We shop online more than ever before. So how can we do it safely and what consumer entitlements do we have now?
Here are a few common-sense things you need to check on before making a purchase online:
- Buy from reputable brands and shops or check all available information on new traders. Make sure you have the name and full contact details, including postal address, of the web trader so you know who you are dealing with. Do not rely on just an e-mail address or a post office box. Check the business registration number, if applicable.
- Always research the background of unfamiliar web traders before purchase (via search sites like whois.com, for example).
- A simple internet search should reveal any negative feedback about the trader left by other consumers in their consumer reviews. Check shop and service reviews on known reviews sites such as Amazon Customer Review, Trustpilot, Which?, Google My Business, Facebook Ratings and Reviews.
- Don’t be fooled by a prominent search engine ranking. Web fraudsters may pay for search advertising so their sites appear at the top of search results.
- Check for trust marks. These are electronic labels on websites that indicate that the e-trader has agreed to follow the rules and regulations of a trust mark scheme, like the EU Trusted Shops Guarantee, and click on the trust mark to verify its official registration.
- Do not assume that a website is based in the country indicated by its web address, for example “.ie” for traders based in Ireland. The website an e-commerce shop trades from is not always the country it is registered in. Your rights will depend on where the company is based. If this information is not clearly available consider shopping elsewhere.
- If you shop from websites based outside the European Union, United Kingdom, Norway and Iceland, European consumer rights are not necessarily applicable to your purchases and transactions. In addition, be aware that you may face unexpected customs and tax bills for purchasing imported products from outside the European Single Market where taxes and customs are harmonised.
- One important difference is between professional sellers, i.e. companies or registered (sole) traders and private individuals. In the latter case, e-commerce consumer protections are not applicable. While private sellers are not necessarily fraudulent, there are no legal instruments to call upon if something goes wrong. Pay special attention to informal commerce marketplaces on social media and transactions on websites such as ebay and etsy. On these marketplaces, your consumer dispute will be mediated by the platform itself.
- Read the Terms & Conditions of sale and purchase on all websites before engaging in purchases and check the delivery and shipping conditions before you pay for your product. To be on the safe side, in case you need evidence for a consumer dispute later on, the following are recommended: print and save the Terms and Conditions document before ordering; take screenshots during the selling procedure; keep records of all steps that have been taken to complete the transaction; keep copies of your order confirmation, receipts, letters, e-mails, all correspondence exchanged and screenshots of anything unusual.
- You must ensure you have the right information about your purchase before you finalise it. The trader must provide the following information on their website:
- the main characteristics of the product or service
- the total price, including taxes and fees, of the product or service
- the all-inclusive delivery costs
- the different payment methods available to you
- the estimated date for delivery and information on delivery methods.
In addition to shopping online, you might come across dodgy websites via e-mails received into your personal inbox without your request or permission.
Here are some tips on how to avoid e-mail scams, phishing links and spam correspondence.
- In order to avoid potential threats such as phishing, never reply to unsolicited e-mails (spam) and do not click on links or attachments in these e-mails.
- Watch out for tell-tale signs of scams: promises of huge rewards such as lottery winnings, messages stating urgent action is required to claim your winnings, and requests for upfront payment or private information. Remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
- Do not disclose personal information that is not necessary to complete a financial transaction online. Certain personal details, combined with your credit card number, place you at risk of identity theft.
- Beware of buying counterfeit goods. Such products are often dangerous to handle or of poor quality, and it can be very difficult to get any type of redress after you bought them. Also bear in mind that the sale of fake goods is illegal and is often linked to organised crime. Buying counterfeit goods can also be illegal (for example in Italy). One way to recognise that a product is counterfeit is when expensive brand products are sold at a substantial discount, which is a good indicator that an item is counterfeit. If in doubt, contact the brand or trademark owner directly to verify if the seller is an authorised agent.
When shopping online, it is best that you never send a cash or bank transfer because you will have no recourse if something goes wrong. You usually have more protection if you use a credit card.
If you are asked for a prepayment, avoid paying by bank transfer if you do not have experience with the trader.
When completing a transaction online, make sure you use a secure website to enter credit card information. Here is what to look for:
- 🔒 A locked (closed) padlock is an icon that indicates a secure internet connection.
- A secure website will have a URL website address that begins with “https://”. This details indicates that the website uses an encrypted protocol in order to increase security of data transfer.
- Some websites provide payment through payment transaction intermediaries or card payment processors.These payment gateways provide additional safety and assistance in certain matters, e.g. in case of non-delivery. Check the terms and conditions for the payment transaction intermediary you intend to use. Some of the major global payment gateways used widely by online traders are: PayPal, Stripe, Worldpay, Ingenico, Amazon Payments, WePay, Realex Payments, etc. If you want to make sure that the payment method is legitimate, check the identity of intermediaries as a lot of fraudsters set up their own copycat sites in order to dupe consumers.
For added security, you can also set up a virtual sub-bank account dedicated to online shopping or to use virtual credit cards, which are valid only for one transaction.
When shopping online as well as when having interactions with physical shops, you must make sure that your personal and financial data is protected.
Here is how:
- Make sure your computer has up-to-date anti-virus software and a firewall installed to avoid getting hacked while shopping on various websites.
- After the purchase, the trader must supply written confirmation of the concluded contract and information about:
- the right to withdraw from the contract, also known as the “cooling off” period
- how the cooling-off period is calculated
- what to do if you want to cancel the purchase
- what happens after you have cancelled the purchase
- who to contact if you want to cancel the purchase
- confirmation on whether or not the return shipping is paid by yourself (paid return) or the trader (free return)
- information on whether or not you are liable for diminishing the value of the returned goods
- if there are warranties and or repair services associated with the product
- the time limits to cancel the agreement and return the product.
This information should be given to you as soon as the sale contract has been concluded or, at the latest, upon delivery of the product in a format that you can save or retain for your records. It is up to the trader to prove that you have received the information.
The trader is not allowed to charge you any extra fees in addition to the price agreed for the particular product you have purchased, without your express consent. In particular, the trader is not allowed to use pre-ticked boxes to offer and charge for goods/ services in addition to the product you wanted to purchase.
The trader is also not allowed to charge consumers more for paying by credit card (or other means of payment) than what it actually costs the trader to offer such means of payment.
Lastly, if you buy from a site from another country that does not offer EURO prices, be aware of currency conversions and charges that may increase the final price to be paid.
CONSUMER RIGHTS AND SELLER LIABILITY
The term “commercial guarantee” relates to the willingness of the guarantor (the trader or supplier) to voluntarily assume liability for certain defects or faults. This liability entails: “any additional undertaking given by a seller or manufacturer, over and above the legal rules governing the sale of consumer goods, to reimburse the price paid, to exchange, repair or handle the product in any way, in the case of non-conformity of the product with the contract”
Commercial guarantees are in addition to, and not in substitution for, consumers’ statutory rights. You can find a useful consumer checklist relating to commercial guarantees here.
And < here is a detailed infographic on the difference between statutory rights and guarantee/warranty.
The term “legal guarantee” relates to the legal protection afforded and available to the consumer in respect of defects or faults found in goods purchased. This legal protection is mandatory by the law and is not dependent upon a sale-purchase contract.
Under consumer legislation, the seller/retailer of the product is responsible for the repair or return of faulty goods.
A product or service is faulty if it does not comply with the given description of the product or service or if it cannot be used for normal purposes specified by the trader or it does not show the normal quality and performance reasonably expected from it.
AFTER THE PURCHASE
It’s fine to change your mind when you purchased something, as long as traders respect their obligations and the consumer plays fair.
- After the conclusion of a sale-purchase contract, the trader has 30 days to deliver the goods or to perform the service ordered, unless you and the trader have agreed on another time of delivery. If the trader has not delivered the goods within the time agreed, you can re-request delivery within an additional period of time appropriate to the circumstances. Keep proof that this has been done. If the trader still has not delivered the goods within that additional time given, you have the right to end the contract. If the delivery of the product within the agreed timeframe (e.g. Christmas gift, wedding gifts, etc.) was not done, the consumer is entitled to terminate the contract immediately upon expiry of the initially agreed time limit.
- The standard online purchase transaction contract comes with a “cooling off” clause. The trader is obliged to inform you about and afford you the right to withdraw from a distance-sale contract. For physical goods, the cooling-off period of 14 days starts on the date you physically receive the items. In case of a service, the period of withdrawal starts on the date the contract was concluded.
- If the trader never informed you about your right of withdrawal, the cooling-off period extends for up to 12 additional months from the end of the standard initial cooling-off period of 14 days. If the trader contacts you in relation to this at any time, the withdrawal period expires 14 days after the date you received that information.
- After withdrawal, the trader has 14 days to refund the payment. If the contract concerns the purchase of goods, the trader has the right to postpone the refund until the goods were returned and received, or the customer has supplied evidence of having sent back the goods. Unless the trader has offered to collect the goods, you have 14 days to send back the goods, calculated from the date you informed the trader of your withdrawal. You have to support the costs of returning the goods, unless the trader has agreed to pay for the return or if the trader has not informed you that you have to support the return costs.
- You are liable for the diminished value of the goods if you have handled the goods in a way that makes them unsellable upon return or it affects the functioning of the goods. Example: you can try a dress at home, but you cannot wear it at an event or return it for a full refund if it is damaged. The trader may refund a smaller amount to you after making a deduction for depreciation. This does not apply if the trader has not given you information about the right of withdrawal.
- Important: the cooling off period, i.e. where there is no right of withdrawal for consumers, does not apply to: plane tickets, package travel, car rental services, or personalised goods.
When you have terminated the contract, and you have returned the goods in good order, the trader must reimburse all sums paid without any delay.
In case of faulty goods, the consumer can request the seller to repair the goods or replace them (in either case, free of charge) unless this is impossible or disproportionate.
- Under certain conditions, the consumer may require an appropriate price reduction or have the contract rescinded. These rules apply in general up to at least 24 months from the date of purchase though some countries have a longer period during which you can exercise your rights.
- The seller is liable for any visible and confirmed lack of conformity observed when the goods are delivered if notified within a period of, at least, two years from delivery.
- Any lack of conformity that becomes apparent within six months of the delivery of the product will be presumed to have existed at the time of delivery, unless proof to the contrary is furnished or this presumption is incompatible with the nature of the goods or the nature of the lack of conformity.
- During the first 6 months after purchase the burden of proof is on the trader to demonstrate that a product is not faulty. After the 6 months have passed, it is up to consumers to prove that the product is not in conformity. (Except in Portugal and, as of 2016, France).
- In the cases above, as soon as the purchase is cancelled, the trader must reimburse all sums paid under the contract. The trader is also obliged to pay for costs of returning the faulty goods.
- If the trader operates a customer service telephone helpline, if you call the trader to make the complaint, you cannot be charged more than the basic telephone rate. Traders are obliged to use as standard (geographic) numbers that are not subject to any special tariff regime.
- Please note, the trader is responsible for the integrity of the goods until they come into your physical possession. This means that if the goods are lost or damaged in transit, during shipping, before they are delivered to you, the trader is responsible for it. When delivery is accepted by the neighbours without previous consent by you, the responsibility remains the trader’s. This is not the case when delivery is done to a third party of your choice.
- When you return goods following the exercise of your right of withdrawal, you are responsible for them until they are received by the seller. For this reason, it is important to return goods by registered, trackable delivery so you will have some redress against the transport company for damaged items or if the goods are misplaced/lost. When it comes to returns, if the transportation of the goods is arranged by you, you are responsible for the goods until they are delivered to the shipping agent – courier, postal services, pallet service, etc.
If something goes wrong, as in any of the scenarios above, you have the following options:
- Make a complaint to the web trader in writing and specify the nature of the fault, preferably with photographic evidence. Explain clearly what the problem is, what you want the seller to do about it and when you want it done by. Enclose a description of the fault, including photos.
- It is important that you inform the trader whether you are using your right of withdrawal or if you are complaining about a faulty product or service. The consumer is protected by the legal guarantee and the commercial guarantee, as above.
- If the trader refuses to pay you back, try contacting your bank. For credit card transactions you may be able to obtain assistance from your bank with recovering the money if the trader refuses to refund you – this is called a “chargeback” (read more about chargebacks in the European Union here). Debit card payments on the other hand may be covered by internal rules of the card issuer’s schemes – the bank, under certain conditions, might be able to help the consumer to reverse payments made to a trader. However strict deadlines operate for these schemes and so it is important to act promptly.
If the response from the trader is not to your satisfaction, and there is no redress option available through your bank (as above), contact the European Consumer Centre (ECC) in the country where you live in for further advice and assistance. If based in Ireland, you can contact us here.