Consumer rights for shopping online
ONLINE shoppers could be said to have more than their fair share of retail rights.
Not only do they have ordinary protections under the Consumer Rights Act, their purchases are often protected against loss or damage in transit, and they can get a refund if their items don't live up to their online promise.
Knowing these basic rights can make resolving disputes with retailers a whole lot easier, which is the purpose of this guide.
We've also included a section on fraud rights and how to stay safe when shopping online (click here to skip ahead to that).
Rights when shopping online
Consumer legislation covering all purchases can be used to resolve disputes with online retailers - but there's an extra layer of protection added to online (and phone and mail order) shopping thanks to the rules regarding distance selling.
Distance selling regulations
The old Distance Selling Regulations 2000 were replaced by the Consumer Contracts Regulations in June 2014.
The new regulations provide even stronger legal protection for people buying goods and services in any situation where they're not face-to-face with the seller.
The legislation says that consumers should have a right to a refund when items fail to match the information given prior to purchase and, often more helpfully, for any reason within a minimum 14-day cooling off period.
This cancellation period starts the day after customers enter into a contract for a service, or receive their goods.
The retailer has a responsibility to clearly tell buyers, in writing, how to return goods and within what time frame, and whether they must pay for any returns - although this cost can and should usually be refunded.
Setting out their returns policy is crucial for retailers - if they fail to provide that information clearly enough, the customer's right to return goods for a refund is extended to a full year.
It also means that buyers have the right to a refund if their items aren't delivered by an agreed date. When no date was agreed, they should get a refund if the items haven't arrived more than 30 days after placing the order.
Watch out: exceptions
Customised and perishable goods as well as newspapers, periodicals and magazines (but not books) are excluded from refunds, for obvious reasons. Sealed audio, video or computer software that's been opened can also not be returned.
Immediately accessible purchases - such as digital downloads - are also exempt from the 14 day cooling off period.
Less obviously, the refund period doesn't apply to purchases made on online auction sites such as eBay.
The Consumer Contracts Regulations also cover contracted services ordered online or over the telephone - like broadband - although this can get a little more complicated. We look at how they work much more specifically here.
The good news is that anyone who has ordered some sort of service online since October 2015 has another, simpler, tool available to them, in the form of the Consumer Rights Act.
Consumer Rights Act 2015
At the time of this update we're in a situation whereby it's possible that readers turning to this guide could be covered by different pieces of legislation.
Purchases made from October 1st 2015 are covered by the new Consumer Rights Act, which pulls together and modernises the rules found in three older pieces of legislation: the Sale of Goods Act 1979 - more on that below - the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982, and the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations.
We've a full guide to the new Consumer Rights Act, and how it differs from the Sale of Goods Act, here.
In essence, however, it firms up our rights regarding timeframes, returns, repairs, and replacements - and it covers services and digital goods from DVDs to downloads.
With regards to services, the headline is that if a provider doesn't do what was agreed at the beginning, or does so without reasonable care, we're entitled to ask them to put things right without fee, or ask for a refund.
However, services ordered and purchases made before October 2015 are still covered by the Sale of Goods Act.
Sale of Goods Act 1979
Anything bought or ordered before October 2015 is still covered by the Sale of Goods Act, in conjunction with the distance selling rules laid out in the Consumer Contracts Regulations.
As the Sale of Goods Act is still applicable to many items, and much of it has informed the new laws, it's worth being familiar with the basic rules. They state that goods should be:
- Satisfactory: that is, of a quality that could reasonably be expected from the information available at the time of purchase.
- As described: that is, the label should tell the truth or the information received before purchasing should be correct (although the latter is covered in the rules above).
- Fit for purpose: that is, it should work for what it was bought for - which means there's a certain amount of responsibility on us as customers to make it clear to sellers how we expect to use the item.
- Last a reasonable length of time: again, reasonable is a tricky word here and depends on the information the seller supplied at the time of purchase. More expensive versions of a product could reasonably be expected to last longer than cheap versions, for example.
The Sale of Goods and Consumer Rights Acts are designed to offer protection to ensure that customers get a fair deal on what they buy.
The legislation can be particularly challenging, however, when retailers refuse to accept their responsibilities or go out of business.
That's why, for goods that cost more than £100, Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act can be particularly helpful.
The clause says that credit card providers are equally liable, with retailers, for ensuring that goods comply with the consumer laws above.
There are restrictions, however. See our full guide to Section 75, available here, for more details.
Credit and debit card purchase protection
Finally, it's worth being aware that some credit card providers offer purchase protection insurance and/or internet delivery insurance on purchases made with their cards.
Purchase protection insurance usually covers items bought with the card against theft, loss or accidental damage for up to 90 days after the purchase date.
However, check the small print because many policies exclude delivered purchases, especially problems (i.e. damage or loss) that happens whilst they are in transit.
Internet delivery insurance, on the other hand, covers purchases made online against theft, loss and damage - but only until they arrive safely.
We've covered how these extra purchase protection policies compare with the cover provided under law in section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act in this article.
Shopping online and fraud rights
When debit or credit cards are used fraudulently online and the consumer is not at fault, they should be refunded the full amount.
The Lending Code states that credit cardholders can be liable for the first £50 of a fraudulent transaction - but only if the cardholder has failed to inform their bank that they've had their card lost or stolen, or that the account has been, to their knowledge, compromised in some other way.
However, this only applies when the cardholder has failed to inform their bank before the fraud takes place that they've had their card lost or stolen or the account has been, to their knowledge, compromised in some other way.
This limited liability doesn't apply, of course, if the cardholder is responsible for the fraud, even if they didn't have bad intentions and were just negligent with their details.
However, the onus is on the credit card provider to prove that the consumer was involved in the fraud or negligent of their personal information. If they cannot prove this, the cardholder will not be held liable.
See this article for more information on what happens when consumers become a victim of credit card fraud and what they can do to prevent it in the first place.
Card issuers such as Visa, Mastercard and American Express also operate a system of "double protection" to help their cardholders when they have a claim under existing consumer law.
That system is known as chargeback: see our guide to chargeback for more information.
Five ways to shop safe online:
The best method of protection against both bad retail experiences and fraud, and the least stressful, is taking as much care as possible to keep safe in the first place.
- Shop on trusted pages: Look for sites that have a clear returns policy already in place and that go to an encrypted page (usually a padlock icon on the top left or bottom right hand of the browser will indicate this). Find more on online shopping safety in this guide.
- Read and reread product descriptions: As we saw in the first section, many disputes with retailers can be avoided, or at least resolved much more quickly, when we know exactly what they're buying.
- Suspicious? Check reviews online: News about dodgy retailers travels fast online. Don't believe everything but do check out retailers that seem suspicious. Read more about one red flag, behavioural adverts that follow users around the web, here.
- Check how payment providers help with problems: We've already seen that credit card users get statutory assistance from their provider on some purchases and additional insurance in the case of some cards, too. Those that aren't sure whether they have additional protection could check with the card provider. Remember that third party payment providers, such as Paypal, may be able to help too.
- The sooner the better: The seven working days refund limit on online purchases is often the best bet when returning online goods: it saves an argument. Many of the Sale of Goods Act points are also easier to argue the sooner the fault is reported.
If, for whatever reason, it wasn't clear that the good was faulty or not as described for some time, though, be persistent.
Under the Limitations Act, we have up to six years after they've bought a good to complain about it. In Scotland, a similar piece of legislation called the Prescription and Limitation Act gives customers five years after purchase to complain.