New Regulations have introduced greater consumer protection measures for the increasing number of people buying online and by mail order. Although the practice is still not without its problems due to the anonymity of the web and the regularity of card fraud.
The purchase of goods and services over the internet, by phone or by mail order generally is subject to the same consumer rights as if you had bought the item on the high street. However because you have not been physically face to face with the supplier, these types of purchases are also subject to the Distance Selling Regulations. If you have met the seller at any point (such as to test drive or agree the sale of a car), or if it is with a shop which doesn’t make a habit of selling in this way, you won’t be covered and should look to Sale of Goods legislation instead.
The supplier’s obligations
If you’ve ever ordered a product or commissioned a service over the internet, via email or by phone, then you are doing so under a Distance Selling contract. The supplier must provide you with specific information related to your rights and their obligations under a distance selling contract. This ‘pre-contractual’ information should include: identity of the supplier, description of the main characteristics of the product or service, price, delivery costs, arrangements for delivery, performance and payment, cancellation rights, cost of communication (for e.g. premium rate telephone line), period of validity of offer, information regarding substitute products. This information must be communicated clearly, but not necessarily in writing, before your order is confirmed so that you can be in possession of all the facts should you wish to change your mind. Remember also that the price you see when you ‘add to cart’ is often not the price you end up paying. Any additional costs such as VAT, shipping, handling or administrative fees, customs duties etc that you are responsible for should be clearly set out before you confirm payment.
if you have not received any pre-contractual information (outlining, among other things, your cooling off rights) before you buy, then you should do so before the goods have been delivered. if you haven’t been presented with this information at any time, then this will have important implications for your cooling off period. See our Distance Selling Regulations and your right to cancel section for more on this.
Your right to cancel
One of the most important implications of the distance selling regulations is a cooling off period of 7 working days during which you have the right to cancel and get a full refund. The supplier must provide you with details of your cancellation rights, any duty to return the goods should you cancel, and whether you will have to pay for this. In return, you must provide notice of cancellation in writing, which this must be posted, left at, faxed or emailed to the business address of the supplier no later than 7 working days after receipt of goods.
The supplier must then reimburse you within 30 days without charge (unless you have been expressly informed that you will be liable for a charge) and if you have any related credit agreements, these will also be cancelled.
The work started before the 7 day cancellation period was up!
Unless you have agreed otherwise, goods must be delivered, or services performed within 30 days from the date you submitted your order. If you have commissioned a service under a distance selling contract and the supplier offers to start the work before the end of the 7 day cooling off period, then you can give up your right to cancel, but you must be notified of this and your express permission sought. If the work started with your permission and the supplier has not provided you with the compulsory pre-contractual information prior to their starting, you may still have your right to cancel and get a full refund even though the work has been completed!
Does the right to cancel apply for all goods bought by mail order?
There are obvious exceptions and you will not have the right to cancel with the purchase of the following goods:
- Goods made to a personalised specification
- Perishable goods, such as foodstuffs and flowers
- Audio/video recordings or software where the seal has been broken
- Newspapers, magazines or other reading material (not books)
- Gaming, betting, lotteries
Getting your money back
Under the distance selling regulations, you are quite within your rights to change your mind at any time, return the goods and get a full refund. This means without financial penalty of any kind – such as a cancellation charge or a ‘restocking’ fee. The supplier must also refund any delivery charges paid by you, and any other costs related to the contract. Refunds must be made within 30 days from cancellation, whether or not the goods have been sent back. Any related credit agreements will also cease to exist.
You may be required to pay to return the goods, but you must have been informed of this as part of the pre-contractual information. if the goods are faulty, then under Sale of Goods, the supplier will always bear the cost of returning them.
Returning the goods
Unless you are required to return the goods, and you were informed of this, your only obligations are to make the goods available for collection and to take reasonable care of them while they are in your possession. This is called a duty of care. Where the supplier has made provision to collect the goods, this duty of care expires after 21 days, but where you have agreed to return the goods, your duty of care continues until you do this and could be for as long as 6 months.
Under a distance selling contract, a supplier cannot make refunds subject to the goods being returned unopened in their original packaging. One of the principles of the distance selling regulations is to give you a chance to examine the goods at home, not having had a chance to do so in the shop. It would be impossible for you to do this without opening the packaging and trying the product out. Having said this, you will still be under a duty to take reasonable care of the goods while in your possession, and may be subject to certain instructions such as not to wear shoes outdoors, or remove hygiene seals. But you can never be penalised simply because you did not return the goods in their original packaging.
For amounts of money over £100 it is always advisable to pay by credit card. This is because if you run into problems and you can’t get recompense from the supplier, the credit card company has equal liability. However for goods and services paid for specifically in a distance selling context, you are automatically protected against fraudulent use of your payment card – whether this is a credit or debit card. If you ever find an entry on your bank statement for a sum of money that you did not authorise, in relation to something you bought online, over the phone or by mail order generally, you are entitled to 100% of the fraudulent amount to be recredited to you by the card issuer.
Do take care however with advance or pre-payments as these are not protected against fraudulent use, and in any case, the supplier may become insolvent before your goods or services are delivered, leaving you with nothing, and little recourse.
- Buying from auction sites and online ‘market places’
- the Distance Selling Regulations
- the Doorstep Selling Regulations
- Problems with deliveries and collections