Avenue for consumer complaints
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.