Protecting the UK armchair consumer

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To encourage consumers to take advantage of increasing access to the Internet and home shopping channels, the UK government is introducing tough regulations to strengthen their rights.

Future safeguards will include:
• a cooling-off period of seven days in which consumers may return the goods and receive a full refund
• companies must provide a written description of the goods or services so the shopper can compare them on delivery
• goods and services must be provided within 30 days of the order
• if credit card details are used fraudulently, the consumer will not have to foot any of the bill - amending the Consumer Credit Act, under which credit and debit card holders must bear the first £50 ($72).

In addition, telephone sales people who “cold call” consumers at home will have to identify the company they represent and the purpose of their call from the beginning of the conversation. Otherwise, any subsequent contracts may be regarded as invalid and shoppers can get their money back.

UK consumer affairs minister Kim Howells, said the aim was to give shoppers the same protection and rights as they enjoy in the high street. “Shoppers using the Internet, digital TV or catalogues have got to be reassured that they will get the goods they think they are buying and if they don’t want them or they don’t like them, they can get their money back.”

But consumer groups, while welcoming the measures, point out that they do have limitations. The regulations can only relate to EU-based companies advertising on the Internet and they fall short of creating a new criminal offence which some groups had wanted, although the government has said it will keep this under review.

Anna Bradley, director of the National Consumer Council, said the new measures could not be applied internationally as there were still only voluntary codes for companies based outside the EU.

She added: “The legislation has to be enforceable. At the moment, Trading Standards officers and the Office of Fair Trading can take out injunctions. “But they have to show that traders have persisted in this activity, which could be a problem.”

Some aspects are deemed difficult to enforce, such as proving that a telephone sales person had failed to reveal at the outset that they were cold calling. And Trading Standards officers have pointed out that they are not being given extra resources to police these new shopping methods.

DTI

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