The Digital Investigations Unit (DIU) was setup in 2021 as part of a co-funded European project aimed to scrutinize / inspect the online market for possible offenses. Such checks are aimed to detect the placing on the online market of unsafe products, the use of fraudulent or missing clauses in traders’ terms of sales, and the monitoring of unfair commercial practices by the trader providing an online service and /or selling goods online. Through such investigations, the DIU will help safeguard consumer rights and fair competition in the digital world without hampering innovation and sustainable economic growth.
Besides conducting online investigations, the DIU is also active within the EU Consumer Protection Cooperation Network through the following actions / projects:
Participation and investigation in yearly targeted sweeps aimed to identify breaches of EU consumer law in targeted sectors. Previous sweep sectors included online reviews, dark patterns, and car-rental intermediaries amongst other areas.
Involvement in the EU’s e-enforcement academy aimed to boost the knowledge of the EU Competent Authorities conducting online investigations. This academy organizes several courses and webinars, as well as hands-on training on a yearly basis tackling various topics.
Making use of the EU eLab, aimed to offer a level playing field to all EU Competent Authorities to conduct online investigations on a segregated environment with the use of multiple tools which can aid the investigators gather the required evidence for necessary enforcement against defaulting traders.
Consumer advice before purchasing goods or services online.
eCommerce has become one of the most popular means of purchasing goods and services, being food items, clothing, electronic products, insurance and any other good or service imaginable. However, not all eCommerce websites are genuine and sometimes individuals are pulled towards such sites through extremely low prices of products, free transportation of goods, and the manner the items / services are displayed on the website.
Fraudulent websites are created daily in their hundreds, for the sole scope of financially scamming internet users. The Digital Investigations Unit will do its utmost to ensure that such websites are identified and reported accordingly. However, due to the dynamics of the web, it is impossible for the Unit to detect and take action against all fraudulent eCommerce websites. Thus, it is important that consumers exercise caution and follow the below guidelines before making purchases online:
Conduct your own research – Certain websites are familiar to most consumers and might not require further examination by users. Websites such as Amazon, eBay, Joom, and AliExpress are for instance renown by most individuals. However, other eCommerce sites might not be familiar, and in such cases, consumers are advised to check out the website’s legitimacy by viewing online reviews posted by other users. Websites such as TrustPilot and ScamAdviser offer users the possibility to check the reviews of the desired websites in order to make a more informed purchase
Secure Website (Padlock symbol) – Before consumers provide their credit card details, they must ensure that the website where the payment is processed, is secure. This can be done by checking that there is a closed padlock symbol on the webpage. This icon is presented in the web browser next to the left-hand side of the address bar. This symbol identifies the website as a secure site with a valid SSL certificate which protects all information provided during any transactions.
Look out for ways to contact the trader – an eCommerce website must contain certain information on their website, which are normally located either at the bottom of the webpage, the Contact Us page (if available), or the About Us page (if available). This information should include:
VAT number / Company Registration number
Geographical address of where the business is conducted
Telephone number of the trader
Email address of the business
Failure to display such basic information, should raise red flags to the consumers and should therefore think twice before proceeding with the purchase. One must remember, that should a problem with the product or service purchased arises, they will need to communicate with the trader. Such communication would not be possible, unless the full contact details of the seller are displayed on the website.
Terms & Conditions (T&Cs) – Although long and tedious to go through, the T&Cs offer insight to possible fraudulent eCommerce websites. One must look out for:
- With whom the contract of sale is being done
- Information about delivery times, applicable guarantees, return policies, and method of payment
- Information on the Right of Withdrawal
- How to contact the trader when issues arise
- Alternative Dispute Resolution and Online Dispute Resolution
Too much information requested by the trader – Most eCommerce websites opt for user registration to facilitate the transaction between both parties. Users are requested to create a profile for easier access of their wish lists and purchase history. However, when registering their personal details, users must be aware of what they are asked to fill in. Name, Surname, Address, username, password and, to a certain extent, credit card details are genuine fields which are deemed vital. Nevertheless, scam sites often require more details from the user which are deemed unnecessary and should raise a few flags. A few examples of such fields include ID Card number and Social Security number.
Too good to be true – Very often scam eCommerce websites try to prey on the vulnerable by posting attractive and high-quality products with extremely low prices. One must always keep in mind that if the prices of products from various eCommerce sites vary by a small margin, a site selling at an extremely low rate is likely not to be trusted. Hence, before proceeding with the purchase it is important that consumers take additional precautions, such as checking if the website is genuine through websites such as Trustpilot and Scamadvisor.
Best to use Credit Cards, PayPal or Disposal Virtual cards – Illegal transactions from Debit Cards is one of the most known repercussions of giving details to scam eCommerce sites. It is imperative that consumers make use of Credit Cards with a credit limit rather than debit cards or make use of PayPal to add an extra layer of security between the trader and the consumer. One can also opt for disposal virtual cards which are created and destroyed following the transaction and thus attempts to maliciously retrieve funds from such account would be futile.
Make sure the final price is known before completing a purchase - It is important that the price being displayed is the one the consumer must pay which includes taxes and any other compulsory charges. It is also essential that prior to finalizing the payment all charges including delivery are clearly stated so that no hidden fees are incurred by the consumer following the confirmation of purchase.
Check boxes are turned off – Fraudulent traders often rely on consumers overlooking certain aspects of a website. One of the most common features is the automatically ticked checkboxes which subscribe users to a monthly subscription against a charge. Most individuals often do not realise that they are subscribing to additional services, and are then billed automatically. Before finalising a purchase, consumers must ascertain that checkboxes are not ticked as they should opt into such subscriptions and not vice-versa.