Why shop till you drop? Net some great gift ideas

Sam Dunn shows how to avoid the high-street crush by buying presents online, with advice on security and consumer rights
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The Independent Online

Elves and reindeer may soon be redundant. With Christmas 2003 set to be more expensive, time-consuming and stressful than ever, it's no surprise that Santa's little helpers are losing out to the internet.

Kelkoo, a website that lets you compare the cost of goods, calculates that if you were to go shopping online for a Sony PlayStation 2, a bottle of Moët & Chandon and Coldplay's album A Rush of Blood to the Head, you would save a total of £52 compared with high-street prices.

Yet while internet shopping can save you money and hassle, it brings with it stress of a different kind. Fear of fraud still prevents many of us from supplying our credit and debit card details via websites, despite the best efforts of retailers and banks to convince us that these are safe to use.

Around £30m of consumers' money went missing as a result of internet fraud in the 12 months to June 2003. However, very little of this was due to online theft of personal bank details, says Mark Bowerman, spokesman for the Association for Payment Clearing Services (Apacs). Most of it stemmed from the criminal use of shopping receipts thrown out with the household rubbish.

Even if you were unfortunate enough to have your details stolen by fraudsters, you would not be liable to pay for goods purchased fraudulently, says Carol Brady, chief officer for consumer advice at Trading Standards. But this doesn't mean you should relax your guard. "Keep a close eye on all your credit card bills to check for purchases you haven't made," she advises. "If you stray from the well-known companies [when shopping online], there is always a question of whether they are bona fide."

If you are still concerned about internet security, you might prefer to shop only from well-known websites such as lastminute and Amazon, or from websites recommended by friends and relatives. And if you are buying goods from UK or other European companies, you can also be reassured that you are covered under "distance-selling" regulations. These require websites to give customers an accurate description of goods, fair delivery arrangements (usually 30 days unless otherwise agreed), and the right to cancel the order and to be notified if charges will be made for doing so.

To ensure your financial details are protected, Apacs' Mr Bowerman advises that you look for a security icon on the web page. This usually takes the form of a padlock or unbroken key in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. To double check, click on this: an internet address should pop up, matching the web address at the top of the screen.

Check that the website provides a landline phone number and postal address - not a post office box number - for the retailer. And when keying in your bank details, never supply your personal identification number (PIN).

A seven-day cooling-off period is allowed on most online purchases, except hotel bookings, concert and theatre tickets. If you do change your mind, you should notify the supplier by fax, email or letter. However, if you are purchasing goods or services tailored to your specific requirements, this cooling-off period does not apply. Nor can you return perishable goods like flowers or fresh food.

Don't forget to take VAT and the cost of postage into account. The price advertised on the website may not include these, so look for the small print.

Although many online orders are sent out within a matter of days, things do go wrong, and your Christmas purchases could end up being delivered weeks after the tinsel has been taken down. But in this case, you can expect a refund unless the delay is due to events beyond the supplier's control. "If the company doesn't deliver within 30 days, they are in breach of distance-selling regulations, and you can claim your money back," says Trading Standards' Ms Brady.

Start by contacting the company to find out the reason for the delay. If you are unhappy with the revised delivery date, ask for a refund. Should you end up without either your purchases or your money back, you may have to sue. But before things get to this stage, remember that if you spend more than £100 on a credit card for goods and services you do not receive, your card provider is equally liable with the supplier to refund you.

Purchases from overseas will obviously take longer to be delivered, and supply times should be checked by email before ordering. Bear in mind, too, that if you are dissatisfied with your purchase, it can be harder to get your money back.

Currency fluctuations also need to be taken into account when buying from abroad, along with extra taxes and postage charges. It might already be too late for Christmas deliveries from suppliers outside Europe, but check anyway.

www.cardwatch.org.uk

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