More protection buying online than in-store?

A majority of consumers opt to use the internet to buy goods; from cheap household items to expensive luxury items – often achieving cheaper prices than they would in-store. Plus, they have additional rights under the Distance Selling Regulations, such as a cooling off period and so on.

The rights of consumers buying online are highly protected, but, there are still businesses that thrive on unfair practices that are only established to make profits with little or no regard for consumers. So, what can a buyer do when an online seller fails to adhere to the Distance Selling Regulations or to even provide satisfactory goods?

Perhaps an aggrieved buyer may issue a County Court claim. If so, firstly the buyer will need to know who to issue proceedings against and where to serve the proceedings. This information may be difficult to obtain from a seller whose website has little or no information about the entity behind the website or the trading address (convenient for an unscrupulous seller).

Once a buyer has the details of the seller’s registered company and address, a County Court claim can be issued. The seller/defendant will have 14 days to respond to the claim. If the defendant fails to respond within 14 days, judgment in default can be entered.

Once judgment has been entered, the buyer/claimant can enforce the judgment by way of a warrant of execution to seize the defendant’s goods, which can be removed and sold. But, what happens when the bailiff informs the claimant that his or her money could not be recovered because (1) the registered address is only a postal address with no assets, or (2) the registered address of the defendant is that of a firm of accountants or solicitors? Regrettably, should this occur, the claimant, after incurring Court fees and solicitors fees, may find that he or she has effectively thrown good money after bad.

The risk of buying from an unscrupulous seller can be minimised by checking whether an online seller has disclosed all of its details online, such as its registered company number and address and so on. Searching the business name and address on a search engine may reveal reviews or articles about the business. Buying from a more established website or through established intermediary sites like Ebay or Amazon may lower the risk as they have internal dispute resolution systems in place and the sellers’ details need to be verified before an account can be set-up. Paying by credit card or by PayPal can also provide enhanced protection.

Before issuing County Court or High Court proceedings, it is advisable to consult with solicitors. Our litigation solicitors can weigh-up your prospects of successfully recovering your money from a seller and, as such, whether it is worth investing money into a Court claim.

To ascertain the prospects of success, we would first check to see whether the seller’s address is an operative address, as oppose to a postal address. Often, we instruct expert tracing agents for this purpose, who can find, for example, the trading warehouse where goods may be stored, or other assets which can be enforced against.

If there are assets to enforce a judgment against, if you have a County Court Judgment over £600 it may be advisable to transfer-up your judgment to the High Court for enforcement and instruct High Court Enforcement Officers, as opposed to County Court Bailiffs, since they normally have better recovery rates.

Dion McCarthy, Litigation & Employment Solicitor Advocate

dmccarthy@astonbond.co.uk