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Cross-border, crossed-wires

Stop fretting says EC: buying abroad on web is fine

Most consumers are not yet confident enough to do their shopping across European borders but many are trading cross-border without even realising it, according to a study released yesterday by the European Commission.

Conducted by the EU's Health and Consumer Protection Directorate, the study was published in time for 'Consumer Day', which is this Friday.

Only 31 percent of consumers felt well-protected when buying goods from another European country.

In the UK, a slightly higher 34 percent were confident of protection from member states.

"This evidence of a real lack of consumer confidence in buying across borders shows we must do more to provide [them] with a high standard of protection throughout the EU," said David Byrne, health and consumer protection commissioner.

But the web has torn down many of these virtual barriers and most consumers will trade with companies based in 'foreign' countries without even realising it.

"If it's over the internet people seem to worry far less about the location of the vendor than they would if it was say over the telephone," said a spokesman at OFT (the Office of Fair Trading). "Perhaps this is because the language barrier has been removed."

But the problem with European trade, especially via the internet, is that people aren't aware of their rights. The law is, in fact, on the buyer's side.

"Consumers are protected under the Distance Selling Directive, which lays down blanket rules for the whole of Europe. In actuality, they are as protected when buying from someone in, say, Spain, as they are when buying from their local butcher," said Mel Jennings, a solicitor at Crowder Associates.

Under the distance selling agreement, buyers are entitled to a cooling-off period — seven days for UK consumers but as long as 10 days in Sweden.

Other rules include the right to receive clear information and protection against credit card fraud.

The survey revealed that a massive 75 percent of UK buyers were extremely satisfied with the level of protection offered in their own country, with most favouring the support of consumer associations over that of the national authorities.

But it's quite a different story in other European countries, such as Italy and Greece. People there felt more confident about the support they'd receive from European countries other than their own.

The EC's Byrne hopes the results of the survey will encourage European harmonisation and help educate people about their rights.

"We know we're covered by UK law," agreed OFT's spokesman. "We need to be taught that we are also covered by European law."

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