Online shopping red alerts

When Sandra Twomey offered to buy a dress for her 15-year-old daughter Karen to celebrate the end of her Junior Cert exams, she thought it would be a simple transaction. That’s not how it turned out.

Karen Twomey chose a dress from an online trader’s Facebook page and borrowed her brother’s credit card to pay for it. Not only did she fail to receive the dress in time for the occasion — despite getting assurances from the seller — it never arrived at all.

The Twomeys contacted the trader repeatedly. In response, they got increasingly abusive and threatening texts. “That went on for weeks,” says Sandra Twomey. “The Facebook page is still up and there are comments on there from various girls who were also scammed, warning people to stay clear.”

The Facebook page is still up, with comments from various girls who were also scammed

The Twomeys eventually went to the European Consumer Centre (ECC) Ireland, which advised them to speak to the bank that issued the credit card and pass on the details. The money was finally reimbursed via the bank’s chargeback facility, almost four months after the initial purchase. “We were lucky, but people are still being scammed,” said Sandra Twomey.

Martina Nee, a spokeswoman for ECC Ireland, said Irish buyers had more confidence than ever in buying things over the internet. “But with more people shopping online, there are also more potential problems,” she said.

Aine Carroll, director of communications and market insights at the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC), which has responsibility for consumer rights, said there had been “massive growth” in online buying among Irish consumers. Shopping “events” such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday — which fall on November 24 and 27 this year — are fuelling that growth.

Recent European Commission figures show that the number of Irish people buying via the net has almost doubled in 10 years. We are now the ninth most avid online shoppers in the EU. We also have the second highest level of confidence in web purchases in the EU, behind the UK. That’s a high degree of confidence when you consider the patchiness of our knowledge of online rights.

A survey by the CCPC last year of 1,000 adults in Ireland who shopped online found that fewer than half knew they had different rights when purchasing from an EU-based website than from a non-EU one, or when buying from an individual as opposed to a business.

In fact, the Consumer Rights Directive outlines specific rights for consumers who buy online from businesses in the EU; if anything, there is more protection in place for online customers in the EU than for high-street buyers.

Here are some points worth noting if things go wrong after you click that “Buy now” button.

Cooling-off period 

When you buy on the internet, you have 14 days from when you receive your order to change your mind. If you return the goods, the seller should give you a no-quibble refund within 14 days of receiving them. This is an extra protection afforded to online buyers that does not cover normal shopping.

Note that you will probably have to pay to post the goods back to the vendor. What many shoppers don’t realise is that, if you had paid the cost of the initial delivery and then return the goods, you are entitled to a refund of that first delivery charge. Not all purchases are covered by this cooling-off period; exceptions include hotel bookings, car rentals and concert tickets.

Ireland now thas the ninth most avid online shoppers in the EU

Goods don’t arrive

In the EU, your vendor is obliged to get the goods to you within 30 days of the date of purchase. If they don’t arrive, contact the vendor and request another delivery date. Failing that, you are within your rights to cancel the contract and request an immediate refund.

Goods are faulty

If you receive faulty goods, your rights are the same as if you had bought in a shop. Faults that emerge within six months of delivery of goods are considered to have existed at delivery.

The vendor must offer a repair or replacement, and if unsatisfactory must give a full refund. If a fault develops between six months and two years of receiving the goods, the vendor must do the same. In that case, however, you may have to prove the problem was not caused by misuse.

Can’t get a refund

If you have cancelled a contract or returned goods and you cannot get the vendor to refund you, you can start a chargeback process with your bank. Contact your bank as soon as possible and give it details of your transaction, including copies of any correspondence with the seller.

It’s not a given that you will be successful. Nee said that banks tended to assess chargeback requests on a case-by-case basis.

There is also a time limit — generally three months from the date of payment — and you cannot use this option if you paid with a Laser or Maestro debit card. Carroll advises not to wait too long before starting the chargeback process.

“The longer you wait, the more difficult it might get,” she said. “If the seller is not replying to you or engaging with you, go to your bank.”

Nee said that getting into the habit of taking screenshots as you go through the online purchasing process is a good idea, in case you end up having to seek a chargeback.

“If something is supposed to be a certain price and it turns out to be a different price, it would be good to be able to prove exactly what you were shown when buying,” she said.

Exceptions

The Consumer Rights Directive does not cover you if you bought from outside the EU or from an individual rather than a business. In these cases, you are at the mercy of the seller’s returns and refunds policy. Because of this, it’s important to make sure that you understand the site’s returns policy before you buy something.

“If you buy from outside the EU, you are reliant on the seller’s terms, conditions and goodwill,” said Carroll. “Nevertheless, the chargeback route would still be open to you if things go awry.”

Points of contact

If you are having trouble with an online purchase and are unsure how to proceed, provided the trader is based in Ireland, you can contact the CCPC.

If the trader is based in another EU country, contact ECC Ireland. It can advise you and, if necessary, liaise on your behalf with its sister centres in other EU countries.

If you have no luck with either your vendor or your bank, other redress options include the European Commission’s new online dispute resolution platform, for which ECC Ireland is the point of contact. Then there is the European small claims procedure for claims of up to €5,000. Again, these are for purchases within the EU only.

Avoid snags at the outset

The overwhelming advice from both the CCPC and ECC Ireland is that consumers would save themselves a lot of post-purchase headaches simply by being careful about from whom they buy.

This starts with making sure the vendor’s website includes a full postal address. If there’s just an email address, PO box number or contact form, don’t buy. If you’re buying from any trader with whom you’re not already familiar, do a quick background search online. This will throw up any negative reviews.

Be wary of newly set up websites, as you won’t be able to find any reviews about them. While people buy from non-EU traders all the time, remember that your rights are far weaker if you choose to do so. Just because a site has the .ie, .co.uk or other European extension does not necessarily mean it is based in the EU.

“A handy way of finding out more about a particular website is to type in ‘whois lookup’ on Google,” said Nee.

Use one of the websites this search throws up to enter the name of the site in which you’re interested. You should find where they are registered, how long they’ve been in existence, and so on.

If possible, buy from a business rather than an individual. “Pop-up shops that appear on Facebook are often individual traders and if you buy from them you have no consumer rights whatsoever,” said Carroll.

Finally, pay with a credit or debit card, never cash on delivery (COD).

“Some people selling online may not have the facilities to take cards, and may accept COD,” said Carroll. “If you hand cash over and something goes wrong, your ability to get your money back is down to goodwill — and that’s not a great position to be in.”