The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) helped consumers wrangle back $439,701 from businesses last year, a spike from the $284,465 recovered in 2013.
The jump could be a sign that more consumers with unresolved disputes involving high contract values, such as the purchase of beauty packages and cars, are turning to mediation for resolution, the consumer watchdog said in a statement yesterday.
The largest settlement involved a woman who was invited to try a slimming session at a promotional price of $18. She was later pressured by the beauty salon into buying various slimming packages for about $88,000, even though she was unemployed. The matter was escalated to Case's mediation centre, and both parties eventually agreed on a cash refund of $55,000.
The jump in the total amount recouped last year could also be because more businesses are open to mediation as a way of preventing matters from spiralling out of control, said Case executive director Seah Seng Choon.
Last year, Case handled 125 disputes, of which 75.2 per cent were resolved. The sectors with the highest resolution rates were slimming and furniture (100 per cent), motor car (91.3 per cent), and electrical and electronics (85.7 per cent).
In 2013, only 68.5 per cent of 146 cases were resolved.
The Case Mediation Centre was set up in 1999 to resolve disputes between consumers and businesses in the presence of a third-party mediator - a trained Case volunteer.
However, Case cannot force the seller to show up for mediation, as it is a voluntary process. After a settlement is made, it is up to the consumer to enforce it.
The association, said Mr Seah, had found it easier to get business owners to the table last year, when several high-profile shutdowns and cheating cases rocked the industry.
In January last year, hundreds of travellers were left in the lurch after popular coach and travel agency Five Stars Tours abruptly closed all its eight branches across Singapore. Last November, a Vietnamese tourist went down on his knees to beg for a refund after being allegedly overcharged for an iPhone at a Sim Lim Square shop.
"Before, it was harder to get to businesses because they were less familiar with the way mediation is conducted," said Mr Seah. "They now realise that it's a cheaper alternative than getting sued by the customer, and is also less hostile and confrontational."
He added that companies may also fear that matters would get out of control, resulting in negative publicity. "If there is an amicable settlement, there is also a higher chance that the customer will return," said Mr Seah.
Mr Chan Chong Beng, chief executive of interior furnishing firm Goodrich Global, thinks mediation works. "If it involves a company that is at fault, getting a call from Case will really make those responsible sit up and take notice," he said. "Also, you know the customer is serious about his complaint, so they may be more inclined to take it seriously."
But Madam Raja Lachimi, 55, who lost a $200 deposit in 2012 after the contractor who was supposed to paint her house never showed up, thinks that mediation does not help that much.
She reported the matter to Case, and it tried to contact the painter, she said, but nothing happened.
"I don't think mediation helps where companies are out to cheat their customers. They just won't show up for mediation," she said.
"It would work only in cases where the other party is willing to co-operate."
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