A quick sift through the offers on a price comparison app and it is easy to see which websites have what appear to be the cheapest deals on electronics and other goods. Many of the best offers come from abroad, particularly Asia, and the savings look generous.
Take the newly launched Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus. Originally on sale for £160, they cost as little as £105.99 from eGlobal Central, £126.30 at MyTrendyPhone and £129.90 from Alternate when the Observer checked.
But how genuine are these deals and how wary should consumers be of sites like these?
Some experts believe there are ways to take advantage of discount sites, while minimising the risk of getting stung. “Reviews are essential and often include photos from previous buyers which gives you an insight into the quality of the product,” says James Allum, of digital payments platform Payoneer. “With careful research, people will find a great range of quality products at an amazingly low price.”
However, the web is littered with fake reviews. Search for the zero or one-star ones and see what they say – they won’t have been paid for by the site. Be wary of a string of four- and five-star reviews, especially if written in tortured English in case they are from some paid-for review ‘factory’
Peter Janes, chief executive of payment solution Shieldpay, warns that cut-price websites are “often too good to be true”, while ProPrivacy’s Attila Tomaschek says counterfeiters are becoming increasingly skilful at producing tech products that appear to be legitimate but are not.
“Consumers should be extremely sceptical of any piece of tech, especially any particularly popular item, that is priced significantly lower than the suggested retail price,” he warns.
Crucially, consumers should make sure they understand their rights before making a purchase. “If you buy online from a seller in the UK or EU, the Consumer Contracts Regulations mean you can cancel the order until 14 days after you receive the goods – unless they’re perishables or personalised – and you then have 14 days to send them back, even if it’s just because you’ve changed your mind,” says MoneySavingExpert’s Anthony Hill.
However, it is never straightforward enforcing your rights on businesses that do not have a bricks-and-mortar presence in your own country, and is nearly impossible outside the EU. Buyers may find they have no legal right to return an item, even if it is faulty, which can cause a major headache for anyone wanting their money back.
Even though some websites have their own return policies, they are not the law and
small print can be murky. “Not every seller is equal – even within one website, there can be hundreds of different shops which have different rules and wildly different products,” explains Dan Plant, consumer expert at hotukdeals.com. “For instance, some items ship from European warehouses, and you get pretty much the same protections as buying from a UK shop. Others don’t, and the rights you have if something goes wrong are much less clear.”
Which? says if an online retailer is marketed to the UK – it has a UK site, it is advertised in the UK, or payment is shown in pounds sterling – English law “should apply to consumer rights issues with product deliveries and returns”. However, it says enforcing these rights can be easier said than done.
Website eGlobal Central has nine online stores across several countries, including the UK, but goods are shipped from Hong Kong where the company is based. It says: “Our prices are customised to the demand and availability of the product from our customers and suppliers. This is also why our prices may vary when compared to our other European online stores.”
The company website claims all products are “100% original and brand new” and sourced “from trusted official dealers”.
But reviews of the online shop on Trustpilot are mixed. Some are complimentary, but many other shoppers complain of losing money, with some believing goods would be shipped from the UK.
Last May, James Clements from Cambridgeshire bought a mobile phone for £150 from eGlobal Central and paid via PayPal. The phone was sent to the wrong address, but when Clements tried to correct it by contacting the shipping company, he was told it was not possible.
After emailing eGlobal Central, he was told the parcel would be sent back to Hong Kong which would take six to nine weeks, and he would then be refunded. He contacted eGlobal Central again after nine weeks, only to be told the order was still in transit.
Ten months on and despite contacting the company several times, Clements has still not received a refund. “PayPal’s advice is to seek a refund from the supplier and then contact them. But they told me they couldn’t help because it had been so long they can no longer open the case against the supplier,” he says. PayPal states that disputes must be made within 180 days of purchase or payment.
Clements says more should be done to help protect consumers: “The shop front is in the UK, but distribution is coming from halfway around the world. Something should be done to protect consumer rights here.”
hotukdeals.com has removed the company’s deals from its site. Plant said: “Many items on eGlobal Central won’t be refunded even if they go missing in the post, or arrive damaged, unless you pay extra to add ‘delivery insurance’ – that’s why until this is solved, we don’t allow deals from there to be posted.”
If you are still tempted to buy from one of these sites, despite all the warnings, you’ll be mad not to use a credit card. “If you pay by credit card for purchases of £100 or more, then powerful ‘Section 75’ protection kicks in. This makes your credit card provider jointly liable if something goes wrong, meaning it should be easier to get your money back,” says Hill. “On smaller purchases, you’ll need to weigh up the risk and never spend more than you could afford to lose.”
Those using a debit card may be able to get a refund through the “chargeback” scheme, instead. There is no minimum spend but claims must usually be made within 120 days.
How to protect yourself and your money
• Even if a website has “UK” in its title or a UK phone number, be aware it may not be a UK retailer.
• Check out seller reviews on sites like Trustpilot before purchasing. “Genuine sellers will usually have held accounts for longer and will have received positive reviews from a variety of buyers over time,” adds Janes. “If anyone is unsure, they can ask questions on communities like hotukdeals, where there are many experts in these items and shoppers who have used these services,” adds Plant.
• Check whether the item you plan to purchase has a manufacturer’s warranty. “This is especially pertinent when considering the purchase of electronic goods from a third-party online seller,” says Tomaschek.
• Factor in shipping costs, VAT and customs charges. VAT is charged at 20% on goods worth more than £15 that are sent from non-EU countries. Customs duty is also charged at 2.5% on items valued at between £135 and £630. For any goods worth more than £630, the rate will depend on what they are and where they came from.
• Finally, use your instincts. “It is always best to go with your gut and heed the old adage that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” says Tomaschek.
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