Fleeced abroad? Know your legal rights

Online shopping and foreign holidays mean we’re not just buying from Irish retailers anymore? But what are your consumer rights if it all goes wrong?

Internet shopping has been a boon for the cash-savvy consumer, but what happens if it all goes wrong? What are your legal rights if the goods you bought from a Spanish retailer are faulty or, worse, never arrive at all? And what happens if you buy a flight abroad and get taken for a ride by the airline?

If an Irish consumer buys a product or service from an Irish firm, any complaints or grievances can be dealt with here by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. If, however, they have a problem with a good or service purchased from another European Union country, the European Consumer Centre (ECC) is the first port of call.

Caroline Curneen, an assistant legal adviser with the ECC, says there are significant protections for consumers within EU and domestic law, although they need to be careful when shopping outside Europe's borders. "A lot of people might, for instance, buy a debs dress from a retailer with a .co.uk domain, but may not realise that the retailer is based in Hong Kong. We rarely see complaints that the dress hasn't arrived, but it may be poorly made or, perhaps, counterfeit," she says.

“If the consumer has contracted outside the EU, there’s nothing we can do for them and they don’t have the protections of EU law, But within the EU, we have the power to make representations on their behalf.”


Last month, EU ministers approved a plan to raise the ceiling on cross-border debts recoverable through the European Small Claims Procedure from €2,000 to €5,000. The new law is expected to come into force in 2017.

Consumers in any European country can avail of help and assistance with small claims or consumer problems from their local ECC. The Irish ECC also acts on behalf of consumers from other EU countries who have encountered problems with Irish traders; within the EU, Ireland has the fourth highest level of complaints against its traders.

Across the board, the aviation industry attracts, by far, the greatest number of consumer complaints, with baggage claims, flight delays and cancellations, and problems with bookings accounting for 345 complaints made to the Irish ECC in 2014.

A further 178 cases related to electronic goods, while problems with InFurn, an online furniture trader registered in Ireland, also accounted for 178 complaints from consumers in other EU countries.

Subscription services which entrap consumers after a dodgy “free trial period” and car-hire disputes are other areas where the ECC receives a high volume of complaints.

The European Consumer Centre process is free and non-judicial. As with litigation, however, there will always be traders who do not comply with or agree with the adjudication; in these instances, consumers may need to pursue a legal avenue.

“You can secure a court order but the company may choose to ignore it,” Curneen advises. “In the Irish small claims court, an enforcement order can be sought; if an EU retailer fails to comply, however, there is no standardisation across Europe.

“If you’re dealing with a legitimate company, the chances of this happening are slim, but if dealing with a dodgy or fly-by-night firm, it can be difficult to enforce an order.”

A chargeback system offers another layer of protection. If goods are faulty or never arrive, the money can be refunded onto the credit card. In Ireland, the system is voluntary, run by Visa and MasterCard and subject to time restrictions, whereas in the UK, the chargeback system is on a statutory footing.

The ECC process itself is designed to be user-friendly, but in practice, difficulties can arise.

“In the majority of cases, the forms are sent out and there’s no need for an oral hearing,” Curneen says. “Irish consumers can benefit from being able to take a case against under Irish law, even if the retailer or service provider is overseas. There are instances where they may have to lodge their claim abroad: we dealt with one case in which a man had repairs carried out on his car in France, which were unnecessary and negligent, and he had to go to France to resolve it.”

This is rare: usually if a product is conducted in Ireland or business is conducted here, consumers can avail of Irish legal protections. They can also request assistance from the ECC if for instance, they buy faulty electronics in the Canary Islands (a common problem, says Curneen).

A lot of consumer disputes are of small value and will not warrant the expense of formal litigation, says Curneen, “but many consumer purchases, such as heating systems, holidays and cars, are worth more than €2,000. The new measures increase protection for consumers.”

Seeecc.ie for more information

Stand up for your rights: ECC Ireland secures consumer refunds

BUYING FLIGHTS: An Irish consumer and her companion booked flights using a third-party website based in Spain. They decided to cancel and were assured they would be refunded shortly. Six weeks later, the sum of €1,297.74 had not been refunded. ECC Ireland contacted its Spanish counterparts, which in turn contacted the agent and secured a full refund.

HOME CINEMA SYSTEM: An Irish consumer bought a home cinema system from a trader in France. From the outset, the product was defective and the manufacturer's suggestions for fixing it didn't work. The consumer obtained a report from the manufacturer to certify that the item was not fit for purpose, but the trader insisted she was not entitled to a refund. ECC Ireland got involved and secured a full refund.

Case studies taken with permission from the 2014 ECC annual report