Over half of Europe's electronics retail sites break the law, says Commission

Out-Law News | 09 Sep 2009 | 2:07 pm | 2 min. read

An investigation of hundreds of European websites selling electronics has found that 55% of them appear to break consumer protection laws. Those sites are under further investigation, the European Commission has said.

The Commission conducted a 'sweep' of online electronics retailers to see if they complied with EU consumer protection laws. Problem websites most commonly misled consumers about their rights and about the price of the goods, the Commission said.

Among other laws, online shops must comply with national implementations of the EU's Distance Selling Directive, E-commerce Directive and Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. These demand that sites provide contact information for the company, that information about the price and product is clear, and that clear information about consumer rights is provided.

This did not happen in more than half of the cases, the Commission said. "55% of the 369 checked websites showed irregularities which are being investigated further," said a Commission statement. "13% of the problematic sites will require cross border co-operation between national authorities."

Two thirds of the websites which had problems misinformed consumers or completely failed to inform them of their rights.

"Buyers were either not informed at all or misinformed about their 'right to return' – the right to cancel a [distance-bought] order … within a minimum of 7 days and return the product without giving a reason," said the Commission's statement. "For example, they were told that the trader would not accept the product back, or that they could only have credit rather than cash refund."

"In other cases, consumers were misled about their right to have a faulty product repaired or replaced for at least 2 years after the purchase (e.g. they were told that they only had this right for one year)," it said.

The investigation also found that some websites advertised free delivery but added delivery charges to the cost of the item or only applied delivery charges at the very end of the transaction, just before payment.

The Commission chose electronics retailers because one in four people who have bought goods online have bought electronics, it said.

"We targeted websites selling electronic goods because I know from my own mail bag, and we know from the level of complaints coming into European Consumer Centres that these are a real problem area for consumers," said Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva. "This is a Europe-wide problem which needs a European solution. There is a lot of work to be done in the months ahead to clean up this sector, Europe's consumers deserve better."

The investigation targeted the 200 biggest websites selling consumer electronics, plus another 100 that had been the subject of complaints. Enforcement action will happen on a national level, the Commission said.

"The initial checks by national authorities will now be followed by an enforcement phase when companies are contacted by national authorities and required to correct their websites or clarify their position," it said. "Failure to bring a website in line with the law can result in legal action leading to fines or websites being closed."