Av­enue for con­sumer com­plaints

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - 60 YEARS OF EUROPEAN UNITY - John Hearne

Ire­land is a lot less crowded than most EU coun­tries, even in in Dublin — the Ir­ish cap­i­tal has 1,428 in­hab­i­tants per square kilo­me­tre com­pared to 21,000 in Paris.

EU FACT

If you’ve bought some­thing on­line from another EU coun­try, or if you’ve run into trou­ble with your air­line or your rental car, the Euro­pean Con­sumer Cen­tre Ire­land can help you sort the mess out.

Over the years EU leg­is­la­tion has helped im­prove con­sumer pro­tec­tion, wel­fare, rights and con­fi­dence. It has cham­pi­oned the fair treat­ment of con­sumers, re­quired prod­ucts to meet ac­cept­able stan­dards, and opened up other av­enues of re­dress.

The EU has also en­sured that its cit­i­zens have ac­cess to free in­for­ma­tion and ad­vice if things go wrong. One of these re­sources is the Euro­pean Con­sumer Cen­tre Net­work (ECC-Net) which, by its 10th an­niver­sary in 2015 had as­sisted more than 650,000 con­sumers.

ECC Ire­land, which is part of the ECC- Net, pro­vided in­for­ma­tion, ad­vice and as­sis­tance to more than 39,488 con­sumers be­tween 2005 and end of 2015, and helped se­cure re­funds or more than €1,000,000.

Con­sumer pro­tec­tion across all bor­ders

ECC-Net cov­ers 30 coun­tries (all of the EU coun­tries plus Nor­way and Ice­land), and of­fers a free and con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion and ad­vice ser­vice to the pub­lic on their rights as con­sumers, as­sist­ing cus­tomers with cross-border dis­putes.

Top com­plaints

Air travel re­mains one of the most trou­ble­some ar­eas for EU con­sumers. In 2015, the lat­est year for which fig­ures are avail­able, ECC Ire­land dealt with 285 com­plaints re­lat­ing to air pas­sen­ger rights — which rep­re­sents fully 41% of the num­ber of cases where direct in­ter­ven­tion by the cen­tre was re­quired.

Most of these cases did not how­ever re­late to Ir­ish con­sumers, but in­volved com­plaints made by other Euro­pean con­sumers against Ir­ish air­lines.

While there are now a range of com­pen­sa­tions in place for con­sumers who lose out as a re­sult of flight de­lays, can­cel­la­tions, bag­gage is­sues or who are de­nied board­ing, these rules are com­plex, and re­dress i s fre­quently re­sisted by the air­lines.

The sec­ond high­est cat­e­gory of air-travel com­plaint re­lated to dam­aged, de­layed or lost lug­gage, plus prob­lems with the bag­gage poli­cies of the var­i­ous air­lines.

Ac­tu­ally se­cur­ing ad­e­quate com­pen­sa­tion for mis­placed or dam­aged lug­gage is still prov­ing chal­leng­ing for the ECC net­work. It says that is es­pe­cially true when pas­sen­gers don’t keep records or re­port prob­lems on time.

That is not to say that seek­ing re­dress isn’t worth­while. Far from it. In one case high­lighted by ECC Ire­land, a con­sumer on hol­i­day in Spain was told that due to a bag­gage han­dlers’ strike, it wouldn’t be pos­si­ble to check in any lug­gage on his re­turn flight. He had no op­tion but to ship his suit­case home by courier. When he con­tacted the air­line seek­ing re­im­burse- ment, it wouldn’t en­ter­tain his re­quest.

ECC Ire­land con­tacted the air­line on be­half of the con­sumer and se­cured a re­fund of the bag­gage check-in fee plus the bal­ance be­tween the re­funded fee and the sum spent on ship­ping the bag­gage.

Elec­tronic goods

Elec­tronic goods rep­re­sents the sec­ond high­est cat­e­gory of con­sumer com­plaints. The main prob­lem in most of these cases was de­fec­tive goods, as well as prod­ucts that didn’t match their de­scrip­tions.

In one case, an Ir­ish con­sumer bought a lap­top from a well- known trader based in the UK — a trader who also hap­pened to be the man­u­fac­turer. Be­fore ECC Ire­land’s in­ter­ven­tion, the trader at­tempted to re­pair the prod­uct no less than three times. When the lap­top crashed for a fourth time, the con­sumer had had enough and re­fused the trader’s of­fer of re­pair.

Un­der EU con­sumer law, there’s ac­tu­ally no limit to the num­ber of times that a trader can re­pair a prod­uct be­fore a re­place­ment or a re­fund is of­fered.

How­ever, with the in­ter­ven­tion of ECC Ire­land and the threat of a Small Claims Court ac­tion, the trader agreed to a re­place­ment.

Ir­ish case

In another case, an Ir­ish con­sumer bought a TV from a French seller. The con­sumer had placed his or­der be­fore he re­alised that the ad­ver­tise­ment of his prod­uct had changed — to the point where the spec was sub­stan­tially dif­fer­ent to what had been of­fered be­fore. He got in touch with the trader and said he no longer wanted the prod­uct.

The TV had been dis­patched at that point, and the trader said that the or­der couldn’t be can­celled. When the con­sumer called ECC Ire­land, he was told that thanks to the Dis­tance Sell­ing Di­rec­tive, he had a right to re­ject items and get a full re­fund within 14 days of pur­chase. Fol­low­ing this ad­vice, the con­sumer re­ceived a full re­fund with­out the need of ECC France’s in­ter­ven­tion.

Sub­scrip­tion traps

One other area which causes fre­quent prob­lems for con­sumers is on­line ser­vices. Within that cat­e­gory, ‘ sub­scrip­tion traps’ as they are known, have be­come in­creas­ingly sig­nif­i­cant.

This is where you sign up on­line or over the phone for a free trial, or a cheap prod­uct, then find that you’ve some­how man­aged to lock your­self into an ex­pen­sive re­peat- pay­ment ar­range­ment.

Typ­i­cally, these prod­ucts are phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, an­ti­age­ing prod­ucts, health foods and diet pills, though there are in­creas­ing re­ports of con­sumer elec­tron­ics be­ing of­fered. To claim the of­fer, you usu­ally have to en­ter your credit card de­tails. If it’s a free of­fer, they’ll tell you they need your de­tails to ver­ify your age. Of­ten how­ever, there’s a nom­i­nal fee for ship­ping that has to be taken care of.

ECC Ire­land says that many of the free-trial com­plaints they re­ceive in­volve pop- up ads, or ad­verts on so­cial me­dia. Some con­sumers have been hit with charges of up to € 400 for these prod­ucts, and in other cases, the sup­pos­edly free prod­uct didn’t ar­rive un­til the free trial pe­riod had al­ready ex­pired.

Dat­ing site com­plaints

There can be sim­i­lar pit­falls with dat­ing sites. Ev­ery year, ECC Ire­land re­ceives a range of com­plaints from con­sumers who’ve signed up, then re­alise a few months later that they’ve in­ad­ver­tently locked them­selves into a year’s sub­scrip­tion.

Here again, it’s down to not know­ing the terms and con­di­tions. There might be a free- trial pe­riod, or one in which a re­duced rate ap­plies, but in many cases, when that pe­riod ends, an au­to­matic re­newal kicks in. To halt it, you’ve got to opt out be­fore the trial pe­riod ends.

Even that doesn’t al­ways work. In one case de­tailed in ECC Ire­land’s most re­cent an­nual re­port , an Ir­ish con­sumer signed up to an on­line dat­ing site for older peo­ple, avail­ing of a spe­cial of­fer that al­lowed her to use a one- week paid mem­ber­ship for € 5.99. The con­sumer de­cided to can­cel her sub­scrip­tion, and made sure to do this within the sev­en­day cool­ing off pe­riod spec­i­fied by the site.

How­ever, the site went on to charge her ac­count €34.99 per month for the next two months. The con­sumer tried and failed to get a re­fund, so she got in touch with ECC Ire­land, which con­tacted its UK coun­ter­parts, which ne­go­ti­ated a full re­fund.

■ For more in­for­ma­tion, go on­line at ec­cire­land. ie, or call 01 879 7620. All ser­vices are free and con­fi­den­tial

ECC Ire­land hosts a num­ber of in­for­ma­tion ser­vices for con­sumers, who can shop in stores and on­line with con­fi­dence thanks to a suite of EU reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing their in­ter­ests.

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