Distance Selling (Mail Order, Telephone and Internet Shopping) Quick Facts

Subject: Distance Selling (Mail Order, Telephone and Internet Shopping)

Relevant or Related Legislation:
Distance Selling Regulations (DSR) 2000.
Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Directive 97/7/EC.
Electronic Commerce Directive 2000.
(Other consumer legislation may apply according to circumstances)

Current Position on the Distance Selling Directive:

The UK Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations came into force on 31 October 2000 and implemented the Distance Selling Directive.  The European Commission is required to review the Directive no later than four years after its entry into force.  The review has been postponed to allow implementation in the new Member States to be examined. DTI will be drawing to the Commission's attention some issues it believes merit consideration in the review.

The Commission is also conducting a wider review of the eight main EC directives  protecting consumers’ economic interests and this review also encompasses the Distance Selling Directive (the directives are: Timeshare, Doorstep Selling, Distance Selling, Sale of Goods and Guarantees, Unit Pricing, Unfair Contract Terms, Package Travel and Injunction).

Recent Campaigns or Consultation: changes to the Distance Selling Regulations

Full details of the amendments to the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) (Amendment) Regulations 2005 which came into force on 6 April 2005 are available from the HMSO website: www.hmso.gov.uk/si/si2000/20002334.htm 

The DTI and the Office of Fair Trading Guidance for Business is available.

The changes affect when businesses must give consumers key information in a written or otherwise durable form.  For services, this information can be provided in good time before or during the performance of the service rather than before the contract is agreed.
The Government’s Safe Internet Shopping campaign provides consumers with the information they need to shop safely. You can view further advice on the Consumer Direct website

Key Facts:

• The Distance Selling Regulations apply to both goods and services, where the contract is made without any face-to-face contact between supplier and consumer.

• Certain goods and services are exempt from all or part of the Regulations.

• The Office of Fair Trading, Trading Standard Departments of local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales www.tradingstandards.gov.uk and the Department of Enterprise, Trade & Investment in Northern Ireland (www.detini.gov.uk) are the designated enforcement authorities for these Regulations.

The main provisions of the Regulations are that:

• Consumers must be given clear information about the goods or services before buying;

• Goods must be delivered within thirty days unless agreed otherwise;

• Consumers have a cooling off period in which they can withdraw from the contract for any reason. The cooling off period begins as soon as the order has been made.  In the case of goods, it ends seven working days after the day of receipt of the goods.  In the case of services, it ends seven working days after the day the order were made.  If the consumer agrees to the service beginning within the seven days, the right to cancel ends when the service starts; and

• Where consumers notify the supplier in writing or another durable medium that they wish to cancel the contract, they must be refunded within 30 days all money paid.

The Regulations do not apply to:

• business-to-business contracts

• financial services sold at distance. These are covered by the Financial Services (Distance Marketing) Regulations.

• contracts for the sale of land – although the regulations DO apply to consumer rental agreements

• products bought from vending machines

• goods or services bought at an auction with an auctioneer

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1.  What is distance selling?
Q2.  What are my rights when shopping online?
Q3.  I understand I can change my mind if I do not want the goods or services. Does that apply in all cases?
Q4.  Do I have to pay to return the goods?
Q5.  What should I do if the goods are faulty?
Q6.  What should I look out for if I want to buy on the internet?
Q7.  Who regulates the Internet?
Q8.  What can I do if I don't receive my goods?
Q9.  What can I do if there's a problem?
Q10. What is the Government doing to stop fraud on the internet?
Q11. What about TV Auction Channels?
Q12. I have a complaint against a mail order company
Q13. I am receiving books that I didn’t order
Q14. How can I stop unsolicited emails – spam?
Q15. How can I stop unsolicited telephone calls – cold calling?


Q1. What is distance selling?

Distance selling covers goods or services sold without face to face contact such as through the internet, digital TV, mail order including catalogue shopping, phone or fax.

Q2. What are my rights when shopping online?

Your usual consumer rights apply online. Goods must be of satisfactory quality and fit for purpose; adverts and descriptions must not be misleading. With auctions and private sellers the general rule is 'buyer beware'. The Distance Selling Regulations provide additional protection e.g. your card company must refund you if your credit, debit, or store card is used fraudulently and, in many cases in the EU, the law allows you time to change your mind, within seven working days of the delivery, and get a refund.

Q3. I understand I can change my mind if I do not want the goods or services. Does that apply in all cases?

In most cases, the Regulations provide a 7 day cooling off period and a right to cancel during that period. The Regulations also allow traders to state the conditions and procedures for withdrawal, but require information about these to be supplied to the consumer.

The right to cancel allows the consumer time to examine the goods or services, as they would have when buying in a shop. The cooling off period starts when the contract is concluded and ends 7 working days after the day the goods are received (for services, 7 working days after the order is made). However, if a service starts immediately, before the end of the cooling off period, the consumer must be informed (in a durable medium) that they will not be able to cancel once it starts.

The cooling off period and right to cancel do not apply to contracts for:

• goods made to the customer's specification;
• perishable goods (flowers, fresh food);
• CDs, DVDs, and tapes with software, audio or video if unsealed;
• newspapers and magazines;
• betting, gaming and lotteries

Q4. Do I have to pay to return the goods?

When consumers exercise their right to cancel they are under a duty to take reasonable care of the goods and to “restore” them to the supplier.  The term “restore” does not permit the supplier to demand that the consumer send back or deliver the goods, but only that the goods are made available to the supplier for collection. 

The Regulations permit the supplier to include in the contract a term requiring the consumer to return the goods to the supplier at their own cost.  The supplier may charge for the direct costs of recovering the goods if, on request, the consumer does not return them; this must not be more than the direct costs of recovery, such as postage or, for larger items, the cost of a van collection.  Once the consumer has cancelled the order all money paid must be returned within 30 days of the date of cancellation.

The business is not entitled to charge for recovery of the goods if the consumer also has a statutory right to cancel the contract under other legislation, (for example because they are defective) or if the term requiring the consumer to return the goods is an ‘‘unfair term’’ within the meaning of the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 and The Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts (Amendment) Regulations 2001.

Q5. What should I do if the goods are faulty?

The Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 give consumers an unconditional cancellation right, in addition to their rights under the Sale of Goods Legislation.

Where a consumer claims goods are faulty after having had a reasonable time to examine them (which could be after the expiry of the cooling off period above) the consumer's rights under the Sale of Goods Act apply.

The Act makes it clear that if the goods do not conform to contract and the consumer exercises his or her right to reject them, they can ask for their money back, providing they do so quickly. Alternatively, they can request repair and replacement or claim compensation. Please see the Sale of Goods quick facts for further information. 

If the matter cannot be resolved to your satisfaction, contact Consumer Direct at: www.consumerdirect.gov.uk (Tel: 08454 04 05 06). Consumers in Northern Ireland should contact Consumer Line on 0845 600 6262.

Q6. What should I look out for if I want to buy on the internet?

Payment: In the EU, the card company must refund you if your credit or debit card is used fraudulently; The Association for Payment Clearing Services (www.apacs.org.uk) publishes advice for cardholders. www.apacs.org.uk/resources_publications/key_facts.html 

Web Sites: Use ones you know or which are recommended. Get the supplier's phone number and postal address.

Records: Keep a copy of what you've ordered, plus the supplier's confirmation message.

Quality: Your high street consumer rights apply online. 

Cooling Off: In many cases in the EU the law lets you change your mind and get a refund within seven working days of the delivery.

 Q7. Who regulates the Internet?

There is no specific regulation of the Internet; it is regulated by the application of existing UK law, which applies equally online and offline.

If something is illegal offline it will also apply to online items (questions about firearms are for the Home Office (www.homeoffice.gov.uk); medicines for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (www.mhra.gov.uk); and selling of cigarettes and alcohol for HM Revenue & Customs (www.hmrc.gov.uk)).

Q8. What can I do if I don't receive my goods?

If no date is specified, delivery of goods or the start of performance of a service must be within 30 days of the order. If they don't arrive you are entitled to cancel the order and receive a full refund.

Consumers purchasing goods over the value of £100 in the UK are protected by Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, if the seller fails to honour the contract consumers may claim costs from the credit card company. The Office of Fair Trading publishes ‘‘Equal Liability’’ which gives more details. This does not apply to overseas credit card transactions.

According to the Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumer Regulations 2002 the goods remain at the seller’s risk until they are delivered to the consumer. Thus the supplier is liable should the goods not arrive.

Q9. What can I do if there's a problem?

First, ask the supplier to put things right. Put your complaint in writing. If you need help, go to your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB). Some suppliers are covered by schemes aimed at settling disputes without having to go to court. CABs can advise on this.

If you buy from traders in EU countries you have many of the rights you have in the UK. Be aware that in the USA and elsewhere problems could be more difficult to sort out - so check the small print. With cross border cases, going to court can be very costly and time-consuming.  Any international complaints can be directed to www.Econsumer.gov, or alternatively the Consumer Direct website provides helpful information. Your local Citizens Advice Bureau can help with EU complaints.

Q10. What is the Government doing to stop fraud on the internet?

Government Departments continue to work with industry organisations and law enforcement agencies through a variety of discussion groups such as the Internet Crime Forum, which meets quarterly, to discuss how internet crime can be tackled and how public confidence in use of the internet can be fostered.  Officials from DTI and the Home Office have had meetings with representatives from internet auction sites and will be seeking to ensure that all online auction sites assist law enforcement in fraud investigations and have robust measures to restrict services to individuals involved in such occurrences.

Government is also involved in the development of Project Endurance, an initiative which will launch an internet security public awareness campaign in 2005.  The project is an alliance of public and private sector bodies, which brings together a number of UK Government departments and law enforcement organisations with a number of high profile private sector companies.  This campaign is to be targeted at micro business and consumers, primarily aimed at helping these users gain confidence in using the internet.

General advice about “ internet crime – prevention advice” is available from www.homeoffice.gov.uk/internetcrime

Q11.  What about TV Auction Channels?

The Distance Selling Regulations as well as other consumer protection legislation apply to goods or services purchased from TV auction channels.

The industry regulator Ofcom (The Office of Communications) will consider complaints and take appropriate action if a broadcaster is in breach of the Ofcom code of conduct. www.ofcom.org.uk/).

Complaints about TV Channels should be addressed to the Ofcom Contact Centre (OCC) at Ofcom, Riverside House, 2a Southwark Bridge Road, London SE1 9HA.

Q12. I have a complaint against a mail order company

Most mail order companies are members of the Mail Order Traders' Association (MOTA) who will offer to help resolve complaints. Their contact details are: MOTA, Drury House, 19 Water Street, Liverpool L2 0RP Tel: 0151 227 9456.

Q13. I am receiving books that I didn’t order

If you accept an offer for a book(s) at a discounted rate you may be joining a book club membership.  Some memberships require that you purchase a specific number of books and will send you recommended titles to look at. 

One of the provisions of the Distance Selling Regulations is that consumers must be given clear information about the goods or services offered. This information must include duration of the contract, if it is to be performed continuously or recurrently, the arrangements for payment and delivery and details of whether the consumer or the supplier is responsible for the cost of returning the goods.  After the sale is agreed, this information must be confirmed in writing to the consumer. 

If you think this was not made clear to you before joining, you can report the matter to Citizens Advice or your local Trading Standards Department.

Under the Unsolicited Goods and Services Act 1971 (as amended), it is an offence to demand payment for goods known to be unsolicited and someone who receives goods in these circumstances may retain them as unconditional gift, and does not have to pay for or return any unwanted goods.  If a consumer already has a relationship with the company, the terms of the agreement between the parties would need to be taken into account.

Q14. How can I stop unsolicited emails – spam?

Subscribers are protected from unsolicited spam e-mails through the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, which came into force on 11 December 2003. They provide a safeguard against the kind of unsolicited e-mails that many people object to where they have no knowledge of the advertiser or the products being marketed. The regulations require that unsolicited spam e-mails cannot be sent to an individual subscriber unless prior permission has been obtained or unless there is a previous relationship between the parties. The regulations can be enforced against an offending company or individual anywhere in the European Union (EU).

The Information Commissioner's Office (www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk/) (ICO) has responsibility for the enforcement of the regulations and considers complaints about breaches. A breach of their enforcement notice is a criminal offence subject to a fine of up to £5,000 in magistrate’s court.

Some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer a free filtering service where e-mails are re-directed to a dedicated inbox folder. The subscriber can then either check this folder for any e-mails they do not want to receive, or choose not to check the folder in which case the filtered e-mails will usually be deleted automatically after a certain period of time. In addition, there are also commercially available e-mail filtering products.  Alternatively, existing e-mail handling software may have some filtering functions built-in that can be configured to delete e-mails without downloading them based on criteria such as certain words in the title of the body of the e-mail, or the blocking of certain senders. An ISP would be best able to advise on filtering software and on configuring the e-mail handling software.

Q15. How can I stop unsolicited telephone calls – cold calling?

Under the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003, no one is allowed to make an unsolicited direct marketing call to a subscriber who has either previously notified the sender that they do not wish to receive such calls, or has been registered with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) for at least 28 days, which is a statutory "opt-out" scheme for subscribers who do not wish to receive unsolicited direct marketing calls. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) runs the TPS scheme under the terms of contract on behalf of the Office of Communications (Ofcom) and can be contacted at: www.tpsonline.org.uk or by telephoning: 0845 070 0707.


The DTI does not deal with individual consumer enquiries or complaints. If you have an enquiry please contact Consumer Direct at: www.consumerdirect.gov.uk (Tel: 08454 04 05 06). Consumers in Northern Ireland should contact Consumer Line on 0845 600 6262.

You could also contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau (www.nacab.org.uk) who can give you advice about your rights under the current law.

The Office of Fair Trading (www.oft.gov.uk) will also follow up complaints from consumers against a company. Full details should be forwarded to enquiries@oft.gsi.gov.uk or you can contact OFT Enquiries on 08457 224499.

Any complaints about an advertisement should be directed to the Advertising Standards Authority (www.asa.org.uk).