Flexible friend, plastic protector

If you've paid for a shopping spree with a credit card, it should be easier to get your money back if the goods turn out to be faulty

Whether you've been off to the January sales or booking your summer holiday, your credit card could prove to be a surprisingly good friend at this big spending time of the year.

And not just because cash is in short supply after recent festive excesses. Paying by credit card has advantages even for those with money in the bank. Specifically, cards offer an element of valuable protection should your purchases fall short of what could reasonably be expected from them.

The credit-card company is as liable as the retailer for the quality of purchases costing between pounds 100 and pounds 30,000, under Section 75 of the 1974 Consumer Credit Act.

If, say, the goods are faulty or turn out to be other than as described, you do not have to rely on the seller to get your money back - you can go to your card company instead.

And this protection kicks in as long as you put just some element of the cost on your card - say a pounds 50 deposit for an item that in total cost more than pounds 100.

Of course, the pounds 100 limit means you will not be covered for every item bought in the sales. But in some cases protection can amount to even more than you actually paid. Alan Wilson, senior law lecturer at the University of East London, says: "Holidays are one area where consumers often do have grounds for seeking redress. And in many cases, you have a right to more than just a straight refund. You can claim for disappointment, distress and loss of enjoyment."

Similarly, with a restaurant meal paid for by credit card, you could make a claim for loss of enjoyment.

Unfortunately, some travel agents charge more if you pay by credit card. But the extra pounds 5 to pounds l0, based on a typical surcharge of 1 per cent, could be viewed as an extra insurance.

Beware, too, of credit-card companies fobbing you off by sending you back to the retailer. Last year the National Consumer Council criticised card companies for this practice - legally they are jointly liable with the retailer.

But whether you are seeking compensation from your card company or a retailer, just what are your rights if you are dissatisfied with a purchase?

Goods have to meet the description given them and be of satisfactory quality. What the law considers satisfactory quality would be affected by the price you pay for the goods and any description applied to them. You have a right to reject faulty goods and demand a full refund rather than get a replacement.

If, instead, you simply don't like something you have no right to a refund, but a retailer may offer this - or a credit note or exchange - out of goodwill.

In addition, with faulty goods you should move quickly to ensure your right to a refund. The law does not lay down precisely how much time you have in which to reject goods, but in a case 10 years ago, involving a Mr Bernstein, three weeks was deemed the limit for a full refund on a purchase as expensive and sophisticated as a car.

Once the refund time limit has passed, compensation is usually limited to the cost of repair. So, if only to establish whether or not goods are satisfactory, it makes sense to use newly purchased goods straight away.

The same buyers' rights apply to shoddy goods you may have bought in the January sales - notwithstanding any signs saying "no refunds" that a retailer may put up.

The only caveat here is that some goods are sold cheaply because they are faulty. You won't be able to claim for faults that have been pointed out, or, if you examined the goods in the shop, faults you should have discovered. It is reasonable to assume that if you examined a kettle, for example, you would discover a big scratch on the casing. But you could not be expected to know the element was faulty unless it had otherwise been pointed out to you.

Of course, in practice, many well-known chain stores give replacements and refunds without a quibble, sometimes when you are not strictly entitled to redress. It's a policy that makes good business sense for many retailers.

But others may not be as consumer friendly. A retailer's willingness or otherwise to give a refund may be influenced by how easy it is for it to get redress from the manufacturer.

Some shops may insist they cannot help you without a receipt. This is nonsense. A receipt or other evidence of purchase such as a cheque or debit-card slip helps to prove your claim, but these items are not essential.

If a retailer is digging in and refusing to help, your ultimate redress might be the courts. The small claims court - run through the county court - is designed to avoid the need for lawyers and can cost as little as pounds 10. "Small claims" can be up to pounds 3,000.

It's also worth noting that some credit-card companies will cover you for goods bought abroad, although a voluntary agreement among all of them to meet claims from foreign purchases ended recently. Barclaycard, for one, has agreed to continue to meet claims for credit- card spends of more than pounds 100.

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