This article first appeared in the Guardian on 3rd December 2012
As Cyber Monday heralds the start of a month of present buying, we look at your rights and how you can avoid looking like a turkey this Christmas.
It's that time of year again – the moment you realise that if you want to buy Christmas presents at a good price and get them delivered in time to wrap and put under the tree, you'd better start shopping.
The first Monday in December is usually one of the busiest for online shoppers, although there are many who leave their purchases until later. So what do you need to know if you are planning to join the throng online?
How do I get the best deal?It's the usual story about shopping around – but there are a couple of price comparison sites you can use if you know what you are looking for.
Google Shopping offers a pretty comprehensive round up of prices – type the name of the item into Google and click on Shopping at the top – but it isn't laid out brilliantly so you will need to scroll through to find the best price.
Kelkoo and PriceRunner also claim to scour the internet for the best price, although they seem to perform better on best-selling items than older goods (I searched for Django Django's album and the The Killing series 1 on DVD and the results seemed to show just one retailer's price).
A new site, Flubit, claims it can beat the best price you find, but you have to wait for it to return with an offer by email so is not ideal for last-minute shopping.
With any of these sites the actual order is placed with a retailer so your contract is with it, not the price comparison site.
Is it safe to shop online?Under internet sales rules websites should include the retailer's address and an email address, so alarm bells should ring if none of this information is available. You should also be concerned if, when you go to pay, you do not see a padlock or key symbol somewhere on the page, often near the URL.
The best way to avoid rogue sites is to do a bit of research – internet forums are packed with people sharing their stories about bad service and goods that do not appear, so before you buy do a search on the name of the company.
Even if you are shopping on a well-known, legitimate site you should be security conscious. Make sure your anti-virus software is up-to-date, do not use communal computers and create the strongest passwords you can. If a site gives you the choice between storing your payment details or making a one-off purchase, you might want to opt for the latter.
If you are worried you could stick to sites that let you place an order but pay when you pick up an item in store – this at least means you know you have secured the item you want and do not have to queue up. Argos and PC World are among the few retailers that offer this option.
Do I need a credit card to shop online?You don't, but it is sensible to use one if you are ordering anything costing more than £100, because using a credit card gives protection that isn't afforded by a debit or prepaid card or PayPal. Under section 75 of the consumer credit act, the credit card provider is jointly liable if something goes wrong, so if you place and pay for an order with a company that goes bust before you get your delivery you can claim your money back from the credit card company.
Debit and prepaid card providers do offer a voluntary protection scheme called chargeback which applies on smaller sums. You can find out more about section 75 and chargeback here.
What happens if I change my mind?If you have had an item made to your specification or personalised – for example, you have had someone's name put on a football shirt – you cannot change your mind.Otherwise, under the distance selling regulations you are allowed to change your mind and cancel an order at any point from the day you place it up until seven working days from the day after it is delivered, but you should do so in writing, either a physical letter or an email. You then need to return the goods.
Some retailers recently got into trouble with the Office of Fair Trading for insisting items had to be returned in their original packaging. Legally, this isn't the case – you are only obliged to make sure the items are returned in reasonable condition. If you had to get them out of the packet to inspect them, that is OK.
The retailer's terms and conditions should tell you if you are responsible for paying to return an unwanted order, so if you have any doubts before you press "Buy", make sure you have checked this out. Retailers with a high street presence will often let you take goods back to their stores, which can be much handier than having to queue at the Post Office. If the retailer does not say who is responsible for paying, it will have to stump up the cost.
If you have any problems cancelling an item, Which? has a range of template letters you can use to take on a retailer.
What happens if it doesn't arrive in time?When you place an order the retailer should tell you when you can expect it to be delivered – if it doesn't, the distance selling rules assume it will be in a maximum of 30 days. If the retailer fails to deliver within the agreed timeframe it should let you know and, if you decide you no longer want the order, give you your money back.
What happens if it doesn't ever arrive?If the item does not arrive you should complain to the retailer. If the retailer disappears or refuses to help then contact your credit or debit card company and begin the process of claiming back your money.
A price is too good to be true – does the retailer have to honour it?Online price glitches can lead to retailers offering goods at incredible prices, and usually spark a surge of consumers rushing to take advantage. Whether the retailer has to honour it depends on its terms and conditions – it can say that the contract is not deemed to have been entered into until it has sent out a confirmation email.
This means that even if you have placed the order and paid the "too good to be true" price, if it spots its mistake later it is within its rights to adjust the price to the correct sum. If the goods arrive at the low price, however, it is not allowed to chase you for the difference.