Is your website legal?

Published:  18 December, 2012

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has been scrutinising online retailers' websites and has placed 62 top online retailers on its 'naughty list' for failing to comply with consumer protection laws.

The OFT report, published in October 2012, highlights that many websites still fall short of the required legal standard, says Oliver Bray at law firm RPC.

The OFT was concerned that some retailers were providing inadequate contact details, applying hidden charges to customers' total order and forcing onerous obligations on consumers that effectively restricted their right to claim a refund.

The OFT report states that of the 156 websites reviewed, only 83% had provided the "full geographic address" required, with 12% of retailers' websites displaying merely a post office box address and 5% providing no physical address at all.

The OFT report said that although 60% of sites indicated upfront that compulsory charges would be added to the first price shown, 24% of retailers levied additional unexpected charges, such as delivery fees or credit card surcharges, at the point of purchase.

Although almost all websites notified consumers of their right to a refund, 33% of them imposed unreasonable restrictions on how consumers could exercise that right such as by insisting that the product be returned in its original packaging or condition.

Risks of non-compliance with online trading regulations

Traders that fail to comply with the Distance Selling Regulations and the Electronic Commerce Regulations risk formal enforcement action by the OFT or local Trading Standards bodies, which could include civil proceedings and criminal sanctions. Naturally, there is also the risk of negative publicity and cost and time being incurred in addressing complaints, Bray says.

He recommends online retailers:

  • always provide both a full geographic address and an email address in order for consumers to make direct contact.
  • clearly display any additional charges early on in the process of a transaction and ensure that these charges can be justified.
  • do not impose unreasonable or onerous conditions on a consumer's right to cancel or claim a refund.
  • always use plain and simple English to explain consumer rights and key terms clearly.

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