Each week former trading standards officer Richard Thomson answers your questions.
Q Can you tell me what the law is about misleading advertising and who enforces it? I’m particularly wound up about the ‘up to’ broadband speed claims, and the use of ‘could’ when an advertiser is purporting their product can save buyers lots of money.
A This is a hefty subject that has caused buyers problems since modern trading methods began in the late 19th century.
A trader is entitled to put the best gloss possible on a product or service. The difficulty comes with the use of words which can mean different things to different people – sometimes referred to as a lawyer’s paradise.
A reader berated me recently about cakes which in her opinion were neither exceedingly good or resembled anything like the illustration on the box. I had to tell her that in most cases the law required a standard of proof about the falsity of a trader’s claim which was very high indeed, namely ‘false to a material degree’.
This absurd phrase means false in the opinion of a magistrate or judge, so she quickly came to the conclusion she wasn’t going to get very far with her complaint. I went on to refer her to the Advertising Standards Authority who police advertising on behalf of the public, but I fear she got no better response from that quarter either. I have sympathy with your obvious annoyance about advertised broadband speeds. In practice ‘up to’ means ‘under the best possible conditions and in theory these speeds are obtainable, but don’t count on getting anything like them.’ The Office of Fair Trading is looking at these claims, and hopefully action to stamp them out will follow shortly.
As for the use of the word ‘could’ to quantify financial savings claimed by advertisers, this too is used to get around possible criminal consequences of its real meaning which roughly translated is: ‘theoretically possible but highly unlikely.’
Q I keep reading about people being ripped off whilst using a hole in the wall bank machine. This is a real worry to me, especially when I’m using one and other people are standing behind me in a queue. Have you any tips please?
A Automatic teller machines are a lot safer to use than you might suppose.
Actual fraud whilst using these machines is becoming less likely, as security cameras and other inbuilt devices are making it more difficult for criminals to tamper with ATMs.
I suggest you keep away from machines in large out-of-town supermarket car parks, especially at night. These are targeted by crooks precisely because of where they are.
Where possible use a machine inside a bank.
If this is not possible, check the machine over visually for anything loose or suspicious like attachments with protruding wires. Always position your back to obstruct anyone looking over your shoulder, and shield your PIN number from above either with your hand or wallet when using the keypad.
If the machine retains your card, report it to your bank.