Online cons slipping past Trading Standards

Regulatory body demands more resources and a national coordinator to beef up its role in protecting online consumers
Written by Wendy McAuliffe, Contributor

The Trading Standards Institute (TSI) has admitted it does not have the skills or funding to police e-commerce shopping, and is calling for an increase in government and industry resources to boost consumer confidence online.

At its annual conference in Cardiff on Wednesday, the TSI also called for the appointment of a national coordinator to oversee Trading Standards' transition to regulating the online world.

"The coordinator post is needed to assess what consumers want -- it is impossible to do this at the moment with 200 local authorities working to their own priorities," said Richard Webb, Trading Standards' officer for e-commerce, who authored the report "Surfing the Big Wave", released at the conference. Webb confirmed that the post would operate separately from the government agenda, and would ideally be filled by an applicant from within the TSI.

The report responds to allegations that Trading Standards services have failed to adapt to the challenges of monitoring businesses online. The body admits that officers have failed to ensure the same laws that apply to the High Street apply to the virtual marketplace.

More than 30 percent of households already have Internet access and more than 6 million people are shopping on the Web. The government's UK Online initiative plans to give every person in Britain access to the Internet by 2005, and to ensure that all government services are available online by the same deadline. But no new funding has been allocated to the TSI to coordinate the changes that are required, and provide a safe environment for consumers to shop online.

Trading standards officers are calling for new government resources to provide them with the skills needed to undertake their role on the Internet. Most officers don't understand how the Internet works, and are clueless about tracing the owner of a Web site. In order for the TSI to take an investigative and law enforcement approach towards e-commerce, officers need to be trained in how to search the Web anonymously and securely.

"We've launched a report, and will wait for an appropriate response," said Webb. "In recognition of what is expected of the TSI by the government and business, I hope this is something that will get a positive response."

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