The sweeps operate in in a two-step action process, comprising of
- screening websites to identify breaches of consumer law in a given online market
- enforcement in which national authorities ask traders to take corrective actions
Sweeps are coordinated by the European Commission and carried out simultaneously by national enforcement authorities in participating countries. Sweeps were conducted in the following areas: websites selling air tickets (2007); ring tones for mobile phones (2008); electronic goods (2009); tickets for cultural and sports events (2010); consumer credit (2011); digital content (2012); travel services (2013); guarantees in consumer electronics (2014); Consumer Rights Directive 2011/83/EU (2015); comparison tools in the travel sector (2016) (click to see sweeps older than 5 years); and telecommunication and other digital services (2017); price transparency and drip pricing (2018); Delivery and right of withdrawal (2019)(see here the charts); consumer scams related to the COVID-19 pandemic (2020); misleading sustainability claims (2020); consumer credit (2021); online consumer reviews (2021); car rental intermediaries (2022); Black Friday sales (2022) and dark patterns (2022).
2022 – sweep on dark patterns
Manipulative practices called dark patterns are interfaces designed in a way that push consumers into making choices that may not be in their best interest. The European Commission’s study assessed more instances of dark patterns and revealed that they are increasingly used by online traders.
The CPC authorities decided to focus the 2022 sweep on dark patterns. Under the coordination of the Commission, authorities of 23 Member States, Norway and Iceland checked 399 of websites and applications of retail sellers active in the sales of products for their own account. The authorities selected and searched for three categories of dark patterns:
- Fake countdown timers: dynamic indicator of a deadline urging and pressuring clients to purchase a product. The timer is however fake when it resets after the expiry with the same offer still valid or it expires but the offer it claimed remains valid even after expiration.
- False hierarchy: design of interfaces in a way that directs consumers towards certain choices, either through visual design or language used.
- Hidden information: hiding essential information on a product or service by using very small fonts, non-contrasting colours or placing information in a less visible place.
CPC authorities found that 148 out of 399 web shops screened included one of the three categories of dark patterns.
Some findings of the screening of websites:
- 42 websites used fake countdown timers with deadlines to purchase specific products;
- 54 websites directed consumers towards certain choices - from subscriptions to more expensive products or delivery options -, either through their visual design or choice of language;
- 70 websites were found to be hiding important information or making it less visible for consumers. For example, this included information related to delivery costs, the composition of products, or on the availability of a cheaper option. 23 websites were hiding information with the aim of manipulating consumers into entering into a subscription;
- The sweep also included the apps of 102 of the websites screened, 27 of which also deployed at least one of the three categories of dark patterns.
Consumer protection authorities concluded that at least 37% of the checked websites potentially violate the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive due to the use of one of these three dark patterns.
2022 - Sweep on Black Friday sales
Every year, millions of European consumers shop online on Black Friday in search of good deals for the holiday season. However, the discounts presented to them by retailers are often untruthful or misleading. To address this issue, the EU has put in place clear rules on price reduction announcements, which provide that shops, including online marketplaces, when announcing a discount, must indicate the lowest price applied to the product in the previous 30 days.
Over the last month, under the coordination of the Commission, 13 national authorities in the EU and EEA countries monitored the prices of 16.000 products from 176 websites with the aim of verifying how discounts are presented online. Overall, about 50% of the products monitored displayed a price reduction announcement on Black Friday. Among those, the authorities found that approximately one announcement out of four was inconsistent with EU law and that violations occurred in at least 43% of the screened websites.
To help national authorities investigate such a large number of products, a specific AI-based tool was provided by the Commission in the context of the EU e-Lab, a project aimed at developing and applying advanced digital technologies to online consumer investigations in support of the Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) network. The tool allowed authorities to monitor the price history of the selected products and establish whether the prior price stated in the discount announcement was actually the lowest price applied to the product in the 30 days preceding the price reduction announcement.
The charts below show how the selling price (in red) evolved on a daily basis and whether a price reduction was indicated via a “referral” (prior) price (in blue). Comparing the two lines and their evolution over time enabled authorities to identify different patterns of infringement.
In this first case, the price of the product was “discounted” until 2 November; it then increased to 39.99 EUR - the previous referral price - and remained stable until 24 November. On Black Friday (25 November), the price dropped to 23.99 EUR and the web shop indicated as prior price 39.99 EUR, marking a discount rate of 40%. However, according to EU law, the referral price should have been the lowest selling price over the preceding 30 days: 27.99 EUR. Accordingly, the discount rate displayed should have been 14%.
In this other case below, the price variation was in fact an increase disguised as a discount through the use of a fake referral price. The product was sold until 24 November at 19.48 EUR. On Black Friday, the price of the product rose to 21.66 EUR, but instead of disclosing a price increase of 11%, the online retailer artificially indicated as prior price of the product 28.81 EUR and presented in the price tag a discount of 24%.
2022 - mini-sweep on car rental intermediaries
When renting a car, many consumers use intermediary services, which often allow to compare and book offers of different rental companies. Under the coordination of the Commission, authorities of 10 Member States and Norway checked 78 of such websites brokering car rentals, including airlines and general booking sites. The purpose of this exercise was to check whether the major car rental brokers operating in Europe comply with EU consumer protection rules.
Overall, authorities confirmed for only 45 % of the websites that they meet the EU standards. On almost a third of the websites, it remained unclear if consumers need to contact the broker or the rental company in case of queries or complaints. In 28 % of the websites, the broker’s company name was not clearly mentioned and in 32 % of the websites, it was not clearly indicated which company would be bound by the rental terms and conditions. Furthermore, almost half of the websites did not clearly inform about what is included in the insurance booked and what is not. Optional paid services were pre-selected on 21 % of the websites and authorities also found issues in relation to price information, such as incomplete information on mandatory charges, for instance, young driver fees or one-way fees.
2021 – sweep on online consumer reviews
Consumers often rely on reviews when they make purchasing decisions as shown in the Market Monitoring Survey 2020. For example, 71% of consumers consider reviews as important when choosing holiday accommodation. Authorities decided to carry out their annual sweep in 2021 into misleading practices in relation to online reviews in which authorities of 26 Member States, Iceland and Norway checked 223 major websites for misleading consumer reviews.
Almost two thirds of the online shops, marketplaces, booking websites, search engines and comparison service sites analysed, triggered doubts about the reliability of the reviews: In 144 out of the 223 websites checked, authorities could not confirm that these traders were doing enough to ensure that reviews are authentic, i. e. that they were posted by consumers that actually used the product or service that they reviewed.
Other findings of the screening of websites on online reviews:
- 104 out of the 223 of the websites examined do not inform consumers how reviews are collected and processed. Only 84 websites make such information accessible to consumers on the review page itself, while the rest mention it in “small print”, for example in their legal terms and conditions.
- 118 websites did not contain information about how fake reviews are prevented. In these cases consumers have no possibility to verify whether reviews were written by consumers that actually used the product or service.
- 176 of the websites do not mention that incentivised reviews (e.g. resulting from a monetary reward) are prohibited by their internal policies or if not how they ensure they are flagged as incentivised.
Consumer protection authorities concluded that at least 55% of the checked websites potentially violate the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive which requires that truthful information is presented to consumers to allow an informed choice. Authorities also had doubts for a remaining 18%.
2021 – mini-sweep on consumer credit
Online consumer credit is a fast growing market and the impact of the COVID-19 crisis is only set to drive the demand for quick credit solutions higher. To monitor and prevent proliferation of unfair practices in the consumer credit sector, consumer protection authorities from 13 Member States and 2 EEA countries took part in a mini-sweep of websites advertising and selling consumer credit products.
The primary objective of the mini-sweep was to check on various technical devices (PC, tablets, smartphones), whether traders comply with EU consumer rules on standard information in online advertising of consumer credit, if the overall presentation of the consumer credit offers cannot mislead consumers, and if the offers do not aggressively exploit consumer vulnerabilities
118 websites were swept in total and in 42 instances (36%), the websites were flagged for potential irregularities with EU consumer law. Participating authorities will follow up on the flagged cases based on their national rules on investigation and enforcement.
Some of the key findings included:
- In 35 cases out of 118 (30%), the advertising of consumer credit, which indicates an interest rate or any figures relating to the cost of credit, did not include all the standard information by means of a representative example in a clear, concise and prominent way as required by the Consumer Credit Directive.
- For websites checked by smartphones (27 out of 118), the suspected infringement rate was higher than the average in the Mini-sweep (36%) and it reached 44% (12 out of 27). In most instances, the suspected irregularity flagged by authorities related to the standard information in advertising (in 10 out of 12 cases).
- In 29 cases out of 85 of checked creditor websites (34%), Member States mentioned that, based on the information on the creditor’s website, it was unclear how the creditworthiness assessment is performed, including the personal data used for that purpose and the possible use of machine learning.
- In 8 out of 17 products that Member States identified as short-term high cost, the website/ad was flagged for further investigation for potential irregularities. In the vast majority of these cases, this was because the standard information required for advertising was not presented by means of a representative example in a clear, concise and prominent way. For the purpose of this coordinated activity, participating authorities agreed to qualify consumer credit as short-term high cost if the product fulfilled the following cumulative conditions: 1) small amounts of money compared to other credit forms available on the market; 2) contracted for short periods of time (usually for less than 12 months); and 3) at a rate that is considered to be high compared with other credit products.
- In cases where the Member States had adopted extraordinary measures related to consumer credit due to the COVID-19 crisis (such as payment moratoria), the mini sweep looked into if the required information was provided on the website. In 23 out of 36 cases (64%), the information was not provided in a clear and comprehensible manner. However, in most of these cases (16 out of 23, nearly 70%) the trader was not required to inform consumers about the measures on its website under national rules and therefore, the website was not flagged for potential irregularities by the sweeper.
2020 – sweep on misleading sustainability claims
The number of environmental claims both in advertisements and on products is high and possibly increasing, at least in certain EU countries. It is essential that consumers feel safe that they can trust these claims. In line with the strategic priorities of the Consumer Agenda, the Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) Network dedicated its annual sweep to investigate and assess green claims in various business sectors.
CPC authorities from 27 countries (24 EU Member States, 2 EEA countries and the United Kingdom) took part in the sweep during November 2020. They assessed 344 sustainability claims, primarily made by EU traders, aimed at consumers mainly on web stores, but also on traders’ websites. The sweep looked at various business sectors (textiles/garments/shoes were the most common, followed by cosmetics/personal care goods and household equipment).
In this EEA wide sweep, CPC authorities found that in almost half of the cases authorities had at least a reason to believe that the claim may be false or deceptive and potentially could be qualified as an unfair commercial practice under the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD).
- CPC authorities examined 344 claims concerning the environmental characteristics of a product or a service sold online to assess whether these claims were sufficiently clear and reliable. Authorities based their assessment on what information was made available online. They looked at various aspects, including the description of the relevant environmental impacts and the availability of relevant detailed information, directly or through links or QR codes, against which to check the veracity of the claim.
- CPC authorities looked at what information was easily available to consumers to check the claim and how the claims were presented. They found that:
- Traders made their claims mostly in an explicit way by using key words, such as “Being an ecological product, its preparation is respectful of the environment”. 1.4% of claims (5 in total) were implied, by the choice of certain colours, images, sounds.
- In 57.5% of cases (198 cases), CPC authorities did not consider that the trader provided sufficient information which would allow to assess the claim’s accuracy.
- In 37% of cases (128 cases), CPC authorities considered that the claim included vague statements such as “environmental friendly”, “eco-friendly”, “sustainable” which aimed to convey the impression to consumers that a product or a trader’s activity had no negative impact, or only a positive impact, on the environment.
- Moreover, in 59% of cases (198 cases), CPC authorities found that the trader had not provided a qualification or other evidence to support its claim in an easily accessible way.
- On the positive side, in 76% of cases (261 cases) traders made their claims in clear language.
- The sweep also revealed practices blacklisted under the UCPD (7 claims), for example suggesting that the good or service had been approved, endorsed or authorised by a public or private body when it has not been.
2020 - sweeps on consumer scams related to the COVID-19 pandemic
Second high-level screening of platforms conducted by the CPC network in June
Consumer protection authorities from 17 countries participated in this repeated high-level screening of online platforms and concluded their assessment in 73 cases. In almost one third of these cases, CPC authorities found that the checked platforms still contain a significant number of dubious offers and advertisements. In 15 cases these prima facie findings confirmed the results of the May screening.
High level screening of platforms and In-depth analysis of offers - advertisements
CPC authorities of 27 countries participated in the high-level screening of online platforms and submitted 126 replies. Particular attention was given to screening offers linked to protective masks and caps, sanitizing gels, testing kits as well as food, food supplements and non-food products with alleged healing effects related to the coronavirus. In 38 cases, CPC authorities found a number of dubious offers or adverts concerning products misleadingly promoted in the context of the coronavirus, broad claims that a product was able to prevent or cure infection, and excessive prices.
In the in-depth sweep, 22 participating CPC authorities checked 268 websites (61 internet platforms and 207 web-stores), amongst which 206 were flagged for further investigation for potential breaches of EU consumer law.
Some of the key findings include:
- More than 30% of the checked websites contained products with claims of alleged healing or preventive effects against the coronavirus,
- 11% of the swept websites contained inaccurate claims on the scarcity of products,
- 9% of the websites were suspected of unfair practices to obtain excessive prices.
Moreover, CPC authorities also observed that in number of instances, consumers were not provided with clear and comprehensive information on the trader or on the delivery before being bound by the contract:
2019 - sweep on delivery and right of withdrawal
CPC authorities of 27 countries (25 EU countries, Norway and Iceland) screened 481 websites offering clothing and footwear, furniture and household items and electric appliances. Studies show that these three categories are amongst the top categories sold online. For instance, in the guide to e-Commerce in Europe, at least two out of three of the above-mentioned categories were among the most bought products in the vast majority of Member States. Consequently, consumer complaints on delivery issues often relate to these three sectors.
The exercise revealed that 67 % of the screened online shops might be infringing basic EU consumer law.
Some of the key results include:
- More than a quarter of the flagged websites did not inform consumers about how to withdraw from a contract. This must be presented in a clear and understandable manner, specifying the right to withdraw within 14 days of receiving the good without the need to give a justification.
- Nearly half of the flagged websites were not clear about the time-limit to return the item within 14 days from the moment they have notified the trader of their intention to withdraw.
- In over one fifth of the flagged websites, the price initially shown was incomplete as it did not contain delivery, postal or other possible additional charges or information about the possibility of such charges.
- Over a third of the flagged websites did not inform consumers about the minimum 2-year legal guarantee to have a good repaired, replaced or reimbursed in case it was faulty at the moment of delivery (even if this becomes evident later on).
- Even though EU law mandates traders to include an easily accessible link to the Online Dispute Resolution platform on their website, informing consumers on their possibilities in case of a dispute, nearly 45% of all the websites screened did not provide such a link.
- One fifth of the flagged websites did not respect the Geo-blocking Regulation which allows consumers to shop from websites not delivering in their country of residence, provided they can get it delivered to an address in the country served by the trader i.e. the “shop like a local principle”.
2018 - sweep on price transparency and drip pricing
In 2018, CPC authorities performed an EU-wide screening of 560 e-commerce sites offering a variety of goods, services and digital content, such as clothing or footwear, computer software or entertainment tickets. The results of the sweep published in February 2019 indicated that around 60% of these websites showed irregularities regarding the respect of EU consumer rules, predominately in relation to how prices and special offers are presented.
For more than 31% of all websites offering discounts (431 of all 560 websites checked), consumer authorities suspected that the special offers may not always be authentic or they found the way the discounted price was calculated unclear.
On 211 of the 560 websites the final price at payment was higher than the initial price offered and 39% of those traders did not include proper information on unavoidable extra fees on delivery, payment methods, booking fees and other similar surcharges. EU consumer law obliges traders to present prices to consumers inclusive of all mandatory costs, and where such costs cannot be calculated in advance, the fact that these may be payable by the consumer needs to be clearly indicated to the consumer already at offer stage.
Furthermore, the checks revealed that a considerable amount of the 560 websites checked did not provide consumers with an easily accessible link to the Online Dispute Resolution Platform (59%) and/or to accurately inform consumers about their right of withdrawal (29%).
Following national enforcement actions, 180 out of the 218 websites, for which further investigations confirmed infringements of EU consumer law, have been corrected.
2017 / 2018 - Telecommunication and other digital services
Among services markets, the ‘telecom’ sector caused the highest overall consumer detriment and displayed by far the highest proportion of consumers having experienced problems in the EU Consumer Markets Scoreboard – Edition 2016. The 2017 Sweep examined whether sufficient information was provided concerning the service provider, the main characteristics of the product or service, the price, the contract performance, and the terms and conditions of use.
The sweep field work was carried out between 1 and 30 November and screened 207 websites. The results show that many of these websites do not provide clear information on handling complaints.
- in 78.7% of cases, the website did not provide a link to the ODR platform;
- in 40.6% of the websites, there was no description of a dispute resolution system;
- 31.9% of the websites took the liberty of unilaterally changing the terms of the contract or the service characteristics unbeknown to the consumer and without allowing the consumer to cancel the contract under reasonable notice;
- 25.1% of the websites did not provide clear or truthful information about subsequent compensation and refund arrangements when the contracted service quality levels are not met;
- 21.7% did not provide clear and comprehensive information on the automatic contract renewal.
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