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EU boosts protection for online consumers

The influence of the European Union on our day-to day lives is not always welcome, as recent election results have shown, but one directive on the way from Brussels could change things for the better for consumers.

A package of measures designed to strengthen consumer rights will pass into UK law on Friday, promising greater protection for people buying goods and services online.

The new rules, which will bring the UK into line with cancellation rights enjoyed by consumers elsewhere in Europe, also cover orders handled by phone, mail order and door to door.

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First tabled by the European Commission in 2008, the Consumer Rights Directive has in its sights many of the quirks shoppers find infuriating when shopping online.

With internet transactions accounting for about 20% of UK retail sales, it brings with it the hope of forming extra safeguards to consumers in millions of transactions.

The new rules will mean the end for pre-ticked boxes on websites, which ­consumers are currently compelled to "untick" if they want to avoid stumping up for additional services or add-ons.

In addition, the ­cooling-off period in all sales will be extended from seven working days to 14, giving people more time to change their mind about a purchase.

"These proposals will give consumers greater protection against rogue traders and strengthen their rights when shopping online," said Which? executive director Richard Lloyd. "The ban on pre-ticked boxes will also help people from being opted in to extras they may not want or need.

"These changes, coupled with the new Consumer Bill of Rights, will give people more power to challenge bad practice."

Under the new rules, the right to withdraw from a sale will kick in when a consumer receives the goods, not the time the contract was agreed.

Where a consumer decides to withdraw from a sale, they must be refunded in 14 days, and where a seller has not made the right to withdraw clear, the return period will be extended out to a year.

The withdrawal right extends to auction sites such as eBay, where goods are bought from a professional seller, and to solicited visits by door-to-door sales people, where a trader has called earlier and pressed the consumer into agreeing to a visit.

There will also no longer be a distinction between solicited and unsolicited visits, ensuring the rules cannot be circumvented.

In further changes, greater protection will be given to consumers who download music or videos, with the right to withdraw remaining open until the downloading process begins.

Meanwhile, online traders will be compelled to give clearer guidance on the compatibility of digital content with hardware and software, as well as the application of technical protection measures, such as the right of consumers to make copies.

Traders will have to make clear the total cost of a transaction, including extra fees, and consumers will be protected against "cost traps", which see fraudsters attempt to trick people into paying for "free services" such as recipes or horoscopes.

The far-reaching directive will also eliminate surcharges for using credit cards or hotlines - meaning a trader will not be able to charge more than the cost it incurs in offering these options - and sellers must also make clear if they expect the consumer to pay for the cost of returning goods.

Charlotte Nunes, spokeswoman at comparison site uSwitch, commented: "We welcome the new laws, but they may fall flat if action isn't taken to ensure that consumers understand what they are entitled to.

"Too many people are _wasting time and losing money through not knowing where they stand on consumer issues. Simplifying and modernising the directive is a must, but so too is educating consumers on what it means."

Andrew Cockburn of company formation specialist Oswalds, part of the Jordan Group, noted there was some good news for retailers, namely the end of "wardrobing".

He said: "Apparently, there are many people who buy clothes online, wear them once or twice and then return them.

"Retailers will now have the right to reduce the refund to reflect any loss in value where goods have been used, so this might well spell the end of that particular phenomenon," added Cockburn.

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