EU Commissioner Targets Web Site ‘Cheats’

September 9, 2009

In a co-ordinated sweep organised by the European Commission, a simultaneous check was carried out between 11 and 15 May 2009 by enforcement authorities in 26 EU Member States (all except Slovakia) as well as by Norway and Iceland. The results were announced by EU Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva, who told a press conference in Brussels that online retailers were ‘trying to cheat’ consumers and that trading standards enforcement at the national level was no longer working in the Internet age.

The sites that were targeted were those selling goods computer-related equipment, personal music players, digital cameras, mobile phones, DVD players and game consoles. These types of goods were selected for the survey because electronic goods are among the most popular product categories bought online. The value of online retail sales of consumer electronic goods in Europe was about €6.8 billion in 2007. In 2008, about 25% of EU consumers who ever purchased anything online bought an electronic product (including cameras). One of the consequences is that there have been a large number of consumer complaints in this product category. The European Consumer Centres report that 34% of the complaints about online shopping which they handled concerned purchases of electronic equipment.

The results of the checks show that 55% of the web sites investigated showed irregularities in particular relating to: misleading information about consumer rights; misleading information about the total cost of the product; or incomplete contact details for the trader. 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. At this first stage, three countries – Iceland, Latvia and Norway – have published names of the web sites covered by the investigation.

Meglena Kuneva said a level playing field is required if the aim of a true ‘citizen’s market’ in the post-Internet age is to be realised, part of ‘the crucial second stage of building the internal EU market’. She stated that ‘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.’

Typical faults included a failure to give sufficient prominence to consumer rights relating to returns and refunds, hidden delivery and card payment surcharges and the omission of full trader contacts. Meglana Kuneva said that when people shop online, the right to return goods, even in perfect condition, and obtain a refund is fundamental.

It is now for national authorities to pursue the offenders, although 13% of the cases will require cooperation across different national trading standards regimes.