Accommodation booking websites: misleading descriptions and practices

Office of Fair Trading (OFT) closed consumer enforcement case.

Case reference: EU Travel websweep - CRE-E/28806

Issue

In the course of a sweep of websites offering hotel and accommodation booking services, a number were found to be engaged in practices which we suspected may breach  consumer protection legislation.

Relevant legislation

  • the Enterprise Act 2002 ('EA02')
  • the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 ('CPRs')
  • the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 ('UTCCRs')
  • the Electronic Commerce (EC Directive) Regulations 2002 ('ECRs') 
  • the Privacy and E-Commerce Regulations 2003 ('PECRs')

Case description

The OFT reviewed 16 accommodation websites, and found a number of potential breaches of the legislation listed above.

Common issues identified across many of the websites included:

  • the website failing to provide information to consumers required by the ECRs including:

    • the geographic address of the business
    • their contact details,  including an email address, to enable rapid, direct and effective communication with them
  • the website failing to provide accurate information about the main characteristics of the service(s) offered in a clear and comprehensible manner at the start of the booking process, such as the following in relation to the accommodation:

    • the type
    • size
    • facilities
    • category and location
  • the website failing to provide clear instructions about how consumers can  complain in the event of a problem
  • both the terms and conditions for use of the website, and the terms and conditions applicable to bookings, failing to clearly indicate a telephone number to enable  the customer to  reach a trader's customer service department or equivalent
  • the website failing to make the contract terms readily and easily available to the consumer before the confirmation of the purchase
  • the trader using standard contractual terms that are not in plain and intelligible language
  • the inclusion of terms that would be likely to surprise consumers in the 'small print', without them being brought to the consumer's attention prior to the time of booking
  • the website automatically signing the consumer up to:

    • marketing communications, including emails, SMS and telephone calls - consent to have personal information shared with third parties.

As a result of this the OFT sent out advisory letters to eight websites that provide accommodation booking services based in the UK and another four websites based outside the UK were referred to the authorities in other EU countries.

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