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Updated : 01/06/2017

Unfair commercial practices

When you buy goods and services anywhere in the EU – from a website, a local shop or a seller outside your home country – EU law protects you against unfair commercial practices.

When promoting, selling or supplying products, companies must give you enough accurate information to enable you to make an informed buying decision. Find out more about contract information.

If they fail to provide this information, their actions may be considered unfair. You have the right to seek redress if you are treated unfairly.  

Misleading and aggressive practices

You are protected against 2 main categories of unfair commercial practices:

  • misleading practices, either through action (giving false information) or omission (leaving out important information)
  • aggressive practices that aim to bully you into buying

Certain commercial practices are prohibited in all circumstances. Some of the most common are listed below:

Bait advertising

Sellers are not allowed to advertise products/services at a very low price when they do not have enough stock available. They must tell customers how many items are available for sale and for how long offers remain valid.

Sample story

Alex saw an advert on offering a special promotion for flights: "Bask in Barcelona for just EUR 1!"

When he tried to book the flight, the EUR 1 ticket was no longer available. He phoned the company's customer services and was told that a very limited number of seats had been offered at the reduced rate.

He complained to his national consumer centre. They confirmed that the airline should offer a reasonable number of seats at the advertised price, depending on the scale of the advertising campaign and/or (at least) show the number of seats available at the special price.

Although Alex couldn't get a ticket at the advertised price, the national consumer centre advised the company to remove the advert, saving other consumers from falling into the same trap.

Phony 'free' offers

Sellers must communicate the real prices of their goods and services. They may not portray a paying service as "free" or offer you an additional "free" service when in fact the real costs of such "free" services are already included in the regular price.

Sample story

Francesca signed up for a text-messaging service. She noticed a box at the bottom of the webpage saying "5 free texts per day." When she clicked, she was taken to another page which again said "5 FREE TEXTS PER DAY."

She followed the instructions and was informed that she was now registered and that the charge for the service was EUR 3 per week. When she checked on the website, she saw in small print that it was a paying service.

You should pay close attention to such offers and carefully check the conditions.

Manipulation of children

Sellers cannot tell your child to ask you to buy their products. Direct appeals like "Go buy the book now" or "Get your parents to buy you this game" are banned. This ban applies to all media, including television and – most importantly – internet.

Sample story

Cécile was surprised when her daughter suddenly started ask her to buy a collection of DVDs with her favourite book character.

Cécile understood why, when she saw an advertisement for the release of the DVD set stating, "Your favourite book is now out on DVD – tell your mum to buy it for you."

She consulted a consumer protection authority,. They confirmed this was an unfair practice and filed a complaint against the company in order to stop the campaign.

False claims about cures

Whenever a product is advertised as therapeutic – curing allergies, reversing hair loss, helping you lose weight, etc. – you have the right to know if such claims have been scientifically confirmed. In many cases, claims like these are not medically backed up and are simply too good to be true.

Sample story

Mario received a letter from a company in another country claiming that their product would help his hair grow back in 3 weeks.

Mario decided to order the product, as the letter said that it was "tried and tested". However, the product had not in fact been tested and did not work.

Mario contacted his national consumer protection authority and learned that plenty of other misled consumers had also complained. He was advised to join the legal proceedings against the company which were already underway.

Hidden advertisements in media (advertorials)

You have the right to be informed if a newspaper article, TV programme or radio broadcast has been 'sponsored' by a company as a way to advertise its products. This must be made clear by images, words or sound.

Sample story

Yann read an article in a travel magazine on trekking in Ireland. The article, published as a story by one of the readers, mentioned that a certain brand of equipment used during the trip was particularly good.

Yann decided to double check on an online forum and learned that the brand's equipment was not considered to be very good quality. Many forum users said they were tricked into buying it, as they didn't know that the article had been sponsored by the producer of the equipment (known as an "advertorial").

When Yann contacted a consumer organisation, he learned that, under EU law, the travel magazine should have made it clear that the article was an advert. The consumer organisation contacted the publisher of the magazine who published a clarification and apologized to its readers for misleading them.

Pyramid schemes

These are promotional schemes that you pay to join in exchange for the opportunity to receive compensation. That compensation, however, comes primarily from your bringing new people into the scheme. The actual selling or consumption of products plays a minor role. At some point, pyramid schemes collapse, and the last to enter lose their investment.

Sample story

Oana was offered a job in a marketing network selling beauty products. She was told she would make a lot of money in her spare time from the comfort of her own home.

She was asked to pay a one-off entry fee upfront and bring 5 friends into the network. The more friends she introduced to the network, the more money she would earn. Her friends would also earn extra money if they introduced 5 other friends.

Oana didn't realise that her main source of income came from recruiting people into the network, rather than from the sale of beauty products.

If you find yourself in such a situation, you should a contact consumer organisation who will tell you the redress measures you can use in your country.

False offers of prizes, gifts

Traders may not advertise 'free' prizes or gifts, and then require you to pay in order to claim them. If you receive a letter or e mail that says: Congratulations, you have won a prize!, be cautious because this may well be an unfair practice.

Sample story

Evelina received a letter from a company congratulating her for having won a EUR 100 prize. She was told to call to claim her prize within a week.

When she called the number in the letter, she was told that the offer was really just an advertisement. Instead of receiving a prize, she was requested to buy household appliances, after which she would be entered in a lottery.

Evelina was upset and decided to check whether the company was allowed to do this. She contacted her national consumer organisation and learned that such practices are banned. The consumer organisation contacted the company, which finally ceased the practice.

Phony 'special' advantages

Sellers may not claim that they are granting you special rights, when in fact you already enjoy those rights under the law.

Sample story

Konstantinos from Thessaloniki decided to buy a computer on the internet.

He chose an online shop that had a special offer giving buyers a 2-year guarantee covering repairs or replacement if the product turned out to be faulty or not as advertised.

Konstantinos was convinced this was a special offer, but the 2-year guarantee is an obligation imposed on every seller by law.

Many sellers or manufacturers offer their own commercial guarantees, which promise to repair a product, e.g. for 1, 3 or 5 years. These may be free or for optional purchase. However, these additional commercial guarantees never replace the minimum 2-year guarantee, which you always have from the seller as your legal right.

Konstantinos wrote to the trader, who agreed that an error had been made and agreed to give him an extra 1 year commercial guarantee.

False use of limited offers

When sellers tell you that a particular offer will only be available for a very limited time, they might be trying to pressure you to buy before taking the time to make an informed choice. It is unfair to claim that an offer is limited in time when that is not in fact the case.

Sample story

Simon from Belgium wanted to buy a bicycle. He found a special offer valid for just 24 hours on a Dutch online shop.

The bicycle wasn't exactly what he was looking for, but he didn't have time to compare as the offer was valid only for such a short time. He quickly decided to buy the bicycle to take advantage of the 50% discount.

To his surprise, when he browsed the internet shop a week later he saw exactly the same promotion. Simon realised it was a false offer to trick him into buying the bicycle. He complained to the trader but didn't get a response.

He then went to the European Consumer Centre in Belgium who transferred the case to their colleagues in the Netherlands. A short time later the Dutch centre told Simon that, thanks to their action, the trader had corrected the website.

Persistent unwanted offers

Under EU law, companies may not make persistent and unwanted offers to you by telephone, fax, e mail or any other media suitable for distance selling.

Sample story

Margus went to a shop with kitchen furniture and subscribed to a newsletter on new offers.

He then started receiving adverts from magazines on cooking, gardening, parachuting, housekeeping... Although he had never asked to be put on any mailing list, he sometimes got as many as 10 emails a day! Margus's requests to be taken off the mailing list were ignored.

A friend advised Margus to contact the national consumer centre, because they had helped her solve a similar problem in the past. Following the centre's action, the company finally took Margus off their list.

You may encounter practices that don't fall under the criteria above, but that you consider unfair. Consult your national consumer association or European Consumer Centres network for advice.

For more information, see also: Enforcement and application of the Unfair Commercial Practices directive

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