The number of people seeking help with cross-border purchases soared last year, as British shoppers negotiated a bewildering array of consumer regulation across Europe.
Citizens Advice said the number of cases handled by its European Consumer Centre (ECC) rose by two thirds in 2004, compared to 2003, as shoppers increasingly bought goods from abroad.
A third of enquiries, 2,544 in total, concerned problems with purchases made over the internet - predominantly problems with delivery or the goods themselves being faulty.
"For example, a British man bought a television from a French website but found it was damaged on arrival. He contacted the trader to complain but had no success. We were able to explain his rights under French law and, together with colleagues in France, we obtained a full refund," ECC manager Ruth Bamford said.
Similar help was also needed by those who purchased goods when travelling abroad. Consumers sought both information on their rights under local consumer law and help in obtaining a replacement or a full refund.
People who buy goods or services by credit card in Britain can obtain a refund if the goods are faulty. That is because Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act holds the lender - the credit card company - equally as liable as the supplier for any breach of contract. That is not the case for purchases made abroad.
Last year, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) took leading credit card companies to the High Court, including Lloyds TSB, Tesco Personal Finance (part of the Royal Bank of Scotland) and American Express to try to extend Section 75 to all purchases made on credit cards.
The High Court found in favour of the card providers, but the OFT has appealed the ruling and the Court of Appeal is due to hear the case in the autumn.
Alistair Smillie, head of lending for Tesco Personal Finance, said: "We'll look at every single case on their individual merits. What we can't say is we'll guarantee every case."
Smillie raised the example of someone who might go online to buy furniture and pay a deposit by credit card. If the goods were not what was expected he said it would be unreasonable to expect the credit card provider to cover the full cost of that.
Similarly, he said if someone had plastic surgery abroad and paid in part of full by credit card, it would be unreasonable for the card provider to pick up all medical bills and rehabilitation costs should the surgery go wrong.
"We are going to treat these cases as sympathetically as possible," he said. "There are a few potential big cases out there that could cost a lot of money. We are safeguarding against incurring those costs because ultimately they would have to be passed onto our customers in the form of higher charges."
The ECC has advised consumers who purchase goods by telephone or internet to make sure they have the full details of the trader, are sure of what they are buying and have kept a copy of the order and the terms and conditions of the vendor. The ECC also said buyers should make sure they know the full cost, including delivery charges and taxes, before they agree to the purchase.
The ECC has a website --www.euroconsumer.org.uk. Alternatively, those needing help can go through their local Citizens Advice Bureau.