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Introducing the CMA’s ‘Online Rip-off Tip-off’ campaign

The Competition & Markets Authority’s Consumer Director, Jen Dinmore, explains how the CMA is raising awareness of ‘sneaky’ online sales tactics.

This is a guest article by the Competition & Markets Authority. All views expressed are its own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

With almost one-third of all shopping now taking place online after the pandemic fuelled a surge, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has become increasingly worried about the impact of ‘sneaky’ sales tactics on consumers. 

The Online Rip-Off Tip-Off” is a new consumer facing campaign from the CMA, fronted by TV presenter and consumer champion Angellica Bell. It features advice for everyone on how to spot and avoid harmful misleading online sales practices.

One of the side effects of the pandemic is that more people than ever before are shopping online.  Misleading online sales practices can be particularly harmful for those with mental health or other vulnerabilities.

New CMA research reveals that, of those polled these numbers of people have reported that they’ve experienced misleading online tactics, 85% were concerned about hidden charges, followed by subscription traps (83%), fake reviews (80%) and pressure selling (50%). To help everyone better spot and avoid shady online practices our campaign features the following top tips.

How can I avoid subscription traps?

✅ Check out how to leave as well as sign up to a subscription. Is it a simple ‘click to cancel’ or is it more complicated, e.g. will you have to phone the company to cancel?

✅ Set a reminder to review your subscription before the next billing date or the end of any trial period

✅ Look beyond any introductory offer for ongoing payments and terms – when will you have to pay and how much will it cost?

✅ Do you have to provide payment card details? If yes – stop and ask why

✅ Check your bank/payment card statements regularly for unexpected payments and if you see a charge you didn’t expect, contact your bank, or card issuer for help

✅ If you have signed up to a subscription by mistake or after a ‘free’ trial, complain to the company concerned

How can I avoid pressure selling?

✅ Always check at least two websites before buying; it pays to shop around

✅ Think carefully before you pay. You might want to check the purchase with a friend/family member or sleep on it and come back tomorrow

✅ Browse in incognito mode on your web browser to see if the countdown timer or clock on the sale has changed

✅ Download a sales or price comparison/tracking app to see how prices change

✅ Ignore ‘lots of people are looking at this’ messages

✅ Use the size of retailer as a guide on product availability – larger retailers are usually less likely to run out

✅ Lots of retailers have multiple sales a year – don’t be pressured into buying now, there will likely be other sales later

✅ Plan what you want to buy in advance to avoid being pressured

How can I avoid hidden charges?

✅ Treat the original/headline price with caution – if it is low, it might be designed to lure you in

✅ Watch out for any compulsory extra fees added in during the purchase process

✅ Think carefully before you pay – check the basket or total price for unexpected costs before buying

✅ Shop around – if you’re not sure about the final total price check out other sites

How can I avoid fake reviews?

✅ Look at negative as well as positive reviews

✅ Check the dates of the reviews – be cautious if they are old or if they were all published close together

✅ Look out for patterns or repeated phrases in reviews – it may indicate they were written by the same person

✅ Be cautious of very high percentages of 5-star reviews, If it’s too good to be true it probably is. Treat overwhelmingly positive reviews with caution

✅ Does the review contain specifics about the product/service experience rather than just using general terms like ‘Brilliant’ or ‘Fantastic’? Real reviews often talk about specifics of the products, such as the quality or price

✅ Read reviews of other products/services by the same reviewer

✅ Look out for verified purchase reviews – these are reviews of purchases the retailer can confirm were bought on its own site

Your views on sneaky sales tactics

What’s your experience of online sales practices? Have you found any misleading and how did that impact you?

To find out more, stay up to date and learn how to shop confidently, head to www.gov.uk/ripoff-tipoff or follow #RipOffTipOff @CMAgovUK

This was a guest article by the Competition & Markets Authority. All views expressed were its own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

We’ve repeatedly found that shoppers are at risk of being misled online by businesses using dubious tactics, such as fake reviews, that result in people being ripped off and often ending up with poor quality products that don’t live up to expectations.

The government has set out plans to tackle some of these exploitative online practices as part of its consumer and competition reforms and should introduce new laws in this year’s Queen’s Speech to banish these practices as soon as possible.

Comments

I don’t think I would ever buy anything on line that required an open ended purchase with a commitment to further products or services. I think one off payments on a credit card make sense, but to give a company a key to withdraw money as it wishes is foolish. The only such payment I have is for my computer antivirus – annually – and agreed. I keep an eye on this as, with most of these things, the company tends to add five percent or so each year regardless. Although I can cancel the antivirus if I wish, I think it might be more of a problem stopping payment from the card. Hopefully a letter would do this in the same way a direct debit in the bank can be cancelled.
I agree that companies who deliberately set out to trap customers into subscriptions that can not be cancelled should be prevented from doing this. Of, course many have phone contracts for a year or eighteen months. Mine goes through the bank and not the credit card. Phone and TV contracts are usually well set out with no attempt to hoodwink their subscribers..

I was going to suggest the best way to avoid being misled is to deal with established companies and check into those you have never used before, looking at negative reviews for example. Then I remembered my daughter has a boiler contract with British Gas. There is a £99 excess to pay.

Her boiler stopped working a couple of weeks ago; BG attended promptly and fixed it. They reported 5 faults and pointed out the excess was…. per fault. He said he would combine three into one but they still had to pay nearly £300. The small print in the booklet did give these details but it was not apparent on the contract letter, she tells me.

I like to think I am reasonably savvy but have inadvertently fallen for Amazon Prime and their chargeable delivery presented as a default when I qualified for free standard delivery. Prominent buttons lead you into these traps if you are not careful.

Perhaps we should legally ban the practice of being signed in to a subscription contract when you are invited to take up a special offer. If the offer demonstrates that the product is good and worth continuing with then you should be able to decide to set up the subscription after the trial ends. Why should you have to remember to cancel?

I am asked to join Amazon Prime every time I make a purchase and the refusal tab is much less prominent than the acceptance one. I am asked twice, once on purchase and once for delivery. So far I have managed to avoid clicking the wrong button. I’m sure Amazon Prime is much more beneficial to them than it is to us, though it is made to seem that joining entitles us to many privileges – including paying to belong!

I am impressed by this initiative by the CMA and think their list of cautions is extremely good. It composites a lot of advice that has come from Which?, Citizens Advice, the government, and other bodies over the years.

I am intrigued by the recommendation to “browse in incognito mode on your web browser to see if the countdown timer or clock on the sale has changed”. I have never come across this facility so would appreciate an explanation . . . or does it just mean “don’t log-in or register on a website until you have carried out sufficient checks”?

Many product descriptions these days on sites such as Amazon are long-winded and full of froth, usually giving the product an exaggerated range of uses or applications. I think people should read such verbiage carefully and if it seems to be getting turgid with hype look somewhere else. Also, think about what is not being said amongst all the flowery bilge and balderdash.

Chrome Incognito mode or (Microsoft Edge InPrivate mode) can be accessed from the 3 dots in the top right hand corner of your window. Or, right click on the Chrome / Edge icon in the tool bar, then left click on New Incognito (or InPrivate) window task in the menu that opens.

This mode does not save any data from your browsing, so if you reopen a new Incognito / InPrivate window you will see the web page as it would appear the first time anyone views it. If the timer has reverted, then the timeout is not a genuine fixed sale end date, but is solely linked to when you first browsed the webpage, via some information stored on your computer, e.g. a cookie.

You can generally identify Incognito / InPrivate web page browsing from the black borders. Because nothing is saved, you would need to re-enter any sign on or account information, e.g. your bank account number will not be saved and pre-filled for next time in Incognito mode. That doesn’t mean it has been deleted from your computer however. Open your normal (white) browser window and normal behaviour will be restored.

Thank you, Em. I am not likely to use this tool because I don’t do any purchasing against the clock but it’s fascinating to learn what is available.

I use private browsing when visiting retailers’ websites because it really annoys me being sent personalised cookies. Of course I have to turn it off to place an order.

The countdown timers are an example of unpleasant business practice, like hiking prices for premium renewals.

Thanks for your Conversation, Jen. I would like to take up your point about subscription traps.

Most of my regular payments are by direct debit. I periodically check the active ones via online banking, which is quick and easy because they are all in one place. I am aware of the Direct Debit Guarantee and have never had to make use of it. All the organisations I have DDs with let me know in advance of any forthcoming change in payments, giving me the opportunity to cancel. It works very well.

In contrast, I have several continuous payment authorities (CPA) whereby companies can request payments from card accounts. I do get the required reminder of a forthcoming payment from the payee but it is more difficult to keep a check on CPAs because I have several card accounts. I prefer to use credit card accounts because of the possibility of Section 75 protection. In summary, I far prefer direct debit to CPA but may have no choice.

With regard to subscription traps, I have recently had two unexpected charges made to Paypal or a credit card. These subscriptions were both taken out two years ago – shortly after recovering from an operation requiring a general anaesthetic. In both cases, the renewal subscription has increased.

I understood this to be illegal without a 30-day advance notice period under EU law, but my complaint to PayPal fell on deaf ears. I’ve cancelled my payment authority so I don’t get caught next time and I’ll make sure I continue to use the service to the max.

It is very hard to keep track of biennial renewals, since most diaries only run for 12 months and my memory certainly doesn’t. Maybe these should not be allowed, at least not without the right to a clawback if the service has not been used recently.

As I have already posted many times, the law needs to be changed so that the channels available to cancel a subscription are the same as those available to take out a subscription in the first place, and it should not be made any more difficult or expensive to do so.

In other words:

If you can take out a subscription online through a webpage, you must be able to cancel that subscription by logging onto your online account. The option to cancel must be as prominent as the option to renew or change your payment method or other account details.

If you can take out a subscription using an 0800 Freephone number, you must be able to cancel that subscription using a Freephone number and the average wait time must be no more than the average wait time to take out a new subscription.

Similarly for a postage-paid form, email, or in store application. The method of cancellation must be equvalent in terms of medium, ease of use and cost.

Furthermore, any method of cancellation available to other subscribers must be accepted, irrespective of the method used to take out the subscription in the first place.

Notification of cancellation by email (and an email address must be provided) must always be accepted as a default option.

Finally, for any recurring subscription service, cancellation or deletion of the means of payment, be it Direct Debit, Credit Card, PayPal, etc., cannot place the subscriber in breach of contract or default. The contract comes to an end naturally, once both a method of payment is revoked and the remaining subscription term expires.

I agree, Em. It’s common sense. Let’s teach business how to run a business.

Most businesses behave responsibly and do not need “teaching”, but regulations need addressing to deal with those less responsible organisations

Well-behaved responsible businesses certainly don’t need teaching and therefore won’t get any lessons. But there are a large number of businesses whose staff do need additional assistance on some of the legal aspects of consumer rights, and I have had to teach some of them a lesson in recent times. Good firms will appreciate such support as it will enable them to provide better customer service and avoid ending up in the columns of Which? Conversation.

Thanks John. I hope that in the context it would be obvious that I’m not going to attempt to teach businesses that behave responsibly.

As an example of ‘teaching business how to run a business’ I have been known to explain consumer rights to staff at Currys, and when I have to take back faulty goods I go prepared with learning aids such as information about the provisions of the Consumer Rights Act. If possible I try to make positive comments such as mentioning that Currys has physical stores where customers can inspect goods, unlike retailers that just sell online.

It would be useful to know just how bad Currys is at understanding or denying consumer rights. Which? place them around the middle of the league table for customer service. Maybe their customer failures seen against the total number of transactions is not that bad? Maybe we pick on them because they are a specific target in a couple of Which? Convos? Nothing wrong with picking up bad practice, quite the contrary, but it would be useful to know how well or badly all major retailers deal with customers’ rights.

I, too, have occasionally over the years explained my legal rights when discussing faulty goods with a seller; on all occasions but one a polite explanation and discussion of my stance produced a fair outcome. In general it was lack of knowledge of the staff initially approached so, rather than teach them, I asked to see their manager who should have been more conversant with SOGA and the CRA. This seemed to work.

Maybe Trading Standards (is it Hertfordshire?) should point out to Currys their staff’s apparent lack of understanding of consumer rights and require them to ensure they are now trained adequately and to demonstrate that every outlet will have properly-informed managers on duty at all times to handle customers with their complaints.

It is difficult to know whether the Curry’s staff who have let down the people who have reported their appalling experiences here were not given any training in consumer rights, or were actually instructed to give the wrong information.

Some of the problems reported here were just inefficiency and bad management rather than incompetence – not turning up when promised, giving conflicting information about installations, not returning telephone calls, keeping people hanging on for hours, managers refusing to speak to customers, giving incorrect stock information, and so on.

In terms of Which?’s assessment of Currys’ customer service performance, if people’s expectations are not high they will regard the experience as satisfactory. If they have successfully made a purchase they are not likely to criticise the company, nor will they complain about customer service if they could not get what they wanted in the store and just went elsewhere. The results also depend on what sort of service they were seeking: the majority of negative reports here seemed to relate to delivery and installation problems with a major appliance. People who just wanted to buy an iron or a kettle or get some IT accessory or peripheral would have little knowledge of the major appliance side of the business. It is also possible that people who use Currys’ have little or no experience of shopping at John Lewis or Richer Sounds so their perceptions of customer service are different. Relying solely on customer surveys for an opinion on a company can give misleading results.

Currys’ quasi-monopoly position in the physical market and huge presence on-line protect the company from competitive pressures and allows bad practices to be tolerated. There is possibly a case for breaking the company up into separate independent traders for both in-store and on-line operations so that all parts of the country have a choice of physical supplier as well as website competition.

I am constantly being caught out by webstore outlets that have goods “in stock”, only to find that the items purchased are on back order and subject to delayed delivery. Amazon are actually quite good in this regard, and only occasionally fail to deliver on time. (I suspect this is often down to the courier used.)

I have purchased large appliances directly from Samsung that failed to turn up on the contracted delivery date (for which additional payment was required), only to be told that they are not in stock. How does a 60 kg washing machine and tumble dryer just “disappear” from the warehouse? Followed by literally weeks to get my credit card refunded, so I can buy elsewhere. It’s systemic dishonesty.

I have even had BP Pulse take over £500 in full payment for an EV charge point, still subject to survey, with no known installation date, no guarantee they would complete in time for the £350 OZEV grant – which would then be added to my installation costs – and contrary to their own published timelines for taking payment.

It should be an offence to take payment from a debit or credit card, unless the goods are known to be in stock and guaranteed to be delivered by an agreed date. And statutory compensation should be payable to the consumer in the event of such an error. The only defense to this should be force majeur, i.e. circumstances beyond the control of the supplier, like a warehouse fire, theft or transport disruption.

This is a real sneaky sales tactic from Sky – make you an 18-month offer – BUT THE PRICE MIGHT CHANGE !!! This particular price is going up in April so a con.

That’s not very helpful, Alfa. I would be equally concerned that there is no mention about how much it would cost after 18 months.

It will almost certainly go up after 18 months. We have just been given a renewal price of just over 50% increase that 1½ hours later has now been negotiated down to a little over 10% increase.

They’re dead right to point out how such sneaky tactics can especially snare those with learning disabilities or other problems, we can’t all be so super sharp witted like we’re all expected to be. And all too often it’s the most vulnerable who are deliberately targeted by those with only selfish greed in mind and little or no conscience, how can they live with themselves?! And look how many advice categories there is in the list, it goes on and on, just how on earth can anyone, let alone anyone severely disabled, or elderly, be expected to remember all that?! And of course those who run such appalling scams know that so such evil tactics are especially effective against those most vulnerable which is why our government must do more to stamp out such outrageous stunts. And once again all too often the terms and conditions and privacy policies of the vendors are far too often FAR too ridiculously complex and far too LONG which is why we need legislation to properly simplify such things as far as is practical so more folk have more of a chance to see where they stand with more vendors before agreeing to anything. And of course common sense is vitally important here, don’t be rushed into anything that looks too good to be true, and of course any special offers or anything similar should absolutely NOT involve any form of blatant entrapment as is sometimes the case.