Andrew Bibby


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Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Buying on-line — protection for UK consumer

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice, July 1998

Over twenty million British people access the Internet, and an increasing number of us use it for shopping. Buying on-line is convenient and often cheap. But what are our rights if things go wrong? Andrew Bibby answers your questions.

Q: Is it safe to buy on-line?

A: Shopping on the internet can be as safe as any other form of distance shopping. What’s more, the power of the web means that you can have an unrivalled opportunity to compare prices or track down hard-to-obtain items.

However, take care when divulging personal information or giving credit card details; in particular, check that you are logged on to a secure site. Secure sites can usually be identified by a small padlock in the corner of your web browser, or a web address beginning https://. Many websites also include information on the security precautions they take.

Q: How do I know that I’m dealing with a reputable company?

A: This comes down to common sense. Be aware that it’s extremely easy for anyone to put up a web page and set up in business, from anywhere in the world. This means that you should be wary of companies which do not include their address and phone number, so that you can contact them in the ‘real’, as well as the virtual, world.

There are a number of voluntary schemes which websites can join to demonstrate that they offer high standards. The Consumers’ Association, for example, has a Which? Web Traders Scheme. To use the Which? logo on their site, companies have to agree to abide by a code of practice.

Q: What are my rights if I buy on-line?

A: The position has become clearer since last year when new Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) regulations came into force. (Incidentally, these cover not only internet purchases but also mail order, catalogue and digital TV shopping.) Most types of purchase are covered, though not for example financial services, auction purchases or travel tickets.

Under these regulations, you have the right to accurate information about what you are buying and the company must also confirm your order in writing (this could be by letter, email or fax). You also have the right to change your mind. For goods, you generally have seven working days after receiving something to tell the company in writing (email is acceptable) that you want to return it. Companies have the option of charging you the cost of return carriage (though some, as an extra level of customer service, will meet this cost themselves). The right to cancel does not apply to perishable items, such as flowers, or to custom-made goods, such as bespoke furniture, or things like opened CDs and software.

These regulations are policed by local trading standards offices. Bear in mind that it may be difficult to ensure that the rules are met if you are buying from a website abroad. Also bear in mind that return postage overseas may be expensive.

Q: What if the goods I order arrive too late for Christmas?

A: Unless you specifically agreed to something different when you made the purchase, the company you are buying from has thirty days to deliver the goods. If subsequently it finds that it can’t meet this (or the agreed) deadline, the company should tell you before the deadline expires and refund your money. However, you do have the option to accept a longer delivery period or substitute goods — but the choice is entirely yours to make.

This is useful protection, but you may still have a problem if the presents you specifically wanted for Christmas don’t show up in time. In previous years, some companies selling on-line struggled to cope with the extra Christmas business they received. This year, more firms say that they are confident their systems are adequate and many are promising a much shorter delivery time than the statutory 30 days . However, the sooner you put your order in for Christmas the better.

Q: What if the goods arrive damaged?

A: The normal protection you receive under the Sale of Goods Act applies. You are entitled to reject the goods, and receive a full refund. Again, this law could be difficult to apply for purchases made from websites abroad.

Q: Am I at risk from fraud if I use my credit or bank card on-line?

A: Generally, using your card over the internet is as safe as using it in a shop or restaurant, or buying goods over the phone.

The Distance Selling Regulations protect you from fraudulent use of your payment card in relation to an internet purchase. Your account should be re-credited the full amount of any debit made by a fraudster.

You also have further protection if you use a credit card for purchases over £100, since the card issuer is jointly liable with the trader for any breach of contract. For this reason, use a credit rather than a debit card if possible.

Q: Is it true I may have to pay VAT when the goods arrive?

A: Yes, if you order from outside Britain or the European Union. Potentially any purchases over £18 may be liable not only for VAT, but also possibly for customs and excise duties as well. For example, CDs bought from the USA for the equivalent of £100 would attract a further payment of £21.61.

If Customs and Excise do intercept a parcel, you will be asked to pay the tax and duty when the goods are delivered. You will also have to be prepared to pay a clearance fee to the Post Office or carrier company for the work they have undertaken; for example, Parcelforce currently charges £6.25.

Q: How can I stop internet companies storing personal information about me?

A: Companies monitor the visits you make to their websites and the purchases you make, and from it may try to build a profile of your particular interests — so that, for example, they can tailor what you see next time you visit their site to the things you are most likely to buy. This is achieved partly by placing ‘cookies’ (small computer files) on your hard disc. Cookies can be useful (for example, in storing details of your delivery address, to save you retyping it each time). If you find the idea uncomfortable, however, you can change your browser settings so that cookies cannot be saved to your machine.

There is a further issue about what companies do with customer information; for example, whether they make it available to others. Many companies include details of the privacy policy they adopt on their websites.

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