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Unfair treatment

Updated : 23/06/2014

shopping

Unfair commercial practices

When you buy goods and services anywhere in the EU – whether from a website, local shop or 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 (see your right to online information) to enable you to make an informed buying decision. If not, their actions may be considered unfair. See Redress for steps you can take in response.

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.

The Black List – unfair practices which are always prohibited

The Black Listбългарски (bg)czech (cs)dansk (da)Deutsch (de)eesti (et)ελληνικά (el)español (es)Français (fr)Gaeilge (ga)italiano (it)latviešu (lv)lietuvių (lt)magyar (hu)Malti (mt)Nederlands (nl)polski (pl)português (pt)română (ro)slovenčina (sk)slovenščina (sl)suomi (fi)svenska (sv) makes it easy to identify commercial practices that are prohibited in all circumstances. If a practice appears on the list, it is automatically considered unfair.

Common black-listed practices:

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 a billboard offering a special promotion for flight: "Bask in Barcelona for just €1!"

But when he tried to book the flight, the €1 ticket was no longer available. He phoned the company's customer service centre only to be told that a very limited number of seats had been offered at the reduced rate.

He took the matter further to his national consumer centre, who confirmed that the airline company should be able to 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 offer price.

Although Alex himself was still not able to claim the ticket at the advertised price, on the suggestion of the national consumer centre the company removed the advert from the billboard, 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 small 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 had been registered and that the charge for the service was €3 per week. She went to back to check and realised that it was stated in small print on the site 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 pestering her to buy a collection of movies with her favourite book character.

Cécile understood why, when she saw an advertisement for the release of the movies stating: “Your favourite book is now out on video – tell your mum to buy it for you.”

She consulted a consumer protection authority, which 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 three weeks.

Mario decided to order the product, since the letter said that it was "tried and tested". But the product had not in fact been tested, and it 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.

According to the article, published as a story by one of the readers, a certain brand of equipment used during the reader's trip, was mentioned as being particularly good.

As he wanted to be 100% sure, Yann decided to double check on an online forum. Only then Yann learned that the company's equipment was not appreciated by many fans of trekking. In fact, many forum users were tricked into buying it, as they were not aware that the article had in fact been sponsored by the producer of the equipment.

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 advertisement. Following Yann's intervention, 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 and from the comfort of her own home.

There were 2 requirements: paying a one-time entry fee upfront and bringing 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 did not 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 which will tell you which redress measures exist 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 over €100 in prizes. She was told to call to claim her prizes within a week before the offer expired.

But when she called the number in the letter, she was told that the offer was really just an advertisement. Instead of receiving prizes, she was advised 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 prohibited. 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 internet shop that was promoting 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.

In fact 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 in this case and agreed to give the consumer an additional 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 promotional offer valid for just 24 hours in the internet shop of a trader located in the Netherlands.

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

To his surprise, when he browsed the internet shop both one week and two weeks later, he saw exactly the same promotional offer.

Simon realized it was a false offer to trick him into buying the bicycle. He complained twice to the trader about this practice but did not receive a response.

He then went to the European consumer center in Belgium who transferred the case to their colleagues in the Netherlands. A short time later the Dutch center informed Simon that thanks to their action the trader had corrected the website accordingly.

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 promotions.

Then he started receiving advertisements from magazines on cooking, gardening, parachuting, housekeeping... Although he had never asked to be put on any mailing list, sometimes he received as many as 10 e mails in a single 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 took Margus off their list.

Protection of vulnerable consumers

Traders may not use practices that exploit vulnerable consumers, such as children and people suffering from illness or addictions. For example, it is illegal to pressure children to buy a product or to use 'pester power' tactics to get them to persuade their parents to buy it.

You may encounter practices not on the black list or 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.

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Footnote

In this case, the 27 EU member states + Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway

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