Buying something online? Watch out for pre-ticked boxes, warns Case

A consumer advisory issued on June 19 reminds consumers to "thoroughly check" their online orders before making any final payments.
A consumer advisory issued on June 19 reminds consumers to "thoroughly check" their online orders before making any final payments.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) is warning consumers shopping online about pre-ticked boxes - saying that some may inadvertently end up with goods or marketing materials they did not want.

A consumer advisory issued today (June 19) reminds consumers to "thoroughly check" their online orders before making any final payments.

Case called the use of pre-ticked boxes unethical.

"We are of the view that it is unethical for businesses to use pre-ticked boxes when transacting with consumers as there is no express consent given by the consumer," it said. "This may set a precedent for other industries to adopt or continue to do the same."

Pre-ticked boxes are typically used by businesses to obtain consent from consumers to perform an action, such as the purchase of additional goods or services, or to seek permission to send marketing materials to consumers.

Case said some consumers may not realise that they need to opt out of these pre-selected options if they do not want such goods or services.

In its advisory, Case noted several instances where it had urged businesses to cease the use of pre-ticked boxes in the past.

Earlier this year, several Singapore Airlines customers had complained to Case about the auto-inclusion of travel insurance when booking their air tickets.

The customers felt that travellers were likely to overlook this detail and may end up paying for insurance that they did not want or need.

Case conveyed its concerns to SIA about the lack of transparency of prices for this option, and SIA later agreed to change the auto-inclusion feature to an opt-in one.

Case also reached out to Scoot and Jetstar Asia Airways to do the same.

While Scoot changed their pre-selection of travel insurance to an opt-in selection starting on May 31, 2018, Jetstar declined as it said that each pre-selected item, for example travel insurance, is clearly drawn to the attention of the consumers through their booking flow.

"This is not acceptable to Case and we will continue to engage Jetstar on this matter," the association said.

In response to The Straits Times' queries, a Jetstar spokesman said that it takes its obligations under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act extremely seriously and is committed to ensuring that all information presented to customers is clear and unambiguous.

"We receive very few complaints on travel insurance pre-selection and we believe this is due to the transparency of our process," said the spokesman.

She added that pre-selection has the benefit of alerting travellers to services that they may not have considered.

Case also noted that in 2015, it had received hundreds of complaints from consumers who reported that when they bought products online from websites like StreetDeal.sg, RivaLife.com, OlaPrice.com and Straitsdeal.com, the membership subscription option was automatically selected when they made payment to the company.

An intervention by Case resulted in Asia Deal Group, the holding company for the above companies, to sign a Voluntary Compliance Agreement to stop their practice of having such pre-ticked boxes.

Consumers said the pre-ticked boxes are easy to overlook and the warning by Case is a good reminder.

"Sometimes, they (businesses) choose the more expensive delivery methods for me, and I have to manually change it to the delivery options that I want," said Ms Kang Zi Xin, 21, a student at Republic Polytechnic.

Similarly, Mr Liew Zheng Seong, 31, an assistant production manager said: "I think this is a good move by Case as sometimes pre-ticked boxes are pretty well hidden and consumers might overlook it. However, I believe the consumer also has a part to play to read through thoroughly."

The consumer watchdog also noted that other countries have in place protection for consumers doing online transactions.

In the European Union, companies cannot infer consumers' consent for additional payments by using pre-ticked boxes, and must obtain express consent of consumers.

In Australia, pre-ticked boxes, for example for mailing lists, are not deemed as effective consent under the Spam Act 2003. Hence, businesses cannot send marketing messages to consumers by using pre-ticked boxes to obtain consent.

Additional reporting by Jasia Shamdasani