can I ensure a website is secure for online payments?

In the website address bar on your screen, look for an unbroken lock icon. The icon is usually in the far left part of the address bar. Also look for the letter “s” in the prefix “https” of the website address.

Never send financial information by email. It's not secure.

What can I do to prevent unsolicited emails, phone calls, faxes and mail?

Sometimes after making an online purchase, or placing a phone or mail order, you may find yourself on various mailing and phone lists. You may end up receiving piles of emails, advertisements and sample products, or endless phone calls from telemarketers and others.

Beware! The emails may be phishing scams — fake emails trying to trick you into handing over personal information. Or they may include spyware or malware — software used to steal your personal information or disrupt your device.

To avoid these emails or calls, and the dangers they pose, here’s what you can do.

Contact the Canadian Marketing Association

On the Canadian Marketing Association website, see the consumers section to find their voluntary Do Not Mail Service. Follow the registration instructions to have your name deleted from mailing marketing lists used by companies who belong to the Association. This won’t eliminate the problem but it can reduce the amount of unsolicited mail you receive.

Register with the National Do Not Call List

To help reduce the number of unwanted calls you receive, you can register your phone number on the National Do Not Call List. This is a free service from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (or CRTC).

When you register your phone number on the list, Canadian companies making unsolicited calls can no longer contact you. (Some callers are exempt, such as charities and political candidates.)

Note the CRTC has no control of businesses and people outside Canada, who may ignore the list and continue to call.

Block unwanted calls

If you have a call blocking feature on your phone, use it to block a number that continues to call you. Note some telemarketers constantly change their calling number, so even if you block them, they may keep getting through.

Are there laws protecting me from spam?

Yes. Canada has a law that aims to protect people from spam (junk email and text messages) and online threats (spyware, malware, phishing scams, and so on). Unfortunately, the law cannot control businesses and people outside Canada, and they produce huge amounts of spam and online threats.

Your consent is required

A key section of Canada’s anti-spam law requires senders of commercial emails and text messages to have the consent of the person they’re sending the message to (the recipient). The law also prohibits installation of computer programs and collection of electronic addresses without consent, as well as false and misleading representations.

There are two types of consent

There is implied consent if there is already a relationship between the sender and recipient of a commercial message. It lasts for two years. Recipients can cancel implied consent any time. Senders of commercial messages can ask recipients for express consent (the recipient agrees to receive messages) to send commercial messages. It does not expire.

Senders of commercial messages must keep records to show they obtained the recipient’s consent. The Canadian government’s anti-spam website further explains implied and express consent.

Senders must identify themselves and let recipients unsubscribe

In addition to getting consent from recipients, senders of commercial messages must identify themselves and include an unsubscribe option in the message so recipients can stop receiving messages.

Three federal government agencies enforce the anti-spam law: the CRTC, the Competition Bureau, and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

For more information on the law, see the Canadian government’s anti-spam website,

Get help

Agencies that can help

If you make a complaint but don’t get a satisfactory response within three weeks, contact the Canadian Marketing Association.


Check the Consumer Tips Directory of the Better Business Bureau.


To learn more about how to prevent and handle consumer problems when they arise, contact Consumer Protection BC.

Toll-free: 1-888-564-9963

Check also the publications section of the federal government’s Competition Bureau.

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