Don't be fooled by the online fakes
Hannah James, a 23-year-old teaching assistant from London, is passionate about shoes, but less keen on spelling.
She was on the hunt for a pair of Christian Louboutins, typed the brand into a search engine, and found a pair of zipper sandals at €162 – a discount of almost 60%. It was only when they arrived that she smelt a rat.
She says: "From a distance they looked like the real thing, and they had the red sole with the Louboutin stamp. But the sole was all wrinkled and the zipper looked really rough. It was clearly a fake."
She went back to the website and says: "I clicked on the 'About Us' section to find out how to contact it, and realised the word 'about' had been spelt wrong. That's when I looked to the top of the page and saw Christian had been spelled incorrectly too."
Hannah is one of a growing number of consumers falling prey to fake sites. During the first six months of this year, Consumer Direct recorded 1,630 complaints about counterfeit goods and services sold online.
So how do you spot the fakes? Start with the products themselves. Make sure you know exactly what they should look like. It also helps to know where they tend to be made. For example, take Ugg boots – most are made in China, and will say this on the boots.
However, a lot of the fakes will claim to be made in New Zealand (which is where the company is based). So, ironically, if the boots say they are made in New Zealand, this should raise your suspicions.
Jim Brough, editor of sales site bragitup.com, says there are also clues in the sites themselves: "Take a good look at the layout and design as expensive designer items tend to be sold on good-looking websites."
As Hannah found, the text is often a giveaway too, especially where there are spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Then of course there's the web address itself. Designer sites will have the most obvious one, so Christian Louboutin would be ChristianLouboutin.com. Be sceptical of anything that's very similar to this, or throws in the word 'sale' or 'bargain'.
If you come across a site and you're tempted, the final test is whether you can contact the company behind it. Read the 'About Us' page to find the telephone number, address and details of its VAT registration, and then try to contact the site.
Brough says: "A lot of the fake sites don't have telephone numbers but offer instant online chat instead. However, the assistants will either be offline or away, making this effectively useless."
The best test of authenticity is the price, and this goes for items being sold brand-new on auction sites, as well as through online shops. There's a massive demand for designer goods, so if someone is offering a 50% discount for no good reason, it will often be too good to be true.
But fakes aren't always easy to spot, so what can you do if you have fallen foul of a faker? In theory, the law is on your side. A spokesperson for Consumer Direct says: "Under the Sale of Goods Act 1979, the goods have to be 'as described'.
"So if they were described as the genuine article, you have the right to demand a refund or replacement. Otherwise you can take them to the small claims court."
However, in practice, John Tutchier, a counterfeit expert from the Trading Standards Institute in Cornwall, says: "If the company is an itinerant trader it may not have the money you're pursuing it for, and if it's based overseas, you may have trouble tracking it down to get recompense."
You can also contact Consumer Direct. If the trader is based in the UK, it will pass the information on to Trading Standards, which has some tough powers. Tutchier says: "We'll seize the goods, close down the domain name, and launch an investigation. Then we'll put it in the hands of the courts, which can prosecute and seek unlimited fines or up to 10 years in prison.
"If the trader is based in the EU, Consumer Direct will pass the matter to the European Consumer Centre, but if it's in Asia – where a lot of these sites are based – the UK authorities can do little to help. In any case, Trading Standards won't seek recompense for you.
However, if you used a credit card, and the item costs more than £100 (but less than £1,000), the card company will be jointly liable, so you can contact it for a refund. In general, it will refund your money, and then chase down the retailer itself.
Invented by a Frenchman in 1954 and ironically introduced in the UK on 1 April 1973, VAT is an indirect tax levied on the value added in the production of goods and services, from primary production to final consumption and is paid by the buyer. Its levying is complex, with a number of exemptions and exclusions. For example, in the UK, VAT is payable on chocolate-covered biscuits, but not on chocolate-covered cakes and the non-VAT status of McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes was challenged in a UK court case to determine whether Jaffa Cake was a cake or a biscuit. The judge ruled that the Jaffa Cake is a cake, McVitie’s won the case and VAT is not paid on Jaffa Cakes in the UK.
Small claims court
Courts that sit in England and Wales (Sheriffs Court in Scotland) and used by the public to resolve most consumer and personal-related disputes. “Small claims” refer to action where the monetary value involved is £5,000 or less. You can claim for faulty goods or services and even for wages owed and also bring a personal injury claim, as long as the value is under £1,000. You can also use small claims court if you’re a tenant claiming against your landlord for repairs that total less than £1,000. It’s worth noting that, even if you lose your case, you won’t have to pay the other side’s costs.
Used by the holder to buy goods and services, credit cards also have a monthly or annual spending limit, which may be raised or lowered depending on the creditworthiness of the cardholder. But unlike charge cards, borrowers aren’t forced to pay the balance off in full every month and, as long as they make a stated minimum payment, can carry a balance from one month to the next, generating compound interest. As the issuing company is effectively giving you a short-term loan, most credit cards have variable and relatively high interest rates. Allowing the interest to compound for too long may result in dire financial straits.