Many of us struggle to comprehend the complexities of the UK’s consumer-protection legislation but, worryingly, it’s not just consumers to whom that statement applies. According to a recent report from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), many online retailers are ignorant of the laws that apply to their businesses.

In June 2007 the OFT published the results of a detailed market study designed to gauge just how well online shoppers knew their legal rights. Then, in December 2007, the OFT partnered with Trading Standards to assess the extent to which the UK's top websites were complying with some of the key requirements of online-shopping laws. The results of both studies were disturbing, to say the least.

What don’t you know?

Based on results from the two studies, the OFT learned the following:

  • More than half (56 percent) of internet shoppers surveyed didn’t know about their right to cancel an order under the terms of the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 (DSRs). And 29 percent didn’t know where to get related advice.
  • Some 28 percent of traders were unaware or slightly aware of online shopping laws; 67 percent had never sought advice on them.
  • At least 20 percent of the e-commerce sites reviewed didn’t provide an email address, as they are required to by law.
  • A fifth of online electrical retailers didn’t think buyers had a right to cancel.
  • A majority of sites (59 percent) appeared to impose conditions that could prevent or at least deter consumers from exercising their cancellation rights.

In breach

Of the 392 sites surveyed by the OFT and Trading Standards that were selling products to which DSRs apply, 209 (53 percent) were thought to be in possible breach of the regulations by failing to provide consumers with information on the right to cancel, forgetting to mention the correct cancellation period and/or imposing restrictions on cancellation refund rights.

None of this will come as a surprise to regular visitors to our online ConsumerWatch forum – questions relating to consumer legislation are common and, over the years, we’ve found that many retailers are ill-informed when it comes to the laws affecting internet trading. The OFT and Trading Standards have identified the areas that need attention and Trading Standards will pass details of non-compliant businesses to the relevant authority.

That’s great, but it’s only a small part of the answer. The survey covered just 439 sites and there are thousands more out there. It falls on our own shoulders to exercise caution when choosing a supplier, and to know where to go for advice.

Your local Trading Standards office can advise you on consumer law and, of course, you’re always welcome at PC Advisor's ConsumerWatch forum.