E-commerce sites open to legal attack

Non-compliance with new consumer regulations could lead to trouble for sites

Many UK consumer Web sites are leaving themselves open to legal action by failing to comply with new rules governing everything from telesales to catalogue shopping, according to experts.

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) recently carried out a "mystery surf" of 637 UK Web retailers. It found that over half the sites may be breaking the law by failing to give any information on their policies for exchanging or refunding goods.

Under the Distance Selling Regulations, which came into effect at the end of October, consumers buying from a retailer where face-to-face contact is not involved have a right to such information, as well as a cooling-off period and protection against credit card fraud.

By not complying, sites are leaving themselves legally exposed, according to experts. "This is serious in that ultimately these sites are breaking the law," says Joanne Ashley, a solicitor with law firm Sprecher Grier Halberstam specialising in online issues. "It's too easy to say this is just bureaucratic red tape. When you look at the figures for online fraud, it's no wonder consumer confidence in the Web is very low."

She says consumers who buy from non-complying sites have the right to return goods for a full refund, whatever the site's own policy might be. "Any contract with the site would not be valid," she says.

The OFT says lack of awareness of consumer standards does e-commerce no favours in the public eye. "Failure to tell consumers about their right to cancel and to a full refund is a breach of the new Distance Selling Regulations and something which must be put right," says John Vickers, director general of Office of Fair Trading, in a statement. "It is in the interests of consumers and good businesses to make ways of buying from home as robust as possible."

Graeme Wearden contributed to this report.

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