The number of people using Citizens Advice’s cross-border consumer help centre increased by almost two thirds throughout 2004, with the value of the disputes being worth over £1 million, it was revealed today.
The figures are published in a report reviewing the enquiries received by the UK office of the European Consumer Centre (ECC) throughout 2004. The UK ECC, operated by problem-solving charity Citizens Advice, helps people resolve problems related to goods and services bought cross-border in Europe.
The report shows that more people came to the UK ECC for advice about problems with holiday clubs and timeshares than any other issue, accounting for 29% of all enquiries. Most of the problems were about the purchase or resale of holiday clubs. Issues raised include the lack of a cooling-off period, unfair sales methods and contractual issues.
A third of all enquiries were about traders based in Spain, the largest number of enquiries about traders in any single European country. This is related to the fact that Spain is one of the UK’s favourite holiday destinations, but also because many people own property or timeshare accommodation there, and this is the UK ECC’s top problem area.
The findings suggest more and more people are buying goods and services online. A third (32 per cent) of enquiries concerned problems with purchases made over the Internet, an increase of 20 per cent since 2003. Most of these complaints were about defective goods, whereas in 2003 most related to problems with delivery.
The majority (58 per cent) of enquiries to the UK ECC were from people based in the UK making contact via email. Many people used the ‘contact us’ section us of the Euroconsumer website - www.euroconsumer.org.uk whereas others sought help by visiting their local Citizens Advice Bureau.
Cases the ECC has dealt with over the past year include:
A UK man who booked online for EURO 2004 football tickets and received confirmation that his credit card would be debited by an agreed amount. The ticket company then took three months to process the payment, within which time the credit card expired. When the ticket company tried to take payment this was refused. It was only after involvement by the ECC that Mr T was received his tickets.
In another case a woman bought an expensive watch from a store in Italy. On her return to the UK, two faults appeared with the watch in a matter of months. She contacted the UK ECC, which was able to explain her consumer rights under Italian law. The store had a branch in the UK and following ECC advice and their negotiation with the branch she was able to obtain a replacement watch.
European Consumer Centre Director Ruth Bamford said: “Our latest findings show that more and more people are turning to the UK office of the ECC when they need advice after buying goods or services from another EU country. The rise in the number of people coming to us is probably linked to growing numbers of shoppers taking advantage of cheaper airline tickets to European destinations. Additionally people now have much more opportunity to purchase goods at a distance via the internet. This year we have seen a 20 per cent increase in cases where people have come to us for help with a purchase made online.
“However, we really want to make more people aware that they can come to us for advice when they are having problems with goods or services purchased in another European country and importantly that they can find out ways to avoid problems by visiting our website before they buy or travel. Often when people have a problem they give up easily as they wrongly think that there is no way of seeking redress once they have left the country concerned. Here at the UK ECC we operate an email enquiry service where people can write to us for advice. It can be accessed through www.euroconsumer.org.uk or people can visit their local Citizens Advice Bureau.”
The European Consumer Centre can also refer some consumer queries to an alternative dispute resolution body if they cannot be resolved after negotiating directly with the trader.