Consumers buying IT goods online are to get better protection under new distance selling guidelines being developed by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).
The guidelines outline steps that e-tailers, mail order firms and companies selling over the phone must take to adhere to both the Distance Selling Regulations (DSR) and the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations.
The consumer goods IT sector, which accounts for around £2bn per year, is a specific target of the guidelines, after an OFT study found many companies to be in breach of both sets of regulations.
Of particular concern to the OFT were misleading terms about consumers' statutory rights, and guarantee/warranty terms being lost in the small print of agreements.
The OFT wants companies to state returns policies clearly, as many try to charge what they call a 'restocking fee' for returned items that are not faulty. Under the proposals firms are also to be forced into stating whether their telephone help lines are charged at premium rate.
Another breach of the DRS is the failure of firms to make their business addresses and contact numbers clear on their websites.
The OFT also wants to remove the requirement for a consumer to agree that they have "understood the terms and conditions" of a sale, and instead say only that they have read and agreed to the conditions of sale.
The ways in which terms and conditions are written must also be simplified. "They must be intelligible to the average consumer and not couched in legalese," said Paula Barrett, leading IT solicitor with law firm Eversheds.
"It must be clear to consumers how they can return goods and, although restocking fees are illegal, if the company expects the consumer to pay return postage for unwanted goods this must be clearly set out in the terms and conditions."
Barrett warned that companies failing to abide by the regulations would open the door to legal action from consumers.
The response to the proposed guidelines from the industry has generally been good.
Jonathan Wall, marketing director at dabs.com, told vnunet.com: "We welcome the OFT's investigation and proposed new guidelines into Distance Selling Regulations for the computer industry.
"We hope this will result in more clarity on certain issues to ensure we're able to comply with them."
The guidelines will also help other consumer organisations, such as Trading Standards, towards a better understanding of the regulations so that they can more easily assist consumers in disputes.
The OFT expects the consultation period to last until 31 January.
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