13 May 2024

Originally published in The Canberra Times.

Digital platforms have fundamentally changed the way small businesses connect and sell to their customers. Yet, when there is a problem - such as having your account shut down after being hacked - solving it can be a nightmare.

Whether it is Facebook, Instagram, Uber, Amazon, eBay, Shopify or any of the many other digital platform providers, across the board there is an urgent need for them to do better by their small and family business customers.

In too many cases, when there is a problem these platforms require a time and resource-poor small business to navigate the most elaborate maze of dead-ends and blockages.

The number of cases we've seen involving a small business having problem with a digital platform has more than doubled since July 2022 (up by 127 per cent) and continues to be one of the top requests for assistance that requires a case manager to get involved.

Two-thirds of our cases relate to Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, and 75 per cent of those disputes last month alone were about getting access to an account after being hacked.

One of the absurdities of the current situation is after being locked out of your account, you need to access your account to make a complaint. It's the ultimate run-around.

Meanwhile, small businesses watch helplessly as the financial and emotional damage occurs in real time with no ability to stop it.

They lose customers and money if a credit card linked to these accounts is being used by the hacker or the hacker uses the account to access and harm other customers.

Big tech must do better by its small and family business customers that depend on them.

What is most important is to have processes in place so businesses relying on these digital platforms to conduct their business and provide a livelihood can get back to business as quickly as possible.

Some of the delays experienced by small businesses have lasted many months and having someone else access and control their account is devastating for their business and their reputation.

We are urgently calling for codified, dependable and easy-to-use internal dispute resolution processes to be adopted by these digital platforms that can get problems resolved quickly.

They need to be backed up by a real person you can speak to when a problem can't be easily fixed.

And this can be supported by a promoted external dispute resolution service, such as the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, for small businesses that can't gain a satisfactory outcome when working directly with the platforms.

We have also launched a Guide to Using Social Media Securely, which include tips for small and family businesses about how to reduce the risk of being hacked and steps that can be taken with the digital platforms if you are.

When setting up a business on a digital platform:

  • Create your profile with the level of privacy and settings you are comfortable with, and that you can easily control and manage.
  • Make sure you can remove other users or profiles connected to the account and can control their level of page access.
  • Confirm you can turn ads on or off and can remove or update advertising payment information.
  • Have your account/s set up so the platform can communicate with you either via an app, text message or email to help with account recovery (should you need it).
  • Create a separate payment method that is only used for your social media account/s and set a limit on spending.
  • Keep your account details in a safe place. If your account is hacked and/or disabled, you may need to provide the URL for all your pages/accounts; the phone number and email address; and a screenshot of your page/s with the business name.
  • Consider expanding your business online presence to more than one platform. If your account is disabled, you can use the other platforms to continue to operate and keep your business going.

Treat your online business security like you would a shop, factory or your home. You wouldn't give a person you have just met the keys to your business or your house, so only give access to your business account to trusted individuals. And remember, not all users require full admin access.

And if you are hacked, report your issue immediately to the platform and make sure you are actually communicating with the platform and not the hacker.

The free guide is available on our website at asbfeo.gov.au/sm-securely

We are also concerned about the rising trend of digital platforms routinely giving purchasers their money back without verifying their claim and then clawing back that money from a small business seller.

The practice called "chargebacks" is a routine aspect of card-based transactions and is useful to consumers and small businesses when transactions have been falsely initiated and payment taken for goods or services not actually supplied.

But the system is being gamed by scammers. Platforms tend to favour the consumer in these instances, while banks issue an immediate reversal of the charge and give the small business limited time to contest it.

We have had cases where customers tell the platform the item never arrived despite evidence of the delivery. The platforms tend to simply accept the customer's claim of non-delivery with fewer questions asked and scammers make an untrue claim an item hasn't arrived, seek a recharge and keep the item.

This bias towards purchasers over small businesses sellers makes it extremely difficult to dispute claims - even when there may be very real indicators of fraud.

Online and platform retailers need to ensure they have fulfilment processes that provide delivery evidence to be able to challenge a chargeback against them given the reluctance of banks and platforms to go against what a consumer is claiming.

Some platforms offer chargeback protection but there have been mixed experiences whether this works and, in some circumstances, Australian cases are not actually covered.

What's at stake, though, is a small business' livelihood. A fraudulent chargeback doesn't just represent the loss of profit on the sale. It's the loss of profit on the sale plus the cost of the good and freight borne by the small business.

It is similar to driving off at a petrol station without paying. And, let's be clear, it's stealing.

This current approach by platforms and banks doesn't give small business a fair go.