We look at the wily ways consumers find to cut costs and ask the lawyers whether this is just shrewd shopping or breaking the law.
Nine in 10 British consumers consider themselves to be honest, but it seems that we are more than happy to let small indiscretions fall by the wayside if it means we can land a good deal.
According to the Integrity Study, published by cashback website Quidco.com in October 2016, four in 10 shoppers would consider keeping extra change if they were given it by an unwitting cashier, while half of us unapologetically sneak our own treats into the cinema. These days, consumers are willing to do what’s necessary to get the most from their money.
But when do the lines become blurred between a spot of shrewd bargain hunting and actual criminal behaviour? Or is it one of those grey areas where the companies are either not bothered, or are effectively turning a blind eye to what’s happening?
“Bargain hunting can be an incredibly satisfying pursuit when you bag a great deal and make a saving, but when that pursuit turns into rule-bending, consumers can risk getting into hot water,” says Cathal Wogan of Quidco.com.
Sharing online memberships and using the prepaid envelopes that you receive in junk mail for personal post are both widely practised. But the law is clear: it states that those who makes a false representation, knowing that it is untrue or misleading and do so with the intention to gain from it, or to cause someone else loss, are committing an offence under the Fraud Act 2006.
“Arguably then, when you sign up for an online account under different names to take advantage of the introductory offers, you are engaged in fraudulent activity,” said Robert Conway, a director of the criminal defence team at law firm, Vardags.
But it doesn’t seem to be as cut and dry as that. Stuart Helmer, senior associate at law firm CMS, argues that there’s quite a high bar for fraud which requires, among other things, dishonesty.
“Generally, simply taking a trader’s offer at face value, whether it is for goods at an implausibly low price or to participate in a sales promotion, won’t be enough for that,” he said.
Here we look at the clever ways consumers are cutting costs – and look to the experts for the lowdown on whether these tricks just bend the rules or are illegal.
Car insurance – don’t ‘front’ for a child
When applying for car insurance, some drivers may be tempted to be flexible with the truth. In fact, figures from Quidco.com found that a fifth of motorists are happy to fi b on their application with some tweaking their job description or naming extra drivers in order to get a cheaper deal. But this dishonesty can mean you are left with a policy that won’t pay out, and even a criminal record.
“People should choose the occupation that best fits their job title and to always be truthful when completing insurance quotes,” said Chloe French, spokesperson for Direct Line car insurance.
“While we wouldn’t penalise someone for inadvertently misrepresenting the truth, if there was evidence that this was deliberate then we would look to take action, such as cancelling their policy.”
However, fronting is one lie that the insurance industry will not overlook. This is when in order to secure a lower premium, a policy is taken out in the parent’s name with them as the main driver and the young driver as a named driver, when in reality the young driver will have the main use of the vehicle.
“Although fronting may seem like a harmless attempt to save money, it is actually fraudulent activity which could put them in an even worse position by having this on their record,” says Ms French.
“If fronting is proven, the penalties can include the cancellation of the policy with no refund of any premium, any claims may not be paid and the customer may have difficulty obtaining insurance in the future.”
Price glitches – the ultimate bargain
Most shoppers get a real adrenaline rush when they have secured the ultimate bargain – and price glitches are the perfect example. These are company errors that make something unusually cheap – for example, a £1,099 TV offered for £199.
Many people who buy price glitches do so knowing there is a high risk the majority will be cancelled. But that is not always the case and savvy shoppers can get their hands on a good deal if they are fast.
It’s quite common for consumer brand owners to make mistakes in their offers to customers and generally it will not be fraudulent for a savvy consumer to take advantage of these, says Mr Helmer.
“It is well established that even if a trader offers goods at a mistakenly low price, they don’t generally have to honour any sales,” he says.
Offering goods for sale in a retail environment is known as an “invitation to treat”, but the contract won’t be formed unless the consumer offers to buy at that price and – this is key – the trader subsequently accepts.
“The mere fact of coming to the till, or clicking ‘buy’ on a website, doesn’t in itself form a binding contract,” says Mr Helmer.
Ecommerce terms will make clear that a contract is not formed until the trader accepts the consumer’s offer to buy, often by sending an email or by delivering the goods, giving the trader the chance to retract the mistaken price.
Some retailers reserve the right to cancel an order up to the point of delivery, so carefully check the retailer’s terms and conditions. That said, some traders feel bound by moral pressure to honour a low price offered in error.
Online contests and freebies
Another area where wily consumers can catch a trader out is in sales promotions such as free gifts and prize draws.
Sales promotions must be governed by written terms and conditions, and careful traders will limit the availability of promotions by geography and time, as well as by availability, by participant and a range of other criteria. For example, if the promotion is only available to students or pensioners, the terms will say so and then the trader can exclude people who don’t qualify.
“Attempting to participate if you don’t qualify will be a breach of contract, allowing the trader to disqualify the consumer from the promotion,” says Mr Helmer.
“The trader might even be able to sue for their losses, though suing consumers for minor losses often won’t be worthwhile. However, there are many examples of traders getting this wrong and finding that they have a contractual obligation to fulfil a promotion in circumstances they did not intend.”
What is more, the trader will be faced with the uncomfortable choice of incurring the cost of fulfilling the promotion or of incurring the bad PR of trying to withdraw – and here, a trader will usually be in breach of contract if they don’t honour the actual promotion terms as published, mistakes and all.
Sharing online subscriptions – a grey area
We teach our children that “sharing is caring”, but when is this actually stealing?
A third of consumers access video streaming services online, but according to a survey by price comparison site Broadband Genie, a quarter of us are sharing login credentials with people living outside our homes.
And it’s easy to see why – take Netflix, for instance. With three tiers of service (stipulating how many devices can view concurrently and starting at £5.99 a month), the streaming giant is unique among its rivals in supporting different user profiles that track distinct viewing histories and give different recommendations. This is a great feature, but one that really wouldn’t be necessary unless multiple people were permitted to use the same account.
The sites themselves do not make it abundantly clear whether this is allowed or not. Some violations of online terms of service could potentially break the terms and conditions, but the language used in those agreements can be ambiguous, to say the least.
However, Mr Conway argues that sharing login information for this use is a legal grey area.
“When you sign into Netflix under someone else’s name, you are engaged in fraudulent activity,” he says.
However, Mr Conway admits that there is no need to jump behind the curtains at every siren sound you hear.
He says: “It seems that in an era of stretched resources and a proliferation in more serious economic crime, few companies pursue this sort of low-level offending, even if it did ever come to light.”
“I’m ‘faking it’ as a student to get discounts”
Blogger Emma Bradley (pictured above), aged 41, from Gloucester has saved a fortune by using her NUS extra card from the National Union of Students, despite never having paid for a course of study or spent any time studying.
Emma, who blogs at Mumssavvysavings.com, simply signed up for a free online digital marketing course with Shaw Academy, which enabled her to qualify for the discount card.
Over the past year, she estimates her savings have exceeded £450 from discounts at restaurants such as Prezzo and Zizzi and half-price memberships to Spotify and Amazon Prime.
“When shopping online it is easier than ever to make use of pretending to be a student,” she said. “You can avoid eye contact, but still get a bargain or discount."
Emma says that she feels that she has simply “played the system a little”, rather than having broken the law.
“I like to stretch my hard-earned money further and don’t feel guilty as these are big international companies and if they can afford to give some groups in society a discount they can afford to give us all one,” she says.
Lawyer Stuart Helmer agrees. “Signing up for a course without the intention of actually doing the course is unlikely to qualify as fraud, especially as it would be difficult for the NUS to show that the potential student had actually acted dishonestly when they might have just changed their mind or stopped attending lectures after getting the card,” he says.
However, Mr Helmer warns that anyone who has obtained or sought to use an NUS card without being a registered student at all, could potentially be liable for fraud if they presented the card to obtain a discount on goods or services, because they would be dishonestly representing that they were a student.
“I’ve bought a £500 sofa for £30”
Charlotte Burns( pictured above), a London-based blogger (Lottyearns.co.uk), says making the most of price glitches has paid dividends. She has saved money on everything from food to furniture and saved hundreds of pounds in the process.
The 28-year-old explains: “Over the years, I have managed to score £500 sofas for £30, Thornton’s chocolates, a Citizen watch for £28 and Yankee candles delivered for a few pounds.”
Charlotte says that consumers should always keep an eye out for short-lived deals and glitches on social media. “Facebook groups such as Skint Dad deals, Latest Deals, Luxury on a Budget and 10 Ways all post the latest glitches when they happen.”
“I’ve often suspected that brands do it for PR purposes as a glitch will get a lot of traffic,” she says. “If you look at it this way, it is a win for both sides involved, so why not make the most of it?”
While some shoppers will complain online if they don’t get the advertised ‘wrong’ ultra-low price, Charlotte says: “It’s really fair enough. As much as I like a bargain, I wouldn’t want to see a company get into financial trouble because of a mistake.”
Have your say Have you ever returned a used item or discovered a way of using retailers’ discounts to your advantage? Email editor@ moneywise.co.uk