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OFT warns online retailers on consumer protection compliance

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The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has spoken out ahead of the Christmas season to warn more than 60 online retailers that their websites may breach consumer protection law.

The OFT has written to 62 leading online retailers to raise concerns following a sweep of 156 UK websites. The sweep, part of the OFTs work to ensure that consumers can shop online with confidence, found many appeared to fall short of consumer law.

Retailers who do not amend their websites to make sure they comply with the law could be subject to enforcement action taken either by the OFT or by local enforcement officers.

Cavendish Elithorn, senior director of the goods and consumer group at OFT, said: “The OFT recognises that most businesses want to play fair with their customers and to comply with the law. We encourage all online retailers to check their websites so customers can be confident their rights are being respected when they shop online.”

The OFT detailed three main concerns arising from its sweep of websites, of which 80% sold goods and 20% services. First, it said that 33% of sites that provided information on cancellation “appeared to impose unreasonable restrictions on customers’ rights to a refund.” Most commonly, it said, traders demanded that goods were returned in their original packaging or in original condition. This, said the OFT, could infringe consumers’ rights to inspect and assess the product.

Second, the OFT said that 60% provided a web contact form rather than the email contact address that is required by the E-Commerce Regulations. Some 2% provided no electronic contact details at all.

Third, the OFT said that while 60% explained upfront that compulsory charges would be added to the first price shown, 24% went on to add more unexpected charges at the check-out. But the sweep also found most sites complied with the distance selling regulations in other key areas. Some 99% of sites detailed when the goods would be delivered or the service would start, and 95% provided a full postal address when advance payment was required.

Its Distance Selling Hub includes advice on resolving the key issues identified. They include being clear and open about cancellation rights and providing a full refund, as well as refunding delivery charges, when things go wrong.

Jean-Marc Noel of European trustmark scheme Trusted Shops, said he was not surprised by the news. “It’s well known in the industry that many retailers are struggling to come to terms with consumer laws in the UK as well as the EU regulations. These are constantly being updated and altered and it can sometimes feel like a full time job just keeping up-to-date with it all. This is obviously difficult for most internet retailers, and impossible for others.”

He said that other retailers concerned they might be breaking the law should get an external audit of their site to ensure their website is compliant with local consumer laws and regulations, and consider having it accredited. “By seeking help of this kind retailers will avoid getting unpleasant warnings from the likes of the Office of Fair Trading and, importantly, consumers will be able to trust in the service the website offers – regardless of their location,” he said.

The full OFT report is available on the OFT website.

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