independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Online shops are cool, but buyer beware hidden costs

WITH "just" nine shopping days to go before Christmas, panic is no doubt setting in for last minute shoppers. If the latest Budget has prompted you to cut back on the amount you were planning to spend on Christmas gifts, you might be busy hunting down bargains online.

Online shopping can sometimes work out cheaper than high street stores – but unless you're careful, you could pay through the nose for your virtual festive shopping.

CUSTOMS CHARGES FROM HELL

Thinking of buying a cutting edge telescope or some top notch camera gear for your loved one this Christmas? Although such equipment can work out a hell of a lot cheaper if you buy it in Hong Kong or the US instead of Ireland, you'll be hit with a whopping customs charge once it comes into the country.

If you order something online from outside the European Union which is worth more than €22, you usually have to pay 23 per cent VAT (value added tax) on the full value of the item. Furthermore, if the item you order is worth more than €150, chances are you'll be hit with import duties as well. On top of the VAT and import duties, you'll have to cough up a €6 handling fee to An Post.

It's not just big ticket items which could land you with a customs charge from hell.

One reader who contacted us was hit with a €22 customs charge after he ordered a box set from the online retailer, play.com. The box set itself – Boardwalk Empire – was priced at €69.49. However, as play.com is based in Jersey, which is outside the EU, the reader had to pay €15.98 VAT and an An Post fee of €6 before he could get the box set from An Post.

"Before ordering something online, pay attention to the small print and see where the company is based," said Caroline Curneen, spokeswoman for the consumer organisation, the European Consumer Centre. "Often, people shop on websites which they think are in Europe – but which are based outside Europe."

DELIVERY CHARGES

Check the delivery charges before ordering something online – otherwise, you could unnecessarily pay through the nose to get something through your letterbox.

Katie Taylor's book, My Olympic Dream, was priced at about €11.50 on www.amazon.co.uk last week while Eason charges €14.99. However, while it is free to pick up the book from your local Eason's store or to order it online from Eason, Amazon charges €6.80 for delivery. So by the time Amazon's delivery charges are added in, you'll have paid about €18 for the book – about €3 more than Eason's charges. Admittedly, you can get free delivery to Ireland from amazon.co.uk – but only if you spend more than £25 (€31).

'One of the tell-tale signs of a scam website is that often you can only pay by bank transfer or Western Union – though some online scammers say they will accept credit cards but then charge such hefty fees that you are more inclined to pay by bank transfer'

The bulkier the item, the more you can expect to pay for delivery – so if you're ordering a new table and chairs to host your guests this Christmas, see if you can pick them up yourself. If you order a table and chairs online from Harvey Norman for example and the furniture fits in one van, you'll usually pay €49 for delivery – regardless of the address.

Ironically, you may pay more for your delivery if you order furniture in a Harvey Norman high street store rather than online. The €49 standard delivery charge for in-store orders only applies to deliveries within a 40km radius of Dublin – after that, higher charges kick in.

Some online companies don't charge for delivery. The online electronics retailer, www.komplett.ie, for example offers free delivery. As the company is based in the Netherlands, it is within the EU so you don't have to pay customs charges.

Play.com also offers free delivery but as it is based outside the EU, you'll usually be hit with customs charges if you order something worth more than €22.

Remember online prices are not always cheaper than high street prices – even if delivery is free and you are lucky enough to escape a customs charge.

DELIVERING THE TURKEY

Sometimes it can make sense to put up with a delivery charge for ordering something online. If you still haven't bought your Christmas turkey, you could save in petrol or diesel by ordering it online from Tesco, Superquinn or Supervalu – particularly if you live off the beaten track and within an area that a supermarket delivers to.

Your delivery charge usually depends on how quickly you want your turkey or groceries delivered, and the exact time and day you want the delivery. Tesco, which delivers up to an hour's drive from its delivery stores, charges between €2.50 and €7 for delivery. Superquinn charges between €4 and €8 for delivery while Supervalu charges between €4 and €7. The delivery charge could work out cheaper than your petrol bill.

SCAM WEBSITES

Another thing to be wary of when doing the Christmas shopping online are scam websites. "These websites set up for a few weeks and offer electronic products at heavily discounted prices," said Curneen. "However, when you order something, the item never arrives – and by the time you go to follow up, the website is gone."

One of the tell-tale signs of a scam website is that you often can only pay by bank transfer or Western Union.

"Most scam websites won't accept credit cards as the payment can be reversed if you run into a problem," said Curneen. "Although some scam websites say they accept credit cards, they charge hefty payment fees of as much as 12.5 per cent of the value of the item ordered if you use your credit card. That way, you're more inclined to pay by bank transfer."

Another clue that a website is fraudulent is if it has only been set up recently.

"If an online company says it's been in business for 20 years, but its website has only recently been set up, chances are it's a scam website," said Curneen. "Find out when the website has been registered – sites such as whois.net allow you to do this."

NO SHOWS

If you order something online from a legitimate company, and it never turns up, you should be able to get your money back – or get the company to send it to you again.

If the company wrongly insists that you have received it and refuses give you a refund or replacement, and you have paid by credit card, the easiest way to resolve the problem may be to contact your credit card company as it should reverse the payment for you.

"You will need to show the credit card company that you have made efforts to resolve the issue with the online company first," said Curneen. "Credit card companies have a timeframe – usually 120 days – within which they will reverse a payment. So it's important to arrange to get your money back within that timeframe."

DAMAGED GOODS

If you order something online and it arrives damaged, things could get a little tricky when you go looking for a refund or a repair, as the delivery company or the manufacturer of the product could be liable for the defect – rather than the online retailer.

If that's the case, the retailer could try to get the manufacturer or delivery company to shoulder responsibility for the fault – and you could be in for a wait before you get it repaired or replaced.

If a faulty product is delivered to you, arm yourself with knowledge of your rights.

If it's a major fault – such as a fridge freezer which stops working shortly after it's delivered to you, don't let the retailer who sold you the product try to fob you off to the manufacturer. Your contract is with the retailer or supplier who sold you the fridge freezer so if there is a fault, it is up to it to fix the appliance.

If there's a major fault with a product, you have the right to end the contract with your retailer and demand a refund or replacement.

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