Your consumer rights and how to protect yourself when online shopping

Consumer rights
Know your consumer rights!

Would you know what to do if you wanted a refund from a shop in the UK or one further afield? Could you tell the difference between a genuine and a fake website? If not, pop the kettle on and settle in - this guide looks at consumer rights in the UK, from how to avoid being scammed or losing money to when you are entitled to a refund, and where to go for help getting one.

What consumer rights do I have when shopping online?

Whatever you’ve bought online, be it a new kettle, a pair of jeans, or even a TV, you have protection written into UK consumer rights laws.

These laws mean you can cancel an order or return one and get your money back. They cover consumer rights on faulty goods as well as when you’ve just changed your mind.

The main law which protects consumers is The Consumer Rights Act, which applies to anything bought (online or offline) after 1 October 2015.

There’s also the Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013, which makes your rights when buying online even stronger. This is great news because there’s more risk you as a customer may receive something faulty or an item you don’t want when you can’t see it in real life before parting with your cash.

This also applies to services and digital content bought from any EU-based business either online, on the phone, or through a mail-order catalogue.

Online Shopping rights
Source: Karolina Grabowska / Pexels.

When can I get a refund?

If you’ve bought something and it’s faulty, you usually have 30 days to return it and receive a full consumer rights refund. 

After this, you’ll be able to ask for the item to be repaired or replaced, or if that’s not possible you can ask for a refund for some of the cost.  

You can cancel an order for any reason at any point after it’s been confirmed, and up to 14 days after you receive the goods, although in reality many retailers give customers a longer-time frame. You then need to return the item within 14 days of notifying the retailer.

During the coronavirus pandemic, this has often been extended further because of lockdowns and shops being shut.

If it’s not a physical thing you’ve bought but a service or digital content, you’ll have 14 days from making the order to cancel it. If you’ve started using it you’ll usually only be able to get a partial refund. 

How to get a refund?
Source: Karolina Grabowska / Pexels.
  1. Find the retailer’s refund policy if needed - usually just search their website or Google it

  2. Click on the links and enter any details requested

  3. Print off the postage label

  4. Box the item up securely so it isn’t damaged in transit

  5. Unless it is faulty, you will usually need to pay the cost of postage yourself, so pop to the post office or find an online courier

  6. Make sure the postage label is attached to the box, and sent. Often best to get a recorded delivery so you can track where it’s got to.

  7. Not all items are subject to all of these rules. For instance, perishable goods or personalised items can't be returned just for a change of mind - but of course they still can if they are faulty.. 

How to complain if your rights have been violated

If you’ve bought something and you want to return it but the shop is refusing to give you a refund, or the retailer seems to have disappeared altogether, it gets a little harder to get your money back.

In the first instance try to contact the retailer, explain the situation and keep as much evidence as possible of anything including online receipts, any communication between you and the retailer, and any extra costs you’ve been forced to pay.

If you’re not able to resolve the situation your next option is the small claims court. This should always be a last resort for taking legal action against a company.

Your consumer rights when buying from overseas

Consumer rights when buying from an EU country

Most consumer rights are based on directives from the European Union but are written into UK law so even with the changes around Brexit in the last few years, they remain the same.

This means you should still have the same protection however if you do end up losing money or having problems with a retailer from the EU, it may be harder to resolve the problem. Therefore, it’s worth spending more time before you hand over your money to make sure the company is genuine. 

Consumer rights when buying from China

Many of the things we buy online come from China but if you buy directly from a Chinese retailer, what happens when something goes wrong? Unfortunately, this is a bit of a grey area. You will be protected under Chinese consumer protection law but this can be a headache if you’re trying to sort out a refund or repair. 

However, if you’ve bought the item with a credit card, you will get a little extra protection under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. This puts the credit card company and the retailer jointly responsible if something goes wrong, as long as the value of the item is between £100 and £30,000. 

The main consumer rights organisations

citizens advice logo
  • Citizens Advice

    Citizens Advice has a wealth of advice and information along with a nationwide network of centres you can visit and a consumer hotline. You can also complain about a company or report it to Trading Standards through Citizens Advice. If you suspect a company is fake, for example, or you’ve been sold a faulty or counterfeit item, it can be investigated.

UK International Consumer Centre
  • UK International Consumer Centre

    You can get free legal and practical advice from this organisation if you live in the UK, you’re a consumer, and you have an issue with a business outside of the UK. It has connections with countries all around the world and although it can’t act for you, it can give advice on how to resolve issues with companies outside of the UK. 

Ombudsman Association
  • Ombudsman Association

    There are ombudsman services for lots of different things from when you buy a new broadband contract to a problem you might have with a travel insurance policy. While there isn’t specifically a complaints ombudsman, there are ombudsman for different things you might buy. You can search for an ombudsman via the Ombudsman Association. If you can find one relevant to your issue (they don’t cover everything) then it can help and can conduct a free and independent investigation.

How to protect yourself when online shopping

  1. Take the time to research where you’re buying from

    The easiest way to protect yourself when shopping online is to be as robust as possible when researching the company you’re buying from. Check they have a real address and contact details, look them up online and on social media feeds to make sure they’re legitimate, and if it doesn’t feel right, choose another retailer to buy from

  2. Pay by credit card if you can

    Paying either the full amount or part of it by credit card gives you an added layer of protection which is especially handy if you’re buying something expensive, as long as the item is worth between £100 and £30,000

  3. Check your consumer rights before you pay

    Before you buy you should be told what your rights are around returns, refunds, or repairs. Most retailers are more generous here than the UK law states but they do need to tell you before you buy what your rights are.

  4. Only buy when you’re using a secure connection

    As with anything online, it’s always worth putting in the extra measures to make sure you’re staying safe online. This includes making sure the website is secure - for example, that the URL shown at the top of your browser begins https:// instead of just http://, and shows a padlock icon.

    On top, try not to use a public wifi account, pick strong passwords, and install up-to-date software and virus protection. For more information, see Get Safe Online.

Consumer Rights FAQs

Do I have to pay to return online items?

Usually, the consumer covers the cost of delivery for sending something back to a retailer, but if the item was faulty the retailer should cover this, although many shops will automatically provide free returns in any situation. It’s always worth getting proof of postage so you can track your return and you have evidence of sending it if it gets lost in the post. 

Can I ask for a refund if I’m offered a credit note or gift voucher?

What happens if the item was a gift?

Are my rights the same for financial services?

Am I only protected when buying brand new?