Internet bumps up use of Citizens Advice Euro arm

A specialist Citizens Advice cross-border advice service handled disputes valued at more than £1m over the last 12 months and acted for almost two-thirds more European consumers than it did the previous year.

The European Consumer Centre (ECC), run by Citizens Advice, helps people resolve problems related to goods and services bought cross-border in Europe. A newly published report shows that more people contacted its UK office for advice about problems with holiday clubs and timeshares than about any other issue, accounting for almost one-third (29 per cent) of all enquiries. Most of the problems were about the purchase or resale of holiday clubs. Issues raised include the lack of a cooling-off period, unfair sales methods and contractual issues. The ECC network has an office in most EU countries. In the UK, it is funded jointly by the Department of Trade and Industry and the European Commission.

“Our latest findings show that more and more people are turning to the UK office of the ECC when they need advice after buying goods or services from another EU country,” says ECC director Ruth Bamford. “The rise in the number of people coming to us is probably linked to growing numbers of shoppers taking advantage of cheaper airline tickets to European destinations. Additionally, people now have much more opportunity to purchase goods at a distance via the internet.” Over the last year the service has seen a 20 per cent increase in people wanting advice on a purchase made online.

“However, we really want to make more people aware that they can come to us for advice when they’re having problems with goods or services purchased in another European country,” continues Bamford. “Often, when people have a problem they give up easily as they wrongly think that there’s no way of seeking redress once they’ve left the country concerned.” The ECC runs an email enquiry service, where advisers can be contacted via the internet. It will refer consumer queries to an alternative dispute resolution body if they cannot be resolved after negotiating directly with the trader.

A third of all enquiries were concerned with traders based in Spain – the largest number of enquiries about any European country. According to the ECC, this is because the country remains a favourite holiday destination as well as somewhere many people from the UK own property.

A third (32 per cent) of enquiries concerned problems with purchases made over the internet, an increase of 20 per cent since 2003. Most of the complaints were about faulty goods.