Since the coronavirus forced people into home quarantine at the start of the year, online transactions have soared. People with an aversion to technology were forced to learn how to use mobile phones and computers to transact with banks and government offices, consult doctors and order a wide range of items from food to non-essential goods.
Not surprisingly, online scams have also proliferated, and many e-commerce customers have complained about not getting what they paid for. Valenzuela Rep. Wes Gatchalian, who chairs the House committee on trade and industry, says that from January to October this year, the Department of Trade and Industry received 14,869 complaints from online shoppers – a 500 percent increase from the same period in 2019.
As worrisome as the surge in complaints is the slow pace of resolving them. Earlier this month, Gatchalian noted that only 1,543 of the cases had been resolved. He has filed a bill for an Online Transactions Act, which includes the creation of an e-commerce bureau under the DTI that will focus on the resolution of such complaints.
Apart from online consumer complaints about fake or substandard products and services, the government has detected a surge in phishing and other internet scams as well as the sale of prohibited and unregistered drugs through e-commerce platforms. A major bank reported that since the start of the lockdowns in mid-March until August, it had taken down about 2,000 phishing sites and continued to take down an average of 10 sites daily.
Regulating online commerce and other internet activities has been a challenge worldwide. E-commerce platforms have pointed out the difficulty of policing every product sold on their sites. Those who engage in online fraud are usually tech-savvy and manage to stay one step ahead of regulators. The problem has become transnational and will need a coordinated international response.
While governments work out an effective response, consumers will just have to proceed with caution in their online activities. Banks, telecommunications and other private companies, e-commerce platforms and government agencies regularly issue warnings about what can be done to promote safe online transactions. The principle that prevailed before the internet age remains valid: let the buyer beware.