Trading Standards officers need to be better trained in order to deal with the needs of the internet consumer, according to a report published today by the Trading Standards Institute.
The report, based on work done at the TSI's annual conference in Cardiff, highlights the gap between the effective consumer protection provided under law for high street shoppers compared to the rather lapse and confusing laws governing online consumers.
Officers are finding complaints about online companies exceedingly difficult to follow up, the report says, due to a lack of understanding of how the web works and problems with tracing website owners. Also, because TS offices are regionally managed by local councils, there is a lack of overall coherence.
"There are more than 200 Trading Standards offices in the country [but] they're not adequately co-ordinated," said Richard Web, author of the report. "We believe there should be a properly trained and resourced body to protect people online."
One of the most important recommendations is the creation of a national post for someone whose responsibility would be to help co-ordinate the move towards e-government and to establish the Trading Standards powers over internet trading.
"Any laws which protect the consumer are good for the [genuine] trader," said a spokesperson at Lastminute.com "If people feel they have adequate protection they will be more willing to buy online."
A second report is in production that will require a crack-down on rogue traders, focusing specifically on misleading prices. It is due to be presented to the consumer affairs minister, Melanie Johnson, later this month.
If the government's plan to have all services online by 2005 is to be met, which has looked in doubt for some time, Trading Standards will have to work quickly to ensure there are clear universal laws governing internet trading.