Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

T’is the season to be merry, t’is also the season for ordering all manner of items online and hoping for the best when they arrive.

We’ve all done it. We’ve spotted the most amazing dress online for next to nothing, and ever the bargain hunters, couldn’t believe our luck and put it in our online baskets. We’ve told all our friends of the fabulousness of our purchase and shown them the pictures of a model in China looking fantastic while wearing it at some glitzy affair.

And we’ve all also stood slack-jawed when we’ve opened our parcel and unwrapped something that looks like it was made by a gang of Primary Four pupils for an art project and, when finished, was torn apart by lions. It’s not our fault, it’s the mystical, magical power the online bargain has over us.

But Christmas takes all sense out of the equation altogether and the scammers line up to take our money. What you don’t want to happen is buying something beautiful as a Christmas gift for someone online, only for it to arrive looking like a mess, and having to race to the only 24-hour garage open on Christmas Eve and scramble some manner of DIY gift together featuring car air fresheners to put under the tree instead.

The media is this week full of stories of people ordering beautiful, lush, full Christmas trees online only to open the box and find something that looked like it had been dumped by a garden centre and then incinerated.

False Advertising

People have bought coats that look nothing like the picture advertising them and shoes that are falling apart before they have even come out of the box. People get easily dazzled by stunning dresses and amazing prices but are left disappointed when they arrive and the hems are frayed, the cut is unflattering and the material is so shoddy that it virtually falls apart in your hands.

It’s the scenario faced by many women who have made purchases from websites, it’s fair to say, that are mostly based in faraway China. And it happens so often it now the scourge has its own Facebook page – Knock Off Nightmares.

On the site members of the public post their hilarious online shopping regret stories and pictures. There is one woman who bought her teenage daughter a top, only for it to arrive and be small enough to snugly fit her cat as a bikini. The moggy modelled it quite happily in the pictures.

There is a plethora of sorry tales of women who bought glorious ballgowns and even wedding dresses that turned out to be sad, poorly made, look-nothing-like-the-original replicas.

One very disgruntled man who had bought a colour changing mug was left stunned when the image on the mug was actually a print out of a before and after picture.

Another was shocked when the rug he had ordered turned out to be too small even for a doll’s house.

Do Your Research

The rules of this game are simple and will help you to avoid being caught by online scammers this Christmas, always eager to take your hard earned money.

Before you press ‘buy’ do a little research and make sure that the website or company you are buying from has a physical address or a phone number you can verify.

Check the company’s reviews. Normally with these knock-off scammers, people speak up to warn others not to buy from them. Google the company and search the reviews.

And the most important rule – if you see a great deal that seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Scammers are always one step ahead, and sometimes, despite all our good sense, we will get caught. But there is some manner of comeback, particularly if you make your purchases within the UK.

Under the Consumer Rights Act, retailers must offer a full refund of an item if it is faulty, not as described or doesn’t do what it’s supposed to.  

Shoppers have exactly the same rights to refunds when they buy items in a sale as when they buy them at full price.

If the items were bought online or by mail or telephone order, shoppers have the right to cancel their order even if the goods aren’t faulty – although they must do this within 14 days of the item arriving.

If the seller won’t give you a refund, you can check if it belongs to a trade association and complain to them.

You can also see if your card provider or PayPal will give you a refund. Lastly, you can take the retailer to court.

And it’s always a good idea to apply common sense to the situation. If a bargain looks too good to be true, you can bet your keenly priced knock-off boots that it is.