Can online consumers trust the trustmark?

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Series Details Vol.7, No.29, 19.7.01, p18
Publication Date 19/07/2001
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Date: 19/07/01

By Laurence Frost

ORDERING and paying for goods and services over the Internet is still a leap in the dark that many Europeans are reluctant to take.

While the number of people buying online is growing, many are still put off by fears over the security of their transactions and the accountability of those from whom they are buying.

But employers' and consumers' organisations are now close to a deal which they hope will boost confidence in the process. BEUC, the coalition of European consumers' associations, and UNICE, the employers' federation, are putting the finishing touches to a system to vet the 'trustmarks' or badges used by traders to reassure would-be customers that their sites meet basic customer service standards.

Worries over security and reliability have spawned a plethora of schemes offering guarantees on payment security and after-sales support. Typically, a retail site carries the logo of the trustmark, which - to a greater or lesser degree - monitors its compliance with certain rules.

The main problem facing e-consumers and 'e-tailers' alike is precisely that greater or lesser degree of policing. The rules themselves also vary widely between the large number of schemes in existence. They are owned and administered by a range of bodies, from consumer associations - as in the case of the Web Trader badge - to private companies such as US trustmark BBBOnline. "There's such a huge number of trustmarks," says Victoria Villamar of BEUC. "Consumers just don't know whether or not they can trust the trustmarks."

BEUC and UNICE launched their initiative in May, a month after the broader 'e-confidence' group set up by Consumer Affairs Commissioner David Byrne broke up with no tangible results, after more than a year of talking. "There were a lot of differences between the different industry representatives," explains Villamar. "It was very difficult to reach a position on anything." Now, she says, the bilateral approach is getting somewhere.

Two joint task forces have drawn up minimum standards for trustmarks and for the arbitration they should offer in disputes between customers and retailers, as well as the claims retailers are allowed to make - and the information they are obliged to provide - about their products.

Differences remain between the consumers and employers over the way their vetting initiative will work. BEUC favours the creation of a new logo, signifying EU approval, to appear alongside approved trustmarks on retailers' sites.

But industry bosses fear that such a system - in effect a trustmarks' trustmark - would just add to the 'logo fatigue' undermining the credibility of current initiatives. "We've seen in other situations that adding logos isn't always very helpful," says Erik Jonnaert, communications director of Procter & Gamble and chair of

UNICE's consumer affairs group. UNICE would rather see approved trustmarks carrying direct Internet links to a separate Commission-backed site on which they are listed.

But when the joint review panel sits down to finalise its recommendations next week, such outstanding questions are unlikely to pose a serious obstacle to an initiative which both buyers and sellers feel is firmly in their interests.

Article forms part of a survey on e-commerce.

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