Shopping Safely and Avoiding Scams During the COVID-19 Crisis

Solicitor and award-winning consumer journalist Jane Barrie offers practical advice on how to shop safely online and avoid scams during the COVID-19 crisis.

Coronavirus-related internet fraud has cost consumers almost £1 million since February.

As the lockdown continues, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau is reporting a worrying new trend in online shopping scams with total losses reaching nearly £970,000.

So there has never been a better time to know your rights – and how to protect yourself - when buying online.

Superintendent Sanjay Andersen, Head of the NFIB, the UK's authority for analysing and assessing fraud, warned:

“Fraudsters will use any opportunity to take money from innocent people.

“This includes exploiting tragedies and global emergencies.

“The majority of scams we are seeing relate to the online sale of protective items, and items that are in short supply across the country, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We’re advising people not to panic and to think about the purchase they are making.

“When you’re online shopping it’s important to do your research and look at reviews of the site you are buying from.”

The safest way to shop online, whether it be for essentials such as groceries or for larger purchases, is to use a credit card.

It does not allow direct access to your bank account and you have protection enshrined in law that you don't have with a debit card, which instead relies on a chargeback scheme.

But there's a raft of legislation to protect consumers including The Consumer Contracts Regulations (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 which give online cancellation rights and The Consumer Rights Act 2015 which protects your right to return faulty goods.

That, combined with the credit card protection in the Consumer Credit Act 1974, and in particular Section 75 which ensures banks are jointly and severally liable for any breach of contract or misrepresentation by a retailer or trader, as long as purchases are £100 or more and no more than £30,000, in theory makes it safe for shoppers.

Graeme Paton, Chairman of the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland (SCOTTS), said: “As a result of the lockdown consumers can only leave the house to buy essentials, so more and more purchases are moving online.

“Thankfully the law in relation to consumer protection and online purchases has recently been upgraded.

“The Consumer Rights Act brought the biggest change to consumer rights in a generation.

“But scammers always find a way to exploit situations and Trading Standards are working hard to raise awareness and eradicate cyber crime.”

The Consumer Rights Act replaced three major pieces of legislation - the Sale of Goods Act which had been in force since 1979, the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations and the Supply of Goods and Services Act.

Graeme added: “The CRA is a significant piece of legislation with consumer protections consolidated in one act.

“That along with the Consumer Contracts Regulations mean we now have a set of simplified and defined rules updated for the modern-day shopper.”

The Consumer Contracts Regulations, which apply to any contract made at a distance, over the phone or online, allow the cancellation of most online purchases, within 14 days, even if you simply change your mind.

Your right to cancel starts the moment you place your order and ends 14 days from the day you receive your goods. 

But there are exceptions. Perishable goods, downloads and orders for bespoke or personalised items cannot be cancelled for obvious reasons, unless they are faulty.

The 14-day cooling off period is a huge additional benefit for online shoppers – and more generous than if you buy from a high street shop.

The law states that you have no right to return anything on the high street unless it is faulty – i.e. not of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose or as described.

Graeme added: “Many retailers have generous returns policies when you shop in store, which are in addition to your statutory rights.

“But legally, once you buy something you have no right to return it unless there is something wrong with it.

“That's because you have had the chance to inspect the goods you are buying.

“If you're shopping online, it goes without saying that you don't have the opportunity to see the goods prior to purchase, that's why there's a 14-day cooling off period written into the legislation.”

If goods are faulty, consumers have 30 days to reject under the Consumer Rights Act. But if goods purchased online are deemed faulty, a refund is due, including the cost of the return postage.

The 30 day period is shorter for perishable goods and is determined by how long it is reasonable to expect items to last. Dairy products, such as milk, for example, should be expected to last until their use by date.

A TV or microwave should last a reasonable amount of time – but there are time limits on the consumer's ability to seek redress through the civil courts – up to five years in Scotland, six in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Graeme added: “If you are outside of 30 days the retailer has one opportunity to repair or replace the faulty item, whichever is the cheapest option.

“And if that's not successful you are entitled to your money back.

“Within the first six months the onus is on the retailer to prove that the fault wasn't there when you purchased.

“Then the onus switches to the consumer to prove that the product was faulty when you got it.

“But if you have concerns about a purchase that you have made, Advice Direct Scotland can help on 0808 164 6000. If you feel uncomfortable or suspicious about a scam or cold caller in your local area, phone Police Scotland on 101”

The law is there to protect consumers’ online transactions but in protracted cases, and with significant purchases, you may need a solicitor to step in to resolve your dispute - and at Austin Lafferty we are always here to help.

But the best advice is to help yourself in the first instance – and always remain vigilant and alert to scammers especially during the current crisis.

Graeme Biggar, Director General of the National Economic Crime Centre, said: “We have already seen fraudsters using the COVID-19 pandemic to scam people looking to buy medical supplies online, sending emails offering fake medical support and targeting people who may be vulnerable or increasingly isolated at home.

“These frauds try to lure you in with offers that look too good to be true, such as high return investments and ‘healthcare opportunities’, or appeals for you to support those who are ill or bogus charities.

“The advice is simple, think very carefully before you hand over your money, and don’t give out your personal details unless you are sure who you are dealing with.

“We are working together across law enforcement, government and the private sector to combat this criminal activity and protect the public.”

Fiona Richardson, Chief Officer for Trading Standards Scotland added: “Unfortunately, fraudsters are taking advantage of consumers' uncertainty and anxiety at this time and phone, email and online scams are constantly evolving. 

“With most of the country in lockdown, now working from home or in isolation, it is more important than ever to be aware of cyber scams.

“If you receive any suspicious emails or texts, do not click on any links or open any attachments.

“Never respond to unsolicited messages and calls that ask for your personal or financial details.

“If you do, your details could be harvested by scammers.

“If you are shopping online and making a purchase from a company or person you don’t know and trust, carry out some research first.

“Ask a friend or family member for advice before completing the purchase.

“If you decide to go ahead, use a credit card if you have one, as most major credit card providers insure online purchases.”

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