It’s that time of year when traffic chaos and long queues at the tills make shopping from the comfort of your couch appealing. Time is running out to ensure delivery in time for Christmas, but in the rush for convenience and bargains don’t overlook the risks that are sometimes involved in shopping online.
These are some issues to consider before purchasing to avoid unnecessary complications afterwards.
- Check the retailer. Be sure who you are dealing with. This should not be a problem with major sites like Amazon and Littlewoods Ireland, but be alert for any site that is trying to mislead you about who is really the seller. Even with reputable sites, like Amazon, make sure you know whether you are buying directly from them or from a marketplace seller who is advertising on their site. If buying from a marketplace seller, check to see whether the product is new or second hand. Some sites, like eBay, have tools available to check the reliability of the seller and a dispute resolution system if you run into problems. For any site you are not familiar with or haven’t bought from before, you should check to see where they are located. This is important if you have a dispute, because you may find it difficult to pursue the seller in another country if you are not happy with the purchase.
- Read the terms and conditions. Many online shops have long, complicated terms and conditions but you should read them nonetheless because you will usually agree to them when placing your order. There are regulations that govern unfair terms in consumer contracts but in the event of a dispute you might not be interested in pursuing a complaint or court action for a small order so it is better to avoid problems before they arise. You do have a lot of rights as a consumer buying online from retailers in the European Union and you can read guidance available from the European Consumer Centre and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission to see what they are.
- Cancel if you change your mind. A key consumer right when buying online is the 14-day cooling off period during which you can cancel your order. There are exceptions to this so make sure you know whether they apply. Many services, such as digital downloads and subscriptions, lose the cooling-off period once performance begins and some orders, such as for mobile phones, may involve a mixture of products and services.
- Know where to go with complaints. The Small Claims Court deals with consumer disputes up to €2,000 and you can lodge claims online, but eventually the case will have to be dealt with in court. If the retailer is not based in Ireland you might have difficulty bringing a court claim or enforcing it and if the retailer insists on fighting your claim it could be time consuming. Even if the value of your purchase is within the Small Claims Court jurisdiction it might be worth engaging a solicitor to bring the claim in the District Court if it is significant or the circumstances are complicated. You can then seek an order that the legal costs be added to the claim (you can’t get legal costs in the Small Claims Court). Most sites take credit cards and many accept PayPal payments and if you pay by either of these methods you might be able to cancel the payment.
- Be particularly careful with vouchers and digital services. Vouchers are a frequent source of complaints both offline and online and again you should know what you are buying and from whom. The most important thing is to be aware of any restrictions and expiry dates that apply to vouchers. A reputable, trusted retailer should not pose any problems but make sure, for example, that you are buying the voucher from the right branch of the retailer. For example: if you are buying a voucher or gift subscription from iTunes or Netflix for a friend or relative in America or Australia who won’t be home this Christmas, make sure that the voucher can be redeemed by them. If you buy an Irish voucher they might not be able to use it abroad. You should also be extremely careful when allowing devices like tablets and PCs to remain signed in to your digital accounts as many popular apps and games, particularly those used by children, allow in-app purchases which sometimes result in extraordinary and unexpected credit card bills in January.
Online shopping brings great convenience and often good value but if something goes wrong both convenience and value evaporate. You cannot make your complaint as easily as you can with a local shop, so be sure that you are dealing with a trustworthy retailer whose policies are reasonable and fair.