1st February 2024

Ten top tips for online purchases

Many of us can be enticed by supposed bargains and special offers, especially online. Savvy shoppers can avoid getting caught out by following a few simple tips


By Juanita Headley
Consumer Advisor, UK International Consumer Centre
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With the rapid expansion of online shopping, consumers are at greater risk of being scammed than ever before

In the aftermath of Christmas, when all the excitement has died down, consumers are in a much better position to take stock of their purchases. The post-Christmas Sales period is one of the most commercial times of year, and products are advertised with enticing offers, supposed discounts and eye-catching promotions. With emotions running high, it is very easy to get caught up in the excitement of the season and make impulse purchases that you may later come to regret.

Now, we aren’t talking about buying an ugly Christmas jumper, but rather more expensive purchases that can set you back a fair bit, all to the delight of the credit card companies (or, depending on your personal circumstances, loan sharks). This is where advice from the likes of Martin Lewis comes in handy, with information on talking to your creditors, setting up affordable payment plans and freezing your credit card.

You’ll also find advice on product returns, repairs and replacements, which is where the UK International Consumer Centre team, led by the dynamic, personable and dedicated Centre Director Andy Allen, step in.

The Consumer Rights Act 2015 supersedes the Sale of Goods Act 1979, affording consumers protection for the purchase of goods, services and digital content. With 150 pages of legislation, the information is extensive, and therefore unlikely to be read by the average consumer. However, the key things to note are the following:

  • Services must be delivered with reasonable care and skill, within a reasonable time and at a reasonable price.
  • Goods must be of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and free from defects.

With the rapid expansion of online shopping, consumers are at greater risk of being scammed than ever before, so here is some general advice that you can follow:

1. Impulse purchases
Beware of social media adverts telling you that there is only a limited time left to buy cute and cuddly puppies. When it comes to buying pets online, as a general rule, avoid paying a deposit of any sort online. There have been countless cases where no sooner has a deposit been paid, than the seller disappears without a trace. We therefore always recommend physically visiting the puppy in its home environment and seeing it with its mother, before using a secure, verifiable website to make a deposit using your credit card.

2. Be social media savvy 
There’s nothing wrong with airing your grievances online; however, do bear in mind that you won’t only get the attention of the trader, such as an airline, hotel or restaurant, but also that of fraudsters – some of whom will go on to impersonate that trader and contact you by phone, email and now even WhatsApp. We therefore encourage you to use extreme caution when contacted through any of these mediums, and most especially where WhatsApp is concerned, as a profile picture with the trader’s logo does not automatically signify legitimacy. Instead, we recommend locating the trader’s phone number directly from their website and calling them back.

3. Spending money to get money
Whether you see something on TikTok or some other social media platform, don’t get swept away by advertisements that encourage you to spend money just to get something in return. Very often these are scams where either you never receive the promised item, or the item delivered is of poor quality or counterfeit.

4. Book flights through legitimate websites
That doesn’t mean to say that you can only ever purchase flights directly with the airline, but rather it’s a word of caution, particularly when booking noticeably cheap tickets through a website that you’ve never heard of before.

5. Read reviews 
Never get carried away by social media adverts, likes and comments, especially by people who haven’t even bought the product. Instead, do a Google search before purchasing to find authentic reviews from the public.

6. Think twice before investing 
Ask yourself whether the company you intend to invest in is legitimate, and if you’ll be protected against the loss of your money. As the saying goes, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

7. Use your credit card for purchases 
Unlike a debit card, under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, many of your credit card purchases between £100.01 and £30,000.00 are protected, which is particularly useful in cases involving non-delivery, counterfeit, and faulty goods.

8. Always read the small print
This may seem like no easy task, especially where small purchases are concerned; however, a failure to read and understand the terms and conditions of any contract means that you’re unaware of your rights, which may later work to your disadvantage – for example if quality issues arise with a personalised item, or you find you are liable for damage caused by hailstones in a hire car agreement.

9. Terminate subscriptions before the automatic renewal date
Online retailers including Amazon, Opodo and Edreams offer ‘prime’ accounts which are often enticing because of the benefits available. To avoid getting caught up in a subscription trap, we recommend that whether it’s a one-week or 30-day free trial, if you have no intention of paying for the subscription, you make a note of the upcoming payment date and ensure that you cancel the subscription a few days beforehand. In fact, in some instances you can actually cancel the subscription immediately and continue to use the benefits until the termination date.

10. Get everything in writing; persistence is key
No matter the circumstances, it is always recommended to get things in writing, whether that’s a goodwill gesture or fee waiver, as it can be very difficult to prove when it’s the consumer’s word against the trader’s.

On the back of that, we recommend persistence; we know of countless examples where consumers were reimbursed by the trader years after they had first complained.

This is where we at the UKICC steps in – to hopefully save you waiting years for positive results. Therefore, if, after reading all of the above you are still in need of legal and practical guidance concerning the purchase of goods or services outside the UK, and are a UK resident, then you can reach out to the team at the UKICC here.

It is important to note that because we are not an enforcement agency, we cannot force traders to comply with UK consumer rights. However, what we can do is provide advice and offer assistance with mediation, which often leads to redress for consumers.

In instances where we are not able to help you with your enquiry, or your enquiry does not fall within our remit, we can, where one exists, give you details of another organisation that may be better equipped to assist you.

One resource that can often help is the Citizens Advice Consumer Helpline, which specialises in UK to UK issues, and can:

  • Give practical and impartial advice on resolving your consumer problem
  • Tell you the law which applies to your situation
  • Pass information about complaints on to Trading Standards

Their phone lines are open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm (exc. Bank holidays): 0808 223 1133.

Consumers in Scotland can contact the Consumer Advice Scotland helpline on 0808 800 9060.

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