National Consumer Week 12th - 16th November 2007

As part of National Consumer Week, Highland Council’s Trading Standards Officers are keeping on top of auction internet selling by protecting consumer rights online.

New technology has made it easy to buy a wide range of goods and services from all sorts of outlets and countries through digital television and the Internet.

Auction sites have become particularly popular with consumers and have become the virtual car boot sale market place for online shoppers. Although bargains can be gleaned from these sites there can also be pitfalls for the unwary consumer.

Alistair Thomson, The Highland Council’s Head of Environmental Health and Trading Standards said:  “Trading standards legislation covers sales of goods by telephone sales, mail order, fax, digital television and on the Internet.  The Distance Selling Regulations were introduced to give consumers peace of mind when shopping by this means and assurance that important information such as delivery charges for goods and the right to cancel an order would be clearly stated  before they committed themselves to a particular purchase.”

As well as responding to consumer complaints, Highland Trading Standards also regularly monitor Internet sites including eBay sellers for compliance with, trading standards legislation, including pricing and descriptions, product safety and trade marks legislation. Market areas monitored cover goods from car parts and vehicles, electrical goods to antiques and collectables and toys. Problems found include:  

• hidden charges being added to the price, for delivery or packaging.
• consumers not always informed of their right to cancel.
• failure to deliver goods within a specified time or to accept returns of goods.
• counterfeit goods such as clothing and DVDs.

“Auction sites on the internet are viewed by consumers very much the same as classified advertisements in a newspaper or magazine.” Suggests Alistair Thomson.

“Some sellers are individuals who want to sell off unwanted household or personal items and get a bit of cash for them.  Other sellers view selling on internet auction sites as a Hobby.”

He warns however: “There is a thin line sometimes between sellers who wish to dispose of unwanted gifts or items through auction sites such as eBay and those sellers who buy goods regularly to sell on.  

“Trading standards rules only apply when the seller is a trader. If the seller is a private individual most trading standards legislation does not apply and the buyer has very restricted rights. Some traders may ‘hide’ under the guise of a private seller to avoid having to comply with legislation.  It is not always easy for the buyer to tell if the seller is a trader!”

If an individual’s sales are substantial, then they could be viewed as operating as a business and need to comply with legal requirements.  If an Internet seller appears to be a trader, Trading Standards can offer advice and assistance on compliance with legal requirements. Trading Standards are not trying to restrict trading activity but do have a legal duty to enforce trading standards law and will, if necessary, take further steps to protect consumers. 

Alistair Thomson explains: “Most of our work is carried out by providing information and advice to businesses whether they have an internet site or not.  However, if we feel that a seller is acting as a business and does not comply, there is a whole range of enforcement options available to us, including reporting offences to the Procurator Fiscal for prosecution as well as taking action in the civil courts to prevent breaches continuing.”

Highland Council’s Trading Standards Officer have issued a warning to all internet auction sellers….’they are being watched’.

For more information and advice on consumer rights call the advice line number on:
0845/600/4222 or email us on: consumer.advice@highland.gov.uk.

The Highland Council’s Trading Standards Unit offices are at 38 Harbour Road, Inverness.

12 Nov 2007
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