The Office of Fair Trade (OFT) has written to 62 of the top UK online retailers after it found evidence of non-compliance during a review of potential breaches of the Distance Selling Regulations (DSRs).
A sweep of 156 websites by the OFT found that 33 percent of online retailers imposed unreasonable restrictions on customers' rights to a refund, where most often they require the product must be in its original packaging or in the original condition. This, according to the DSRs, doesn't allow consumers to reasonably inspect or assess the purchased goods.
Some 60 percent also only provided a web contact form, rather than an email contact address, as is required by the E-Commerce Regulations. Two percent provided no electronic contact details at all.
Unexpected charges were also added to customer purchases upon checkout at 24 percent of the websites reviewed.
"The OFT recognises that most businesses want to play fair with their customers and to comply with the law," said Cavendish Elithorn, senior director of the Goods and Consumer Group at OFT.
"We encourage all online retailers to check their websites so customers can be confident their rights are being respected when they shop online."
Some publications have reported that the OFT is requiring that the retailers make the changes to their websites before Christmas, however a spokesman for OFT Computerworld UK confirmed that this is incorrect and they will in fact be given twelve months.
However, if changes aren't made within this timeframe, retailers could face legal action. Initially the OFT will try to negotiate a new timeframe for the retailer to comply, but if this is ignored, then it could go to civil court.
If a requirement to change issued by the civil court is disregarded by a retailer, only then would prison sentences or fines be considered.
To support compliance with the regulations the OFT has created a web-based guidance tool for businesses, the Distance Selling Hub, which includes tips to resolve the key issues identified in the sweep.
Top tips for retailers include being clear and open about cancellation rights and also providing a full refund, plus a refund of delivery charges when things go wrong.
Many retailers, including the likes of John Lewis, have seen a massive surge in their online sales in recent years and have been investing heavily in multi-channel platforms to support the growth.