Buying tech in the UK: your consumer rights explained

Know your rights
Arm yourself with this knowledge and ensure you know when someone is trying to con you out of your cash

You've scrimped and saved, and you've finally ordered it: a new iMac, or that copy of Logic you've lusted after, or an accessory that's guaranteed to make your life 27% better.

You've read the reviews, you've found the best price, you made sure that you weren't buying from a cowboy - but even then something can go wrong.

The courier might deliver an iPad instead of an iMac, or not deliver anything at all. The accessory might be the wrong version, or more explodey than you'd like. Now what?

The good news is that you're protected if a supplier messes you around, if goods aren't as advertised or if your purchases develop a fault, and you're even protected if a company goes bust before your goods turn up.

In the UK, there are three key bits of legislation you should know about. There are the Distance Selling Regulations, which cover online shopping and mail/telephone orders; the Sale of Goods Act, which covers any physical product you buy, online or off; and there is the Consumer Credit Act, which offers extensive protection when you pay with a credit card (but not a debit card).

It's important to note that while the legislation is generally straightforward and sensible, we aren't lawyers and what follows doesn't constitute legal advice: if you need such advice, the Law Society will happily put you in touch with a qualified solicitor.

Spooky action at a distance

Cracked iMac screen

If you're ordering things online, the Distance Selling Regulations - officially known as the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 - give you seven days to change your mind. The cancellation period depends on what you're buying: with physical products you have seven working days from delivery, and with services you have seven working days from signing up.

Crucially the item doesn't need to be faulty: you can return it because you don't like the colour, or because Apple announced a newer version 10 minutes after it was delivered. Refunds must be made within 30 days of cancellation.

There are some important exceptions. The Distance Selling Regulations don't apply to perishable items such as food, to underwear or to personalised gifts, so you can't expect Apple to take back an iPod engraved with a witty message unless the device is faulty - and they don't apply to software, audio or video once the packaging has been opened.

The rules don't apply to auctions either, but that doesn't mean everything on eBay is exempt: if you're buying from a business, then both Buy It Now and Second Chance Offers are covered by the Distance Selling Regulations.

The software and media exemption appears to apply to app downloads and iTunes purchases too, although if you're really regretting a late-night Kenny G back catalogue binge it's worth trying 'Report a problem' in your iTunes purchase history: Apple representatives have been known to refund some accidental purchases, although the official line is that all purchases are final unless a download is 'unacceptably poor'. Sadly, Apple doesn't mean 'poor' in aesthetic terms.

If you do return a product, watch out for the small print: unless a firm forgets to put it in their terms and conditions, if you're returning a product because you've changed your mind then you're liable for the return postage (the supplier is liable for it if they sent the wrong thing or the item was faulty).

You are not liable for 'restocking' fees, administration charges, packaging deductions or other financial penalties, though, and if the firm persuades you to try an alternative replacement product and you don't like it, the firm pays to pick it up.

In addition to the Distance Selling Regulations, you're also covered by the Sale of Goods Act, or SOGA for short. Under SOGA, goods must match the retailer's description, be of satisfactory quality, and be fit for purpose.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.