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Wednesday, 20 June, 2001, 09:37 GMT 10:37 UK
Net police fail online shoppers
Online shopping pictures and web user
By the BBC's consumer affairs correspondent Nicola Carslaw

Trading standards officers say much more needs to be done to make internet shopping in the UK safer.

They say those responsible for protecting shoppers on the internet often do not know how to investigate online con-tricks.

We believe there should be a properly trained and resourced body to protect people online

Richard Webb
At its annual conference in Cardiff, the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) is calling for major changes to make the UK the safest place for e-commerce in the world.

When you shop in the high street you can be certain there are laws governing the sale of goods and services - and know that trading standards officers are able to enforce them.

But according to the trading standards offices' report it is not the same when you do business on the internet.

A toy maker's story

Toymaker Cyril Hobbins was nearly caught out when he was sent a false e-mail threatening to cut off his access to the internet within 24 hours, unless he sent back his credit card details.

Speaking from his workshop in Kenilworth, he said that he was really angry when he first received the message.

But because he uses the internet a great deal, he also became suspicious.

"After two days the web page they sent me was actually deleted and nowhere to be found. So the people who sent me this e-mail probably went off and conned some other people elsewhere in the country or even in the world," he said.

Mr Hobbins said the whole episode made him very angry.... but at least he was able to see through the con.

Internet police needed

However, in the Trading Standards Institute report - Surfing The Big Wave - officers were found to be lagging behind the times.

They find consumer complaints online harder to investigate than those on the high street.

Most officers just don't understand how the web works. They don't know how to trace the owner of the web site and very few local councils have allocated resources to bring about the sort of action needed.

To ensure consumer confidence in e-commerce, the report says local and national governments must join business and law enforcers to implement major changes.

"There are 200 trading standards offices in the country. They're not adequately co-ordinated. Some are good at finding the way around the internet - some aren't. It's patchy," says the report's author Richard Webb.

"We believe there should be a properly trained and resourced body to protect people online, just as trading standards officers now protect shoppers in the high street," he added.

Rogue traders

On the conference's first day on Tuesday, there was a call for tougher laws and more resources to crack down on rogue traders throughout the UK.

Officers are appealing to the new consumer affairs minister, Melanie Johnson, to tighten the controls on misleading price promotions.

They will present her with a plan to improve business standards generally.

Legislation designed to strengthen their powers was dropped from the last Queen's Speech, and trading standards officers want to ensure that this time they get the full backing of government.

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