Buying tech in the UK: your consumer rights explained
30th Jun 2013 | 07:00
The consumer laws protecting you from being taken for a ride
You've scrimped and saved, and you've finally ordered it: a new iMac, or that copy of Logic you've lusted after, or an accessory that's guaranteed to make your life 27% better.
You've read the reviews, you've found the best price, you made sure that you weren't buying from a cowboy - but even then something can go wrong.
The courier might deliver an iPad instead of an iMac, or not deliver anything at all. The accessory might be the wrong version, or more explodey than you'd like. Now what?
The good news is that you're protected if a supplier messes you around, if goods aren't as advertised or if your purchases develop a fault, and you're even protected if a company goes bust before your goods turn up.
In the UK, there are three key bits of legislation you should know about. There are the Distance Selling Regulations, which cover online shopping and mail/telephone orders; the Sale of Goods Act, which covers any physical product you buy, online or off; and there is the Consumer Credit Act, which offers extensive protection when you pay with a credit card (but not a debit card).
It's important to note that while the legislation is generally straightforward and sensible, we aren't lawyers and what follows doesn't constitute legal advice: if you need such advice, the Law Society will happily put you in touch with a qualified solicitor.
Spooky action at a distance
If you're ordering things online, the Distance Selling Regulations - officially known as the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 - give you seven days to change your mind. The cancellation period depends on what you're buying: with physical products you have seven working days from delivery, and with services you have seven working days from signing up.
Crucially the item doesn't need to be faulty: you can return it because you don't like the colour, or because Apple announced a newer version 10 minutes after it was delivered. Refunds must be made within 30 days of cancellation.
There are some important exceptions. The Distance Selling Regulations don't apply to perishable items such as food, to underwear or to personalised gifts, so you can't expect Apple to take back an iPod engraved with a witty message unless the device is faulty - and they don't apply to software, audio or video once the packaging has been opened.
The rules don't apply to auctions either, but that doesn't mean everything on eBay is exempt: if you're buying from a business, then both Buy It Now and Second Chance Offers are covered by the Distance Selling Regulations.
The software and media exemption appears to apply to app downloads and iTunes purchases too, although if you're really regretting a late-night Kenny G back catalogue binge it's worth trying 'Report a problem' in your iTunes purchase history: Apple representatives have been known to refund some accidental purchases, although the official line is that all purchases are final unless a download is 'unacceptably poor'. Sadly, Apple doesn't mean 'poor' in aesthetic terms.
If you do return a product, watch out for the small print: unless a firm forgets to put it in their terms and conditions, if you're returning a product because you've changed your mind then you're liable for the return postage (the supplier is liable for it if they sent the wrong thing or the item was faulty).
You are not liable for 'restocking' fees, administration charges, packaging deductions or other financial penalties, though, and if the firm persuades you to try an alternative replacement product and you don't like it, the firm pays to pick it up.
In addition to the Distance Selling Regulations, you're also covered by the Sale of Goods Act, or SOGA for short. Under SOGA, goods must match the retailer's description, be of satisfactory quality, and be fit for purpose.
If your order turns up and you feel that it doesn't match the description, isn't satisfactory or isn't fit for purpose, you're entitled to a refund, repair or replacement. However, it's worth noting that SOGA covers the retailer, not the manufacturer, so if your problem is with an Apple product your quarrel is only with Apple if you actually bought it from an Apple Store or the Apple website.
What happens if your order never arrives at all? Under the distance selling regulations, if you don't agree a delivery date then the company has 30 days to deliver; if it doesn't, then you're under no obligation to accept an alternative.
That's fine if the company is still trading, but sadly some firms do go out of business leaving their customers out of pocket. That's where Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 comes in.
The CCA protects purchases worth £100 to £30,000, but only if those purchases were made by credit card.
Under the Act, when you pay with your credit card two contracts are formed: a contract between you and the card company, and a contract between the card company and the retailer. If the retailer goes bust, it's up to the card company to honour the contract - so if you've ordered a product but not received it, the card company should reimburse you.
This protection also applies to warranties, so in the unlikely event of Apple going belly-up the day after your new iMac arrives, your credit card company is liable for honouring the standard warranty.
As ever, there are exceptions. Third parties aren't covered, so if you're buying through PayPal or a group buying site there isn't a direct relationship between the card company and the actual retailer: getting a refund in those circumstances means going to court.
Money Saving Expert reports that some customers are even finding Section 75 claims rejected when they've bought from Amazon sellers. Gift vouchers aren't covered either.
Section 75 isn't the only form of protection you have. Visa, MasterCard and American Express run a chargeback scheme, which means that users of debit cards and people whose credit card purchases are below £100 can get some protection too. Chargebacks must be made within 120 days of a problem and the scheme isn't covered by any legislation, so if your card issuer tells you to get stuffed you can't take them to court.
You're happy with your purchase. It turned up on time, worked perfectly and didn't go on fire - and then a few months later it starts blasting ectoplasm at you. Who you gonna call?
Before you call anybody, it's important to identify what the problem is. Consumer protection legislation covers product faults, but it doesn't cover butter fingers or botched upgrades - so if you've cracked your iPad on a slate floor or unsuccessfully modded your Mac then the best bet is to contact your friendly neighbourhood Apple repairer and hand over a fistful of notes.
It doesn't cover consumables either, and that means it only covers MacBook batteries if a problem occurs ridiculously early in their lifespan.
If you think your product has developed a fault, step one is to contact the retailer. Under SOGA, if a product is less than six months old then it's up to the retailer to replace, repair or refund the purchase. They can't just say, "Well, it must be something you did," and they can't refuse to do it if you don't have a till receipt: a credit card statement or even a PayPal payment confirmation (if appropriate) can be used to prove that you purchased a product.
After six months things get more difficult, because under SOGA the burden of proof now moves to you. In practice we've found most retailers to be perfectly fine with six months-plus problems, but if your one is being difficult you may find it easier to turn to the warranty.
There are three kinds of warranties: retailers' warranties, manufacturers' warranties, and extended warranties (such as AppleCare). Most retailers stick carefully to SOGA and tell you to contact the manufacturer in the event of any faults, but some are more generous. John Lewis is one of the best-known examples, and it offers a two-year guarantee on Apple products: if your iMac packs up during that period, you can take it back to the shop for repair. Apple's own warranty is just for one year.
Is it cheating us? Some people think so, pointing to the EU regulations that mandate two-year warranties for electronic goods. However, those regulations cover retailers, not manufacturers, and the UK already has stronger consumer protection in the form of the Sale of Goods Act.
If Apple is the retailer then it and you are covered by SOGA; where it's only the manufacturer then its standard warranty applies, covering not just defects that are present at the time of purchase (which is what SOGA covers) but any faults that crop up during the warranty period. If Apple has to repair or replace your hardware, the repair and/or parts are guaranteed for the remainder of the warranty period or for 90 days if your warranty has fewer than 90 days before it expires.
No warranty? No problem
Some things are beyond the remit of consumer protection legislation. Dropping an iPhone down the toilet or an iMac down the stairs is traumatic, but of course neither event is covered by Apple's warranty or the Sale of Goods Act. You might be able to claim on your insurance, however, and such insurance tends to come in two flavours: home insurance, or third-party mobile phone insurance.
That latter category might be a policy you've taken out specifically, or something bundled with your bank account. The problem with insurance is that there's usually an excess, and such excesses can make claiming pointless unless you've done some really serious damage.
For example, RBS mobile phone insurance has a £75 excess, while ProtectYourBubble's gadget policies charge £50 excess for iPhones, £50 for iPads and £75 for laptops, plus an additional £25 if you claim in the first three months of a policy. That means there's not much point in claiming for an iPhone 4 screen repair: the excess for that is £50 - £75, and our local indie iPhone emporium will do the job for £35.
It's a similar story with laptops: claiming for a cracked MacBook screen carries an excess of £75 to £100, compared to the £129 our local repairer charges. Our home insurance excesses are even higher, so unless someone sets our iMac on fire before stealing it we're more likely to pay for a repair than claim on insurance.
Insurance is only really appropriate for total loss, then, but it might be sensible to invest in a different kind of insurance to protect you from future faults. One of the most common computer failures is the hard disk, and they cost pennies to replace; it's the data on them that's valuable.
In the long term, an online backup service such as Mozy Home (from £4.99 per month) or an external Time Machine drive might prove to be more valuable and less expensive than any insurance policy.
A whole lotta humbugs
One of the biggest problems with consumer rights is that retailers don't always know what they are. As a result, misunderstandings and flatout lies are sadly very common.
The good news is that there's a law for that too: the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. These regulations make it illegal for traders to make 'restrictive statements', which are statements designed to mislead you about your rights.
Examples include 'no refunds', when the Distance Selling Regulations and Sale of Goods Act entitle you to just that; 'faults not notified within 14 days of receipt cannot be accepted', when SOGA gives you six years from the date of purchase (five years from when the problem is discovered, in Scotland); 'no sale goods exchanged', when SOGA applies to sale goods too, and so on.
The Unfair Trading regulations cover other key issues too: it's an offence for businesses to pose as ordinary individuals, a tactic some chancers use to try and evade their responsibilities under the distance selling and sale of goods legislation, and it's an offence to mislead consumers by withholding key information or making false claims, such as time-limited special offers that aren't special or limited.
There's a big difference between what the law says and what companies actually do. If a firm isn't doing what it's supposed to be doing, we'd recommend collating as much evidence as you can and then notifying the company in writing - print or email - as soon as possible.
Don't write when you're angry, but do explain clearly what the problem is, what you want the company to do about it and when you expect to hear back from them. The Consumers' Association has stacks of helpful letter templates to help.
If a letter doesn't do the trick, it's worth putting in a call to your local Trading Standards office, whose involvement often persuades badly behaved firms to sort themselves out, or to file a claim with the small claims court. Such claims aren't as complicated as you might think, and you can claim not only for loss but for your expenses, including reasonable travelling expenses, loss of earnings and the cost of filing your claim in the first place.
Once again, the Consumers' Association has all the relevant information for England and Wales; the Scottish and Northern Irish systems are slightly different, and they're explained in depth on the Scottish Courts and the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service sites respectively.
Using the courts is a worst case scenario, of course: for most people, buying technology is a painless process, and most retailers and manufacturers are eminently reasonable when problems do happen to occur. However, it's nice to know that if things do go wrong, there's plenty of legislation to back you up!