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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