Fact Sheets: E-Consumer Protection

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1. What is e-consumer protection?
2. What protection do e-consumers have in law?
3. What rights do I have as an e-consumer?
4. Key points to bear in mind when you buy online

1. What is e-consumer protection?

There is no single framework of legal regulations to cover you when you purchase goods on the Internet. Legal controls for the online sale of goods have yet to catch up with those for conventional shopping.

Protection for consumers in the EU is likely to improve over the next few years. Proposals for a directive on e-commerce covering all aspects of Internet-based services are currently under negotiation. A new EU directive was implemented in March 2002 and improves protection of consumer rights for faulty or defective goods. Not all EU states have implemented it yet, however.

2. What protection do e-consumers have in law?

A range of UK laws apply to the sale of goods, regardless of whether that sale is completed in person, by mail order, or via the internet. Most of them are only applicable to the UK.
A growing body of law created through European Union directives now provides a framework for trade throughout the European Economic Area (the EEA - the full member states of the European Union).

Problems can arise if the organisation you are purchasing from (or an intermediary such as an online auction) is not based in the UK or the EEA.

Internet-based sales are usually treated in the same way as ‘mail order’. If you are buying from companies based in the UK or the EU, UK and EEA regulations for mail order and distance selling apply.

Distance selling covers Internet sales, mail order and telephone sales. The UK Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 (which implements an EU directive) requires the seller to provide customers with specific information on:

  • the main characteristics of the goods;
  • the price, including any taxes and delivery costs;
  • payment arrangements;
  • guarantees; and
  • where to address complaints about the goods.

You have some limited protection if you use a credit card (but not a debit card) when you buy from organisations in states outside the EU. The Office of Fair Trading takes the view that the Consumer Credit Act applies to purchases across borders, certainly within the EU. The major UK credit card companies take a different view, and currently only 'voluntarily' meet claims for the liability of cross-border purchases.

You may be able to claim compensation for fraudulent or substandard goods from your credit card company, but there are usually restrictions on the amount paid. For the purchase of goods between one hundred pounds and thirty thousand pounds sterling, the credit card company is jointly liable for any misrepresentation in the sale of the goods or breach of contract.

3. What rights do I have as an e-consumer?

Under distance selling regulations (which apply only in the EEA) you have the right:

  • to have the sale and delivery of goods completed within 30 days of your order (unless the parties to the sale agree otherwise);
  • to a refund as soon as possible, and in any case within 30 days if the goods you ordered are unavailable;
  • to return goods within seven days of their receipt, and require a refund (the supplier is entitled to deduct the costs of carriage). There are exceptions for perishable goods, custom-made goods, and dated goods (such as magazines);
  • to cancel a payment where goods have been ordered through unauthorised or fraudulent use of your credit or debit card.

4. Key points to bear in mind

When you buy online:

  • Use a credit card rather than a debit card. You will have more protection.
    ? Only purchases in excess of one hundred pounds sterling, within the UK, are covered by the major credit card companies.
  • Make sure that the company is based within the UK or EEA. If not you risk losing your money if the goods do not turn up or are defective. You could also be surcharged for import duty and VAT.
  • Never give credit card or personal information as part of any purchase by email, or via a web page that is not encrypted.
  • If the form with your details is sent encrypted the small padlock icon in the corner of your browser will be shown as locked.
  • Print out each screen that contains details of your purchase. If you need to complain at a later date these pages will provide the information you need.

If you purchase goods that do not originate from within the UK, but the company you are contracting with for the sale of goods is based within the UK (such as companies who offer cheap imported goods), you are covered by UK consumer protection law.

Just because a site has a '.uk' domain name it does not mean that it trades from within the UK, or that the company operating it is registered in the UK.

When you purchase online through a member of the Trust UK accreditation scheme you have a guarantee that the company will:

  • Protect your privacy;
  • Ensure that your payments are secure;
  • Let you know what you have agreed to, and how to cancel orders should you need to;
  • Deliver the goods or services ordered within the agreed time period; and
  • Sort out any complaints, wherever you live.
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