CMA publishes letter to businesses about “online redlines”

March 30, 2023

The Competition and Markets Authority has published the results of a survey of 3,700 UK adults, which found that 1 in 4 (24%) said they had fallen victim to sneaky online sales tactics; 23% didn’t realise tactics such as “15 mins left of sale” or “buy now” can sometimes be false or misleading and 68% thought these types of misleading tactics should be banned.

In 2022, CMA commenced a major programme of work looking at how businesses present information and choices to consumers online (sometimes called “online choice architecture”). As part of this, the CMA is currently focusing on urgency claims and price reduction claims.

It has now published a letter to businesses about “online redlines”. The letter covers misleading price reduction and urgency claims – which are a type of pressure selling. It provides practical illustrations of where common online tactics may be misleading consumers or applying unfair pressure. The advice is for all businesses that sell or promote products online to UK shoppers, so they can stop sales practices that could break consumer protection law, especially the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (SI 2008/1277).

The letter to business accompanies a new digital reporting tool and a CMA campaign for consumers to report online rip-offs via the new form.

The online practices referenced in the online redlines advice are:

  • Urgency claims: Any scarcity, popularity, ‘act fast’ or time limited claim (including a countdown clock) that is presented to consumers online. For example, ‘Only 7 left’, ’14 sold in the last 24 hours’, ‘Hurry! Today only’, ‘Offer ends in 02:50:56’.
  • Price reduction claims: Any discount or special offer price that refers to a higher comparison price. For example, ‘£32 £16’, or ‘Was £45. Now £20’.

The CMA also refers to these misleading online practices:

  • Pressure selling: a sales tactic used to give a misleading impression of the limited availability, popularity or usual selling price of a product or service;
  • Hidden charges: unexpected compulsory fees, charges or taxes being added when someone tries to make an online purchase;
  • Subscription traps: misleading a customer into signing up to, and paying for, an unwanted subscription that can be difficult to cancel; and
  • Fake or misleading reviews: Reviews which do not reflect an actual customer’s genuine opinion or experience of a product or service.