While this article accurately reflects the current protection for UK consumers in November 2014, it is not and does not purport to be legal advice.
With Christmas starting to hove into view it is time to look at some of the protections that you as consumers have when buying stuff this year. With the above caveat in mind, here we go:
The best way for UK shoppers to get protection for large purchases is to use a credit card, as long as what you're buying costs over £100 and less than £30,000. Thanks to Section 75 of the 1974 Consumer Credit Act, the card issuer is jointly liable, and the protection includes items where you've paid a deposit of over £100 on the card, but settled the balance in another way.
The protection offered, in effect, makes the card company liable in exactly the same way as the retailer. Not only does it mean that if the shop goes bust you'll get your money back, but if there's a problem with something, the card company is also liable.
So, for instance, if a new TV develops a fault, and the shop maintains that it's nothing to do with them, you can take the matter up with the card company. In practice, very often if a retailer is being awkward, simply telling them that you'll deal with the card company may be enough to make them take notice. Small shops especially don't want to end up getting items charged back, and perhaps risking their card facilities.
Of course, not everyone has a credit card, or you may simply prefer to pay by a debit card. If you do, however, it's important to be aware that the protection offered by a debit card, while comparable to that offered by credit cards, is not a legal obligation. Instead, it's a scheme offered by the banks, and referred to as chargeback.
Broadly speaking, you have up to three months to make a claim, from when you become aware of a problem, or delivery in the case of online orders. You should be able to claim for non-delivery, goods not as described, or faulty, or an incorrect amount being charged. You should also be protected if a company goes bust.
As it's a bank-run scheme, rather than a liability enforced by law, you will usually need to have made some effort to resolve the problem with the company before attempting to claim through your bank. The bank's customer service people should be able to explain the process.
Whether claiming with reference to Section 75 or a chargeback scheme.
One other method of paying worth mentioning is PayPal; like it or loathe it, for a lot of people it's a popular way to purchase goods online, especially when you're buying from very small merchants who may not have the cash flow to afford a credit card facility of their own.
First, it's worth remembering that if you top up your PayPal balance from a card, the card company will consider that to the be transaction, not any subsequent purchases using the balance. Your best bet of receiving redress will be via PayPal's own Buyer Protection scheme.
This allows you to raise a dispute for up to 180 days after the transaction, with the exception of some items, such as cars, custom made goods, property and industrial equipment, which aren't covered. PayPal users in other countries have only 45 days to raise their dispute. UK buyers are also protected for digital goods, services, travel tickets, where people on other jurisdictions may not be.
PayPal offers protection for items that don't arrive, or don't match the description; you can't claim if you've just changed your mind. And if, for example, you return an item to a sender at an address that's not the one PayPal has, you could fall foul of its rules.
For several years, the rules that govern buying online have been the Distance Selling Regulations. Since June of this year, they've been replaced by the new Consumer Contracts Regulations. Don't panic though, you still have the same rights as before. The update is largely about clarifying some points, ensuring vendors have to give information in specific ways, and bringing doorstep selling under the same rules.
For most people, the most important thing about the regulations is that with goods that are covered, you have 14 days to cancel an order, for pretty much any reason, including just changing your mind, or not really liking the colour. That time runs not from the date of order, or despatch, but from the date of arrival. If an order arrives in several bits, it's from the date the last bit arrives.
The time limit – and a company can increase it in their own Ts&Cs if they like – is for how long you have to let them know you want to send something back. There's then another 14 days to do so, and you should receive your refund within another 14 days.
However, there are a few things to bear in mind. Firstly, the refund only has to cover basic shipping. If you paid for next day service, you won't necessarily get that back, nor are you automatically entitled to a refund of the return postage. This is an area where shopping around can help. For example, Appliances Online includes free collection with their returns policy.
Secondly, if you've obviously used an item more than you would if examining it in a shop, then the vendor is entitled to reduce the amount of the refund, as they won't be able to sell it as new.
Most significantly, some items aren't covered. That includes media such as CDs or DVDs where the seal has been opened, anything perishable, and items that have been customised or specially made.
For the first time, digital downloads are explicitly covered by the legislation. This works largely by saying that it must be made clear to you that if you download something within the 14 day cancellation period, you don't have the right to cancel. Watch out for this with Amazon's AutoRip: buy an album, return it, and if you have downloaded any of the MP3 versions, you'll be billed for the digital version of the same album. That includes automatic downloads, too, so turn them off if you don't want to be caught out.
Other minor tidying up in the new regulations includes the requirement that a geographical address be provided, together with compatibility information for digital content, and a clear statement of your cancellation rights.
With the pace of change these days, a lot of equipment is likely to be obsolete long before it breaks down, but that's not always the case. So, you need to know where you stand with a warranty. Although a lot of stores may say it's only a single year, EU rules mandate at least two years now.
The lack of knowledge of this is why some stores manage to make it sound like they're being generous when they boast about giving you two years.
Regardless of warranties, remember you also have rights under the Sale of Goods Act in the UK. Goods must be fit for purpose, as described, and of merchantable quality. That includes purposes you make clear to the store, so if you state you need a printer to work with your Mac, and it turns out to be incompatible, then you are entitled to a full refund.
In fact, you have the right to request a replacement or repair of faulty goods for up to six years in the UK. That's somewhat qualified, for example, if something can't reasonably be expected to last that long, you can't demand a repair, and ordinary wear and tear isn't covered. After six months, you may have to show there was an 'inherent fault' – something wrong at the time of sale. And after the end of the warranty period, you may find it much harder to persuade retailers to play ball.
Where to get help
In the first instance in the UK – and with the standard EU guarantee – you should contact the vendor. They, in law, are the person with whom you have a contract, and it's up to them to fix the problem. They shouldn't just palm you off with a request to contact the manufacturer directly.If they don't play ball, then you might be able to involve the credit card company, if that's how you paid, or consider using your bank's chargeback system for debit card.