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The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has warned well-known online retailers trading in Britain that some of them could face formal enforcement action from the watchdog if they failed to comply fully with consumer protection law.

It said the regulator had, ahead of the busy Christmas shopping period, written letters to 62 leading companies that sell goods on the web, after it carried out a "sweep" of 156 sites to uncover potential violations of existing legislation.

The OFT said it had searched for possible breaches of the Distance Selling Regulations (DSRs) during its probe of online stores.

It found key areas of concern, which it has since raise with retailers. The watchdog said:

  • 33 per cent of sites that provided information on cancellation appeared to impose unreasonable restrictions on customers' rights to a refund. Most common was requiring that the product must be in the original packaging or in the original condition, which can infringe on consumers' rights to reasonably inspect/ assess the product.
  • 60 per cent provided a web contact form rather than an email contact address, as required by the E-Commerce Regulations. Two per cent provided no electronic contact details at all.
  • While 60 per cent of sites indicated upfront that compulsory charges would be added to the first price shown, 24 per cent of these sites went on to add further unexpected charges at the check-out.

The OFT said that most of the websites that market research outfit BDRC Continental looked at on behalf of the regulator during the investigation, were found to be compliant with the DSRs in providing other required information to the consumer, such as explaining when the good would be delivered.

But it warned:

Traders that do not make amendments to comply with the law risk formal enforcement action from the OFT or Local Trading Standards Services.

It also offered up some hand-holding with an online guidance tool being created to advise how companies can ensure that they are operating correctly with consumer protection law.

The OFT added that it was yet to formally determine whether some of those sites subjected to the sweep had breached the DSRs.

Consumers who think their rights are being violated by UK-based online retailers can report it to the Citizens Advice hotline (08454 040506), the OFT added. ®

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