Trading Standards Institute Advice

Problems with purchases overseas - who to complain to and who can help

In the guide

This guidance is for England, Scotland & Wales

If you are in dispute with a trader over goods bought in the UK, you can obtain advice on your legal rights from the Citizens Advice consumer service, a solicitor or another advice agency.

However, if a trader is based overseas it may be difficult to know who to complain to and what your legal rights are. The law can be confusing as your rights as a consumer depend on where and how you bought the goods. 

You may have additional rights if you bought the goods using your credit card.

The law

If you buy goods from a trader based in the European Union (EU) some of the legal rights you have may be similar to rights you have in the UK - for example, rights when you buy goods that are faulty or unsafe. This is because some laws - called 'directives' or 'regulations' - are made in the EU and they are either transferred into UK law or form part of UK law as soon as they are made. 

Whilst basic legal frameworks are set by the EU, the way they are transferred into the law of the individual countries within the EU can sometimes vary; do not assume that the rights you have in the UK are exactly the same as those in another EU country.

With regard to consumer contracts in the EU, if a trader in another EU member state wanted to take court action against you, they could only do so in the UK. A trader cannot have terms and conditions that avoid this. However, you have the choice to take court action against a trader in the EU member state where they are based or in the UK. If you buy goods from a country outside the EU, then the laws of that country usually apply. 

Key EU directives that apply to contracts for the sale of goods in EU countries are summarised below.

Directive 1999/44/EC on certain aspects of the sale of consumer goods and associated guarantees

The Sale of Consumer Goods and Associated Guarantees Directive sets out minimum requirements for goods that apply no matter where they were bought within the EU. Goods must 'conform to the contract of sale', which means they must:

  • demonstrate the quality and performance that can reasonably be expected
  • comply with the sales description
  • be fit for the purpose for which the goods were intended

This Directive also states that a guarantee offered by a trader is legally binding. It must be set out in a clear understandable form and include the name and address of the trader giving the guarantee, as well as how to make a claim. Legal rights that apply in an EU country regarding the sale of goods are not affected by a guarantee. 

Directive 2000/31/EC on certain legal aspects of information society services, in particular electronic commerce, in the internal market ('Directive on electronic commerce')

When you buy goods online from a trader in the EU, the Electronic Commerce Directive (this was transferred in to UK law as the Electronic Commerce (EC) Regulations 2002) requires the trader to provide certain information:

  • name of the trader
  • geographic address (will show which law applies to the contract)
  • details of the trader, including an email address
  • details of any trade body, authorisation scheme or regulatory professional body to which they belong
  • give his VAT registration number
  • prices on the website must be clear and unambiguous and, in particular, state whether they are inclusive of tax and delivery costs

The Directive also sets out other requirements:

  • 'commercial communications' - for example, advertising emails - should be clearly identified as such and should also identify the trader responsible
  • promotional offers should be clearly and easily understood
  • the trade must clearly set out the steps that you should follow to buy the goods (the process must allow you to stop and correct the order if you make a mistake)
  • the trader should acknowledge receipt of the order

Directive 2011/83/EU on consumer rights

The EU also introduced the Consumer Rights Directive (part of which was transferred into UK law as the Consumer Protection (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013). Under this Directive:

  • you have the right to cancel most distance contracts (contracts made online, by phone, etc) and off-premises contracts (those made away from a trader's business premises). The cancellation period is 14 days 
  • traders must give you certain information before they make a contract with you
  • traders must get your clear agreement if they want to charge you for 'extras' 
  • telephone helplines (for you to contact the business about something you have bought) must only be charged at the basic rate
  • there are clear rules on delivery and the point at which you become responsible for the goods
  • if the trader sends you 'unsolicited' goods (goods that you have not ordered) you can keep them and you do not have to pay for them 

The 'Buying by internet, phone & mail order - distance contracts explained' and 'Buying at home - off premises contracts explained' guides give more information on how the Directive has been transferred to UK law and how it applies to contracts made with UK traders.

The Consumer Rights Directive also states that traders are banned from charging excessive fees to consumers for using payment methods such as credit or debit cards. The fees charged must reflect the actual cost to a trader of using that particular payment process. This part of the Directive was transferred into UK law as the Consumer Rights (Payment Surcharges) Regulations 2012.

I am in dispute with an overseas trader - what can I do?

These are the practical steps you can take when you want to complain to a trader about goods:

  • find out if the trader has a website and look for their contact details
  • check an EU trader's website or the terms and conditions of the contract to find out where they are based and which law applies
  • if you consider buying from a trader that is not based in the EU, find out which law applies and check the contract terms and conditions before you go ahead
  • if you order goods from a trader online make sure you have the order confirmation details, as these will have relevant information such as your customer / order reference number that you will need to progress your complaint
  • try approaching the trader directly. A phone call may be enough to resolve the complaint but send a follow-up email to confirm the details
  • send an email to the trader outlining what the problem is and the action you would like the trader to take to solve the problem. As an alternative you can write to the trader, although you may not be able to confirm that the letter has been received in some countries - check with the postal carrier before sending. The 'Writing an effective letter of complaint' guide gives more information (template letters included)
  • give a reasonable time limit for a response - what is reasonable will depend on whether you complained by email or by letter. Contact the UK European Consumer Centre for free, impartial advice and assistance

I paid by credit / debit card - what can I do? 

If a credit card was used to buy the goods and the amount in dispute is over £100 but less than £30,000, then contact your credit card provider. Under the Consumer Credit Act 1974 you can hold the credit card provider equally liable with the trader for a breach of contract or misrepresentation. This could include supplying faulty goods, non-delivery of goods or making false claims about goods. This protection extends to traders overseas and items bought when abroad.

If the cost of the item exceeds £30,000 and is less than £60,260, and the finance was arranged specifically to buy that item, you may be able to claim against the finance company under section 75A of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. If you are unhappy with the credit card provider's response then you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service.

If you use a debit card to buy goods or if you use a credit card and the price of the goods is less than £100 (your rights under the Consumer Credit Act 1974 would not apply), you may be able to take advantage of the chargeback scheme. Chargeback is the term used by card providers for reclaiming a card payment from the trader's bank. If you can provide evidence of a breach of contract - for example, goods are not delivered or are faulty, or the trader has ceased trading - you can ask your card provider to attempt to recover the payment. Check with your card provider as to how the scheme rules apply to your card, whether internet and overseas transactions are covered and what the time limit is for making a claim.

In the event of a dispute, if you used a debit card or a credit card to service an online payment method (such as PayPal) it is unlikely that you will be able to use either the Consumer Credit Act 1974 or the chargeback scheme to claim from your card provider. However, PayPal has its own dispute resolution process, which may assist you in getting your problem resolved.

I am still in dispute - where can I get help?

If you followed the steps outlined above and your dispute remains unresolved, there are organisations that may be able to help. Please note that some of the organisations listed below may not be able to offer you direct assistance in obtaining a remedy; some may just take the information for intelligence purposes in order to assist consumers as a whole. If you are still unable to resolve your complaint then you may need to consider legal action.

European Union (plus Iceland & Norway)

If you are based in the UK and have a problem with a trader in the EU (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden) or Iceland and Norway you can seek advice and support from the UK European Consumer Centre (ECC). The UK ECC is part of the European Consumer Centre Network and there are 30 centres covering Europe plus Iceland and Norway. It can advise and assist in cross-border disputes that involve a trader in another European Union member state.

The Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Directive has been introduced by the EU. ADR procedures are another way of resolving disputes about goods and services between you and a trader without going to court. In the EU these procedures can take different forms and have different names - for example, arbitration, mediation, complaints boards and ombudsmen. The UK ECC can also provide advice on ADR schemes and the European Small Claims Procedure. The contact details are:

UK European Consumer Centre 
Chartered Trading Standards Institute, 1 Sylvan Court, Sylvan Way, Southfields Business Park, Basildon, Essex, SS15 6TH 
Tel: 01268 886694, email: ecc@tsi.org.uk

United States & Canada

If you know the trader's address then you may wish to complain to the trader's local Better Business Bureau (BBB). The BBBs aim to make the marketplace fair and effective. Some BBBs offer intervention but most of them publish 'reliability reports' of traders in their area. If you just want to notify the US government without seeking advice (to report a scam for example) then you can use the Federal Trade Commission's online reporting assistant.

To complain about a trader in the United States go to the Better Business Bureau website. 

To complain about a trader in Canada go to the Better Business Bureau website and search for the relevant province. 

Australia

It will be helpful to know which state the trader is based in so you can complain directly to the Office of Fair Trading in that state. Follow the website links below to the relevant state's Office of Fair Trading / Office of Consumer Affairs, which will include contact details:

Australian Capital Territory 
New South Wales 
Queensland 
South Australia 
Tasmania 
Victoria 
Western Australia 
Northern Territories

New Zealand

The New Zealand Ministry of Consumer Affairs website gives information on your rights

Other countries

Other countries may have a department that deals with consumer rights. Key words to look for are 'consumer protection' or 'trading'. These departments may be part of a larger department dealing with competition issues, food safety, health or welfare. You may be able to obtain information on the right department to complain to from the UK based embassy for the relevant country. Contact details for embassies can be found on the GOV.UK website.

Key legislation

Last reviewed / updated: August 2017

Please note

This information is intended for guidance; only the courts can give an authoritative interpretation of the law.

The guide's 'Key legislation' links may only show the original version of the legislation, although some amending legislation is linked to separately where it is directly related to the content of a guide. Information on amendments to UK legislation can be found on each link's 'More Resources' tab; amendments to EU legislation are usually incorporated into the text.

For further information please contact the Citizens Advice consumer service, which provides free, confidential and impartial advice on consumer issues. Visit the Citizens Advice website or call the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 03454 040506.

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