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INTERNET SHOPPING
 With thanks to Office of Fair Trading

Shopping online can offer both convenience and choice. Sitting at your computer, you can be buying goods and services from home with a click of your mouse. No crowds, no traffic and no getting wet in a queue.

In most cases your shopping experience should be no more risky than buying by mail order or on the telephone. But you need to be aware of possible dangers and should take certain precautions to make shopping on the Internet safe.

This is an area where consumer protection is developing. TrustUK (www.trustuk.org.uk) -is an approval scheme for online retailers - this means that you can now find companies on the web that you can be sure are safe to deal with.

Sites usually have comprehensive information about products - pictures, prices, and descriptions. Some give more details than shops! For example, Internet bookshops have book reviews, interviews with authors, and lists of similar books. You are even asked to write your own reviews.

The easiest shopping system is the virtual shopping basket. You click on items and into an order you just enter your address and credit or debit card number. Very often a site will e-mail you to confirm your order - a good practice.

Some companies can store your address and card details on a secure part of their site. Entering your password brings them up and saves you from retyping them each time you shop.

Buying from less sophisticated sites can be much harder work. You may find that you will need to write down product names and prices as you go along so that you can fill in an order form.

GIVING AWAY INFORMATION

Be wary of giving out your bank account numbers, credit card numbers or other personal information to a company you don't know or haven't checked out. Don't provide information that isn't necessary to make a purchase. Dishonest traders can use the barest information to make unauthorised charges, deduct money from your account, and impersonate you to get credit in your name.

Reputable companies are adding privacy statements to their web sites. In
these they will indicate the uses they make of the information which they collect about you and say something about the security which they apply to this information.

SECURE SITES

Internet sites can use several ways to protect information that you transmit. Many have a page on their security features, so check it before you shop. Sites who care about security will use "firewalls" to stop people accessing stored information, such as card details. (Firewalls are not discernable to the ordinary user).
Your Internet browser may be able to encode information you send. Not all sites support this feature but, if they do, there is less risk of your card details being intercepted (a rare event). Only parts of the site, usually the order page, will accept encoded information.

When you're in a secure part, the key at the bottom of Netscape will appear unbroken with Internet Explorer the padlock will close.

YOUR RIGHTS WHEN BUYING GOODS

There are certain basic legal right when you buy goods or services from a UK based company. When you buy on the Internet you have as many rights in law as when you buy from a shop, street market, mail order catalogue or during sales.

GOODS MUST BE AS DESCRIBED 

If you are told that a shirt is 100% cotton then that is what it should be and not something else - such as a polyester and cotton mix.

GOODS MUST BE OF SATISFACTORY QUALITY

Goods must meet the standard that a reasonable person would regard as acceptable, bearing in mind the way they are described, what they cost and any other relevant circumstances. 

This covers for instance, the appearance and finish of the goods, their safety, and their durability. Goods must be free from defects, even minor ones, except when these defects have been brought to your attention by the seller, for example, if goods are said to be shop-soiled or seconds.

GOODS MUST BE FIT FOR THEIR PURPOSES

This includes any practical purpose mentioned by you to the seller - for example, if you are buying a digital camera and you explain that you want one which can be used for high quality photographs, the seller must not supply you with one that takes low resolution photographs.

These are your statutory rights in the UK as defined by the law. 
All goods bought or hired from a trader - whether from shops, street markets, mail order catalogues or over the Internet - are covered by these rights. This includes goods bought in sales.

If you have a complaint, bear in mind how the item was described. A new item must look new and unspoiled as well as work properly, but if the goods are second-hand, or seconds and are described as such, then you cannot expect perfect quality.


GUARANTEES

Guarantees do not affect your statutory rights but can be useful when your statutory rights no longer apply. Make sure you return the guarantee card and be sure you complain within the guarantee period.

ACCEPTING GOODS

If there is something wrong with what you buy, tell the seller as soon as possible. It is a good idea to e-mail or telephone to let them know about your complaint. Make a written note of a telephone conversation or take a copy of e-mail correspondence. 

When returning items it is a good idea to get a Confirmation of Posting from your Post Office - there is no charge for this - or you can choose Recorded Delivery for which there is a small charge.

If you tell the seller promptly that the goods are faulty and you do not want them you should be able to get your money back. As long as you have not legally accepted the goods you can still reject them - that is, refused to accept them. One of the ways you accept goods is by keeping them, without complaint, after you have had a reasonable time to examine them. What is reasonable is not fixed; it depends on all the circumstances. But normally you can at least try your purchases out at home. If however, you delay in examining what you have bought, or in telling the seller about a fault, then you may lose your right to reject.

Note that if you signed an acceptance note on receiving goods this does not mean you have signed away your rights to reject. You still have a reasonable time to examine them. 

Allowing the seller to try to repair faulty goods has no effect on your rights - if the repair fails, you still have any right to reject that you had when you agreed to the repair.

SHOPPING TIPS

You wouldn't put up with poor service in a shop, so don't put up with badly designed web sites. Vote with your browser and go elsewhere.

Look at several sites to check prices. And make sure you know the full cost, including postage, duty and so on.

If you haven't heard of a company, see if any friends know of it, search the internet for references, or ask about it in a relevant newsgroup. 

Keep records of adverts, confirmation messages and e-mails by printing them. If you don't receive confirmation, e-mail and ask for it. Ask for a delivery time as well 

Look for 'real world' contact details, such as a telephone number and geographical address. Be very wary of purchasing items from web sites that do not give a geographical address. Also be wary of Personal 0700 or 0900 or Mobile telephone numbers - look for a proper land line number. 

Personal comment - "In last few years quite a few companies have hidden their location behind 0345, 0845, 0900 or 0870 numbers - this may be acceptable from a high profile company but never from a relatively unknown company. I also deplore ANY company forcing me to use 0870 numbers - they make national calls expensive at ALL times of the day plus they all make a small profit every time you use these numbers. 

 Convenient for them - but costly for you
These firms do not want customers - they want your money!

"After a bad experience with a highly advertised Domain Hosting service (contact via e-mail only) I have resolved NEVER to buy anything online unless the seller has a normal landline telephone number and discloses their address"   

Plastic cards are currently the only feasible way to buy over the Internet ? and paying by credit card gives you extra protection. Check your card statements carefully, especially if prices are quoted in a foreign currency. Using UK sites makes it easier to enforce your rights but "UK " in the site name doesn't necessary mean it's a UK site. Look for a UK contact address and prices in sterling. If in doubt e-mail the company and get the facts.

CODES OF PRACTICE

Codes of practice are being developed specifically for businesses selling goods and services on the Internet. It is worth checking, before you buy over the Net, whether a trader follows an online code of practice for consumers and precisely what this offers in addition to your statutory rights. Traders who subscribe to an online code will usually display an electronic logo on their website. Check that this logo is in use by other companies and is NOT a "home made" or counterfeit graphic.  

The TRUSTUK site introduces some organisations who offer an online code of practice.

The levels of protection offered by different online codes may vary - dealing with a trader following such a code does not guarantee a satisfactory transaction

You can obtain further help and advice from your local 
Trading Standards Officer or Citizens Advice

If you require further information on consumer protection then try the following sites:-

Office of Fair Trading


Consumers Association

Direct Marketing Association (DMA)

Trading Standards Authority
 

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