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Buying goods from abroad – how are we protected?

As consumers we may sometimes choose to buy the goods we need from a foreign country. Such purchases are usually done physically while actually visiting the country or online. When we decide to make such purchases we are often blinded by the ‘attractive’ prices and the money we will be saving. Unfortunately, we do not stop to think about the problems we might have to face should something go wrong with what we buy.

The first thing we should check before concluding such purchases is whether the seller is offering a commercial guarantee on the product. If yes, then we will need to see what kind of guarantee is being offered – whether it is a normal commercial guarantee the seller is directly responsible for or an international one.

If it is an international warranty, we still need to check who is responsible and should not assume that the local seller who is selling the same brand of products is automatically responsible to execute the international warranty. Usually, the international warranty is issued by the manufacturer who, through the warranty, assures consumers that the local authorised agents are responsible to provide the remedies promised in the guarantee.

However, we must keep in mind that there may not be an authorised agent in the country where we reside. In such cases, the manufacturer may direct us to the nearest agent who may not be in our country of residence. Hence, before concluding purchases of goods with an international warranty it is important that we check if there is an authorised agent in the country we live in. The information about the authorised dealer should be included in the written guarantee.

When shopping from another EU Member State we should also be aware that the goods we purchase within the EU are protected by a common set of consumer rules. These rules stipulate that the goods must comply with the description provided by the seller and must possess the same qualities as the products which the seller displayed as a sample or model.

Products purchased must also be fit for the purpose for which products of the same type are normally used and must also be fit for the particular purpose for which we require them and have informed the trader about at the time of sale.

All EU sellers must provide a free remedy to the consumer if the goods sold do not meet these criteria. The seller’s liability remains valid for two years from the date the goods sold come into the consumer’s possession. The remedies consumers may avail themselves of are free repair or replacement. The remedy chosen should be carried out within a reasonable time and with the least inconvenience to the consumer. When these solutions are not possible, or can only be completed by causing a significant inconvenience to the consumer, then the latter may claim part or full refund.

These rights also apply when the seller and the consumer are situated in different EU Member States but do not apply when the seller operates from outside the EU. Furthermore, these rights apply both if the products were purchased from a shop or online.

In case of problems, we must first communicate with the foreign seller and request him to rectify the problem without undue delays. Should the seller ignore or deny our request, then we may lodge a complaint with the European Consumer Centre Malta, the local office that deals with cross-border complaints.

Through the European Consumer Centre Network this office can help us deal with the foreign seller and find an acceptable solution. However, if the seller with whom we have a dispute operates from outside the EU we will have to deal directly with the seller ourselves.

Odette Vella is director, Information, Education and Research Directorate, Office for Consumer Affairs, Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority.

odette.vella@mccaa.org.mt

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