If A Store Sends Me Something By Mistake, Must I Return It?

What's more thrilling than receiving your online shopping order? Realising that you've accidentally been sent something extra in the same package and haven't been charged for it. But can you legally keep it? In Australia, the answer is "maybe" — but you have to go about it the right way. Here's how.

Back in 2007, close friends of mine purchased a trampoline as a Christmas present for their daughter (yes, I know that's a risky choice). It was placed on lay-by at a local Big W, which then delivered it in a bunch of boxes a fortnight or so before Christmas. We didn't assemble the trampoline until Christmas Eve, and it was only then we realised that the store had actually delivered two complete trampolines, not one.

When my friends contacted the store, the staff were surprisingly relaxed and didn't think there was any point in sending someone to pick it up, even though it was a $300 item. "You can keep it" was the verdict, so my friends did, and promptly sold it to a neighbour. Big W was out by one trampoline, but was apparently entirely unfussed by this potential dent in profitability. That seemed a reasonable outcome for everyone, but what's the actual law in this situation?

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission addresses the question on its web site. The basic rules in Australia? If a business sends you unsolicited goods (whether by mistake or as a promotional item), it can attempt to recover them. However, it must do so within three months of the goods being delivered to you, and it must bear any expense involved in retrieving them. It can't try to charge you for the items.

While the onus for recovery is placed on the business, the consumer also has obligations. You can't refuse to allow the supplier to recover the goods, and you can't deliberately damage them.

Most importantly, if you write to the business and inform it that you do not want the items, the business only has one month to attempt to get them back. Note that this has to be a written communication; a phone call won't suffice, strictly speaking (though, as my friends' experience demonstrates, it may resolve the issue).

Note that this is quite different to the situation in the US, where Federal Trade Commission rules state that any unsolicited item can be treated as a free gift immediately. The FTC advises consumers to try and return goods sent by accident, but that's not a provision that can actually be enforced. In Australia, the law is stricter.

So what should you do if (for example) you order something online and unexpectedly get a duplicate? The ethical and sensible course is to write to the supplier and explain the situation. You could do this by email, but a registered letter might make more sense if the items are valuable.

Explain that you didn't order the goods and that the business has one month in which it can retrieve them. Point out that it will have to either supply post-paid materials for this or send a courier to collect them. Some companies will go to that effort; some won't. Either way, you'll have done the ethical and legal thing, and after a month has passed, you can confidently use the item as your own.

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Comments

    Funnily this kind of happened to us a few weeks ago we ordered something from a shop to be delivered and they sent to the wrong address (same street mind you) and instead of the people at the house saying they did not order the item they kept it. We asked what was happening with our item and they realized they gave it to the wrong people went back and retrieved it.

    When they came to deliver the item to us again it turned out to be the wrong thing if we didn't already have one we would have accepted it instead of the initial thing we ordered but we already had one.

    Wish I would get sent free stuff *grumble grumble*

    I know this article is about goods received, but it would be interesting to know if similar laws apply for money given to you incorrectly i.e. EFT funds from someone you don't know. Are there time frames that apply in this case and similar responsibilities from the receiver to notify the financial institution?

      Electronic transfers can be taken back by the bank I believe, but you are left with a percentage for the inconvenience, %10 I think it is, I heard about this happening to a friends business anyway. Can't really confirm the legalities of it.

        That can't be right. Big companies could bankrupt smaller businesses (their competition) by sending them exorbitant amounts of money, forcing them to pay the 10% charge to the banks if that were the case.

          While I don't think it is correct, in his example it would be the big company that is giving the smaller company 10%, not the other way around. So if you send money to someone accidentally, you lose 10%. I don't think the 10% was a fee in his post.

          I don't think it's actually correct however, although perhaps some places would do it out of good will depending on the volume of money moved.

      I thought it was illegal to accept funds from an unknown source or a irregular amount from a known source, as shown by that Westpac stuff up last year and the couple fled to NZ with the cash. Though that could have been because they fled heh.

      There is definitely laws covering this. My mother used to work for a law firm that had a case where the client was a real estate that had done exactly this. They won and the defendant had to pay back 100% of the money.

    I have had the occasial product sent to me by mistake. Either a mis-labelled package meant for someone else, or the wrong contents. Every time, I have emailed the supplier and informed them, and every time, they have said to keep the wrong items, and they will resend the corct one. It's a small cost to the supplier to rectify, and gains them goodwill at the same time, as the buyer doesn't have to go through the hassle, albeit small, of returning the goods.

      It depends on the value of the goods, often the cost of recovering the goods is greater than what the goods themselves are worth.

      Last edited 18/12/12 3:22 pm

    $300 isn't much. To collect the items, they'd have to send someone out to collect the goods, examine the goods to check the condition (especially important for a trampoline) , as some people would get a laugh out of giving back an old, damaged product. Then as it's opened, they'd have to discount it, so little profit left.

    I almost got extra goods. A few days after ordering from AdaFruit, a little storm hit the US coast... After I received my good I got an email. AdaFruit were concerned: they thought goods were missing from my delivery. Sadly, my personal ethics won the day and I admitted everything turned up fine.

    So if I receive an item not directed to me, and the business who sent it doesn't try to collect it, I can keep it as mine after 3 months?

    Well now that you mention it... Back before the Wii launched in Auz I'd had the Console Preordered online. A couple of weeks before launch, I found a better deal at Toys R' Us, so I contacted the original retailer I'd ordered off to cancel my order, which they did, & got my $400 odd bucks back after they couldn't beat the Toys R' Us offer.

    Went Ahead with the new Pre-order, I a few weeks later recieved Two Wii consoles in the mail. The site I'd taken out the original Pre-order with had somehow still sent me a Wii even after the money had gone back into my account. Needless to say I felt a but guilty because i didn't send it back.

    In Hindsight, The second Wii I sent off to my brother in QLD who soon after he received it, traded it unopened for a Modded Xbox (Original). I wasn't sure what to think then....

    Fairly interesting. I knew the deliverer had the right to retrieve the goods (at their cost) and that the recipient couldn't immediately claim them as their own, but I didn't realise the period for the goods to be retrieved was as short as three months (assuming you don't inform them). Wouldn't mind seeing where that was written up. Certainly on Whirlpool there seems to be posts all the time about people getting phones by accident from telcos.

    Would also be interesting dealing with a US based company where the law states the item is immediately yours and see what their course of action was.

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