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Consumers (24-02-2009)

EU crackdown on unfair sales practices: one year after

A year after the most unfair and aggressive sales practices have been explicitly banned in all EU, the European Commission today has called a meeting of consumer authorities, organisations and experts, to listen to their experience living with the new rules.
Mr and Mrs Rosenow were on holiday abroad. On the beach, a scratchcard tout approached them and said they had won a prize. In the hope of collecting the prize, they were enticed to a remote place with no means of getting back to town and relentlessly bombarded with a holiday-club presentation for four hours. The couple was pressured to sign up for the holiday club and paid a deposit on the spot without the chance to think it over. Only then were they driven back to their hotel.
Annie wanted to buy a computer. She got an advertising leaflet from a chain of computer stores, in which she found an incredibly low-priced offer on a good model which she had researched before. She rushed to the nearest outlet but was told that the laptop was out of stock. Instead, the vendor tried to talk her into buying a different and much more expensive model. She tried three other outlets, all with the same result.
Should not such scams be made illegal?
They are already illegal in the EU. The two case studies are examples of aggressive selling and bait advertising, respectively. These are just some of the unfair practices that are banned under the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, which came into force across the EU at the end of 2007. The Directive includes the Black List of sales practices which are illegal in any EU country in any circumstances.
The idea is to give consumers better protection against rogue traders, whether they are shopping in their corner shop or buying on a website from a different country. Traders, on the other hand, benefit from legal certainty: it is now clear for them which practices are never allowed anywhere in the EU.
Almost exactly a year has passed since the Directive became law in all EU. The year has clearly made a difference. Close to 60,000 complaints on illegal practices have been received and national authorities investigated more than 2,300 cases. Also, we now have a clearer picture of how widespread these practices still are. For example, those are still fairly common include misleading or incomplete prices, fake "free" offers, or hidden subscription charges. 
But has applying this piece of legislation in all the different legal systems of the EU been all plain sailing for national consumer authorities? On the first anniversary of the new law, the European Commission wanted to find out by calling a meeting with its key partners.
Today's meeting of national authorities, European Consumer Centres, consumer organisations, academic experts and business (such as advertising federations), to listen to their experience in living with the new rules. EU Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva, who opened the event, said "This year has really shown that better regulation can deliver concrete benefits to citizens. But only uniform application will ensure that consumers and business enjoy having a simple, single set of rules across the EU".
The outcome of today's debate will feed into the guidelines for the application of the Directive, which the Commission has planned for autumn and which will be an online living toolbox. The guidelines are meant to clarify the application of the law, based on the feedback collected. One example is developing a common EU-wide interpretation of the use of the word "free".
Even the best laws will not be fully effective if citizens are not aware of their rights and how they can use them.
With this in mind, the European Commission runs a dedicated website to help and advise individual consumers who think that they may have been misled or fallen victim to a scam, or who want to find out which practices they need to watch out for. The address is The site contains practical day-to-day examples of unfair practices and advice on how to get help. The site is available in 22 EU languages. 
If you think that the site is helpful for consumers and traders, you can help spread the word about it, by putting up an animated banner advertising the site on your own webpage. A choice of four banners can be downloaded free of charge from the site.
More on EU-wide consumer rights in practice:
More on the Unfair Commercial Practices directive: