The way we shop has changed dramatically over the last few years. While there are many advantages to online shops, like cheaper items, lots of choice, convenience and comparison sites, there are a couple of pretty major flaws.

My biggest concern is the proliferation of fraudsters. But coming up a close second is the quality of goods and services offered by the retailers – and your rights if you want to return or cancel things you’ve bought. This becomes a major problem if the retailer is based abroad.

I love a bit of international shopping, so fear not, this isn’t a xenophobic column! But it’s really important to be aware of the risks when buying from abroad. Here’s my guide.

Fake UK firms

Over the last year, I’ve been flooded with enquiries from readers who have bought everything from wedding dresses to vacuums from websites with ‘UK’ in the brand name and in the URL address. However, when they attempt to return an item, they discover the shop isn’t UK-based and returning the goods will be very expensive.

It’s quite hard to spot which businesses are non-UK based. The simplest method is to check both the ‘contact us’ page and the ‘returns and refunds’ guide, which should give you a clue as to whether the retailer actually has a UK address. If you’re invited to email to arrange a refund, that’s a big clue that the business might be based abroad. Other things to watch for are shops advertising on social media that price up goods in your online basket in different currencies, whopping delivery costs at checkout and suspiciously long delivery timescales.

Businesses based abroad

Some of the biggest retailers in the world, like Shein, are based in China. Others, like Temu are a little opaque about where goods are shipping from. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but it’s vital to do your research before placing an order.

I recently found cancelling an order I’d made to a major China-based business was complicated because I couldn’t do this using their ‘live chat’ until the item had been dispatched – which could have left me with return delivery charges.

This matters because when you buy most goods or services online, you usually have a 14 day ‘right to cancel’ period if you change your mind under the Consumer Contract Regulations.

I suspect some businesses make it hard to contact them to invoke these rights so it’s harder to return things. If in doubt, use social media to say you’re returning goods to stop the clock ticking.

Online marketplaces

Online marketplaces aren’t strictly retailers. They are more of a conduit between buyer and seller. This shouldn’t be an issue, after all, some of the world’s biggest brands have similar business models.

It does becomes a problem if you want to make a complaint. That’s because laws like the Consumer Rights Act – which give us our shopping and refund rights – mainly apply to UK based businesses that you buy directfrom. Using a third-party marketplace leaves you at the mercy of the businesses own buyer dispute policies and the only right of appeal if that doesn’t work is the courts.

However, I’m assured that our UK laws apply to businesses trading in the UK, though disputes can be much harder to sort out.

Returns

Which brings us to returns. I’ve dealt with some shocking service from firms recently who are making it difficult to return goods to get refunds. Some simply don’t provide details on where to return items in an attempt to ‘time out’ your 14-day return rights. Others stick addresses on parcels that aren’t the official return address on the website.

You’ll need to follow the website instructions to return an item. Photo the parcel with the correct address on it, screenshot the online instructions and save emails and records.

Oh, and I want to hear your stories about businesses that ship goods from the UK in a few days but claim you have to return them abroad. So shop a shop today!

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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