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Scammed online? Here's how to get your money back

Richard Bayston

Richard Bayston
Aug 23, 2016

Shopping online can be risky.

Along with the thrill of the chase on auction sites, the chance of a big-box bargain, a boutique find or a direct sale from an individual through a message board, there can be risks.

Along with genuine mistakes, there are cases of mis-selling, customer service fails that range from glitches to illegal activity, and online shops that are outright scams.

The most common ways online shopping can go wrong are:

* Your goods arrived late, or never came at all
* Goods arrived, but you didn’t get what you ordered
* You got what you ordered, but it was faulty
* You gave an online seller financial information or identity details and something suspicious has happened since - financial activity you didn't request, or evidence of identity theft.


Late Arrivals, Substitutions and No-Shows

Some online sellers will try to tell you that, unless you agreed a set delivery time, there’s no limit on when they can deliver.

That’s not true: if you made an agreement, or bought under a promise like ‘next day delivery,’ they’re expected to honour it.

If you didn’t, your goods must be delivered within 30 days of purchase, according to the Consumer Contract Regulations 2013.

If your product doesn't arrive within 30 days you have a right to a refund and the seller should also refund the outbound postage.

If the seller wants to substitute an item - for example, because it isn't in stock - they have to tell you before you make your purchase.

The law says it’s their job; if they make a substitution without telling you they’re responsible, you have a right to a refund and they must reimburse the outbound postage. If their terms and conditions didn’t clearly state otherwise, they’re responsible for all postage costs.


Contact the Company

Your first step should always be to contact the company. First you need to figure out who is responsible for your problem.

It’s not always obvious but it is clearly laid out in the law.

Retailers love to tell you that ‘it’s the manufacturer you’ll have to speak to.’

But the Sale of Goods Act 1979 says it’s the retailer’s responsibility to make sure that your purchase is as described, delivered on time and fit for purpose.

Retailers have duties defined by law at the point of sale, even if that sale is online. They have to tell you a long list of information that includes:

* Enough about their goods or services to let you make an informed decision
* Their company name, their geographic address and phone number
* Complaints policy
* They should remind you of your rights under consumer law, including your right to cancel

After you buy you have a 14-day cooling off period when you can cancel the purchase for any reason.

After you decide you want to cancel the company now has 14 days (cut from 30 in 2013) to reimburse you. If you’re still within the 14-day period you can simply cancel immediately and (in theory) get your money back. If only it were that simple…

Case Study: The owner of French Rococo Furniture blamed missing deliveries, that left customers hundreds of pounds out of pocket, on his supplier. “We were fobbed off with excuse after excuse,” Lorna Robson told us. “They said it was delayed at a factory, or it was on its way, or it was stuck at customs but we never got anywhere.” Remember: it’s always the seller’s responsibility to chase up what’s happened to your order.


When the Company Won’t Cooperate

So you know your rights and you contacted the company, and they won’t play ball. Maybe you get a flat refusal, maybe they just don’t reply. But they’ve got your money and it’s pretty clear that they’re not going to give it back voluntarily. Now what?

Before you go any further, there’s a get-out-of-jail-free card most people don’t know about that might mean you don’t have to deal with the retailer at all.


If a company isn't responding...there may be a way to avoid them altogether


How Did You Pay?

Credit Card? You need To Know About Section 75

This matters because if you paid by credit card the credit card company is ‘jointly and severally liable’ for fraud or misrepresentation, under the Consumer Credit Act 1974, section 75. That means they’re as much responsible as the original retailer.

This piece of legislation is commonly referred to as just ‘section 75’ and it lets you claim back your money from your credit card provider if you’ve been scammed. There are some conditions, though.

The item’s cost must be between £100 and £30,000. That doesn’t mean the sum you paid on your card has to be between these figures: even if you paid a deposit of £40 but the item’s cost is £200, you can claim for the whole balance. Only a single item is covered, so you can’t claim for 5 items, each costing £20.

If those conditions are met, you can claim the money from your credit card company.

Debit Card? You need To Know About Chargeback

If those conditions above are not met, because the amount was under £100 or you used a debit or charge card, you could be entitled to a chargeback instead. A chargeback lets you ask for your money back from the retailer’s bank, not the retailer themselves.

So it’s useful even if you can’t track down a dodgy retailer, or you’re getting the silent treatment. You can claim a chargeback if the goods you ordered don’t arrive, are defective or not as described, if there’s a banking clerical error like you’ve been charged for the purchase multiple times, or if you didn’t authorise the purchase. You could also get chargeback if the retailer goes bust.

Chargeback isn’t legally enforceable the way Section 75 claims are and many bank staff won’t know about it, so you might have to explain it.

You should contact your bank, ask for chargeback and they will contact the retailer’s bank on your behalf. You generally have to make a chargeback request within 180 days of purchase, and there’s no upper limit to chargeback payments!


Enlist a Consumer Champion

You’ve gone through a company's complaints procedure and they won’t give you back your money? You’re not alone. What you need is a consumer champion. Someone who knows what to say and who to talk to, and whose publicity will bump your case up the priority list until you get some action.

Luckily for you, you’ve already found one: A Spokesman Said has secured refunds and replacements for frustrated customers dealing with everyone from energy companies to dodgy websites. Complain about a company on A Spokesman Said today.

Take Lee Clayton, who struggled to get a refund from furniture retailer Loaf after a sofa he ordered gave him bad back problems.

Loaf weren't playing ball so Lee brought his complaint to A Spokesman Said.

They agreed to refund him the full £1,845 - signed, sealed and delivered. 



Complain to the company

At this point you have to decide: is this a legit company with awful customer service, or a deliberate scam?

If you’re sure it’s a scam, don’t waste time with the company’s internal complaints procedure - there probably won’t even be one anyway.

If you think it’s a real business with bad customer relations or having a glitch, start with their internal customer complaints procedure.

This generates an automatic letter of reply that tells you a complaint has been opened, and the date on that letter matters because you can use it to show how long the dispute has been going on.

Sometimes a company’s internal complaints procedure is enough. It brings your case to someone with the sense and authority to put your fulsome apology, refund and goodwill freebies in the post and matters end there. In many cases it’s only when you open an official complaint that a real human being even knows about your problem!


Complain to company CEO or on social media

Sometimes, writing directly to the company’s top brass can be effective.

If you elect to do this make sure your letter has a return address, and keep it short, polite and to the point. You can find a company’s CEO with if they’re registered in the UK.

This will give you details including the names of company directors, the company’s financial reports and their registered offices.

Write to the company CEO at the registered business address of the company, and you’ll often get a fast response.

Another option is to go social and complain loudly on the company’s Facebook page.

Don’t post a rant in ANGRY BLOCK CAPS and remember if you keep it short it’s more likely that other page visitors will read it.

This has been successful for A Spokesman Said users like Donna Elliot who complained about JustFab, and companies are getting more sensitive to it because it’s directly affecting their reputation!

After a Vodafone bungle left her with a bad credit rating, Ashleigh Rothery posted on A Spokesman Said.

Days later she got a call from the director’s office - they apologised and fixed the issue.

Now that’s service.


Road silhouette


Complain to the Ombudsman

If getting help from your consumer champion has’t worked then your next step is the Ombudsman service.

An Ombudsman is an independent authority with the power to investigate and award you money or a replacement or both.

To qualify for the Ombudsman service you’ll need a letter of deadlock from the company, which shows that you’ve run through their complaints procedure, and you’re still dissatisfied.

The business has eight weeks to give you a ‘final response,’ but they can do it sooner: whatever they say, companies don’t actually have to wait that long and can refer you at any time.

You’ll need to show that you’ve exhausted the company’s complaints procedure.

You have to contact the Ombudsman within 6 months of the company’s final response.

For most disagreements, getting the ombudsman involved is enough.

Businesses will usually abide by what they recommend, but ombudsman services have the power to order a business to do things too. An Ombudsman’s decisions are legally binding which means if you agree with the Ombudsman’s decision, you can’t later go to court about the same matter.


What About Scammers?

So far we’ve been talking as if the problem was just that a business had let you down. But some ‘businesses’ are plain scams. There’s no complaints procedure because the company is just a front for criminals.

You should immediately report a deliberate online scam to ActionFraud.

ActionFraud is the UK’s national fraud and cyber crime reporting centre and will pass on your details to the police and give you a crime number.

If you’re reasonably sure that you’ve lost out to a scammer, your choices are fewer.

The sad reality is that many scammers just get away with it. You need to figure out if you have a chance of getting your money back.

Try the Section 75 approach described above, if you paid by credit card.

If you paid by debit or charge card try asking for chargeback: even if no-one can track the company down, the bank account your money went to is on record, so your bank can contact theirs and do the rest.

If you paid by Paypal, they have an internal system for reclaiming money given to scammers.

Sadly, if you spent money by bank transfer you’ve almost certainly lost it for good.


Unauthorised Transactions and Identity Theft

If you’ve given scammers financial information - bought something using a bank transfer, for instance, so the scammers now have your sort code and account number - you’re at risk of having money stolen or having your identity stolen. Tell your bank; they’ll make a report to ActionFraud.

If you think a bank account or any other financial account has been set up in your name by identity thieves, your first step should be to report it to ActionFraud yourself.

Some scammers will use the details you give them to make financial transactions without your consent or even your knowledge.

These unauthorised transactions can be claimed back from your bank or credit card company.

If you’ve agreed to make a payment with your credit card but more money is taken than you agreed on, or someone else takes the money, your bank is obliged under the Financial Services Act 2009 to refund the unauthorised amount to you.


Who’s Behind It?

Scam websites often don’t give the information - location, phone number, company name - required by law, for obvious reasons. When they do, it’s false. But you can sometimes track down who owns a website using the whois search.

Try typing ‘whois’ into Google. If you were searching for Littlewoods, you’d type ‘whois’

In your search results you’ll find a whole lot of tech stuff you can safely ignore, but look through the details for the website til you find the heading ‘registrant.’

That tells you who signed the register to buy the domain name - the web address the website operates from. If it’s a UK company it should also supply you with the address of the company.

If it’s UK-based or based in the EU, you are covered by EU regulations, which are the same as the Distance Selling Regulations.

If it’s outside the EU it’s often governed by the laws in the seller’s country.

And many scam companies will be hosted on dodgy servers, in dodgy countries, and with opaque ownership arrangements that mean your chances of finding out who’s legally responsible for ripping you off are slim.


If All Else Fails… The Small Claims Court

If you don’t agree with the Ombudsman’s decision, you can still continue to the courts system.

The Small Claims Court can be used by anyone and doesn’t require a solicitor. The court website is fairly simple to use and there’s government advice to guide you through the process.

You can also use the Small Claims Court to pursue a civil case for fraud against scammers if they’re in the Court’s jurisdiction. (If they’re in another country, you’d need to use the courts of that country.) 

Be warned, though: taking things to court can end up being expensive.

You can find yourself paying the other side’s legal fees if you lose, you may have to take time off to attend court, and if you’re ordered to pay damages too, the sums can be large.

Using the courts can be effective but it’s best to have some knowledge of how the courts system works and it’s always a last resort.

 Even if you win you can find yourself unable to collect what’s owed you without additional input from the court system.


Key Points

* Protect yourself: Pay by Paypal or credit card, not banker’s draft. Report fraud, get a crime number and alert your bank or credit card supplier.
* Get on top of identity theft right away.
* Be polite but firm and insistent. Let the business know you’re not going away
* Be heard: with complaints, via social media, through a consumer champion or even on the phone, make sure you’re talking to someone who has the authority to fix things.

One reason all these things are so effective is that they bring your problem to the attention of people who are interested in their company’s reputation, not just getting you off the phone.

Be realistic: by the time a scammer has got away with your cash, there’s a good chance that the damage has been done and you won’t get it back. Keeping yourself safe from further harm and knowing how to avoid being taken in next time is the best it gets for a lot of people.


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