THE Internet may be an attractive alternative for some Christmas shoppers looking to avoid the winter weather and long queues.

THE Internet may be an attractive alternative for some Christmas shoppers looking to avoid the winter weather and long queues.

Despite being in the comfort of your own home when buying online, consumers are being reminded by Devon County Council Trading Standards Service as part of National Consumer Week (November 17-21) that they must remain on their guard.

Devon County Council leader Brian Greenslade said: "Shopping on the Internet is very easy and convenient, but while most online purchases run smoothly it is not without its pitfalls and buyers must be aware at all time. The Internet can be used by unscrupulous sellers to offload deficient, poor quality or counterfeit items to the unsuspecting public."

To help make your web shopping experiences safe, Devon County Council Trading Standards Service has produced 10 top tips for Internet shoppers:

1) When you shop on the Internet, you may have rights in addition to those you usually have on the high street (ie goods must be fit for their purpose, of satisfactory quality, and as described). The Distance Selling Regulations covers many types of goods and services and allows the purchaser an additional seven day cooling off period after receipt of goods, to return them, undamaged, to the seller.

2) Be careful when you give your credit or debit card details on the Internet. Always find out whether the company has a secure site by looking for the closed padlock sign at the bottom of the screen. If you spend over £100 on an item, eg a Christmas present or a winter holiday and you pay by credit card, you may have added protection from your credit card company.

3) When trading online, a business must give its name and a geographical address. They must also fully describe the products offered and orders must be confirmed to consumers in writing.

4) As with any other type of purchase, shop around for the best deals and prices. Remember that the seven day cooling off period you have to change your mind about products bought online does not usually apply to 'auction' sites. You should always read the terms and conditions carefully before buying.

5) Watch out for high postage charges and for other hidden costs, such as VAT and other duty payable, particularly if goods are being sent from abroad.

6) Try to get personal recommendations for companies you have not done business with on-line before. Trust UK is an organisation endorsed by the UK government which provides information on safe websites. Visit their website at - www.trustuk.org.uk

7) Remember, goods being sent from abroad may take some time to be delivered. Check with the trader how long this will take, and agree a delivery date that you must have them by, if that is important to you.

8) Check what the company's policy is on returning goods that you don't like or have changed your mind about and find out who pays for the return postage. If the goods have come from overseas, you may be faced with a hefty postage bill to return them. Refunds must be made within 30 days.

9) If you have problems, such as faulty goods or non-delivery, it might be very difficult to get your complaint dealt with when you have purchased from an overseas company. Although your contract will probably be covered by UK law - allowing you to sue in your local court - getting money out of a company based abroad may be impractical.

10) If you are buying from an auction site, you may be able to check the seller's reputation. Look at any feedback posted by previous buyers and ask questions before placing a bid. In addition to the Internet auction website's terms and conditions, the seller may also have his own terms and conditions. Read these carefully. Beware of vague or ambiguous descriptions or branded goods which turn out to be illegal copies or fakes.

To coincide with this year's National Consumer Week, Devon County Council Trading Standards Service has launched its new anonymous tip-off hotline, Trading Standards Confidential. You can now report illegal trading practices, or get advice where you think you are the victim of a scam, with the peace of mind of remaining anonymous. Call Trading Standards Confidential on (01392) 381380 and speak to one of their advisers, or leave a message, in confidence.

Consumers can get advice on a range of consumer issues by calling Consumer Direct on 08454 040506 or by logging on to the Devon County Council Trading Standards Service website at www.devon.gov.uk/tradingstandards