Sick of scams: but what is the cure?

Sick of scams: but what is the cure?
Inset: Vietnamese tourist Pham Van Thoai was in tears after he was refused a refund on his iPhone 6 purchase. He paid $950 for the phone at Mobile Air in Sim Lim Square, but was told to pay another $1,500 for the warranty. Subset: Policemen on patrol in Sim Lim Square. New signs warning consumers of retailers with high numbers of Case complaints will be put up in about two weeks. They will be bigger, and in English and Chinese.

Horror stories of consumers falling for too-good-to-be-true deals in Sim Lim Square are not new. But when a long-haired cellphone shop owner by the name of Jover Chew made headlines - not once, but twice - for his alleged bullying antics towards aggrieved purchasers, public outcry erupted with a newfound vengeance.

Late last month, Mr Chew's shop, Mobile Air, made headlines for a case in September, when it asked a customer to pay $2,400 for an iPhone 6 warranty that she did not want. He later grudgingly refunded her $1,010 - in coins.

Less than a week later, a video of Vietnamese tourist Pham Van Thoai begging for his money back over a similar plight at the same shop went viral.

As news made its way to Vietnam, Britain and China, the rest of Singapore cringed. China even issued a travel advisory to warn its citizens of electronics scams in Singapore.

The Straits Times Forum has received at least 15 letters about the matter, while netizens left feedback on unrelated Facebook posts of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, criticising the inadequacy of consumer protection laws.

Anonymous operators of satirical group SMRT Ltd (Feedback) dug up Mr Chew's addresses and contact numbers and put them online. Some even sent pizzas to his last known addresses.

Social media helped galvanise citizens, thanks to "the drama of (Mr Thoai's) video, the unreasonableness of the contract, and the helplessness most people feel from consumer laws that do not seem to give enough protection to the small person", Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Tan Tarn How told Insight.

Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who is president of the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case), has filed in Parliament two questions on how errant retailers and such cases can be better dealt with. Second Minister for Home Affairs and Trade and Industry S. Iswaran assured that measures to protect consumers are being looked into. But it may take some time, "especially if we need changes to our laws".

With Parliament adjourned most likely to next year, it may be a while before concerns of disgruntled consumers are assuaged.

Woes of the current system

What happens if you find that you have unwittingly paid more than you bargained for?

Even as the non-profit, non-governmental Case argues for stronger consumer legislation, it also trots out its usual line - caveat emptor, Latin for buyer beware - as the public's first line of defence.

But that has its limitations. Dodgy sales tactics, which are not just confined to Sim Lim Square, include adding a zero to credit- card bills or placing a finger over dubious clauses as the hapless consumer signs on the dotted line.

Negotiation with errant retailers is not easy either, going by anecdotal evidence that they resort to intimidation to quash complaints.

An aggrieved consumer can also turn to Case for a resolution. The consumer watchdog dispenses advice on whether consumers have a legitimate case in seeking refunds or exchanges. For a fee, it can also represent members and help negotiate more complicated cases. But if a party does not abide by its recommendations, the penalties are light.

On Case not having enforcement powers, its executive director, Mr Seah Seng Choon, said: "We are as effective as the current laws allow us to be."

Of the 30,000 cases that Case received last year, about 90 per cent were settled directly by the consumers, after receiving free advice from Case. A small number did not pursue the matter as their cases do not have any legitimacy.

Of the rest, about half opted for a letter from Case stating its opinion. Consumers took that letter to the retailer and saw the issue through to the end on their own. Each letter costs $10.

The others sought Case's help in negotiating with the retailer directly. For this, they were required to become a member for a $25 annual fee , "to establish a legal relationship so we can represent them", said Mr Seah.

While there were some full refunds, most were partial. "It's the consumer's word against the business," said Mr Seah. "We find the spot where both parties can settle - that's often between zero dollars and a full refund."

Most complaints are resolved at the negotiation stage but a small number - about 150 - go for mediation each year. This requires another $15.

Consumers who are still unhappy can seek recourse in the Small Claims Tribunal (SCT), constituted as a Subordinate Court - now known as State Courts - in 1985. This gives complainants a chance to settle the dispute in a civil proceeding instead of through a more costly civil suit.

Claims are for sums under $10,000 (or $20,000 if both parties agree to this in writing). Lawyers are not permitted to represent either party. It costs $10, $20 or up to $200 to lodge a claim, depending on its size.

There is then a 10- to 14-day wait before a mandatory mediation session. If that does not work out, there is another seven- to 10-day wait for a hearing.

Tourists can get a case heard within 24 hours. If that is too long, Case is the Singapore Tourism Board's appointed agent to mediate with the retailer or represent the tourist at the SCT.

After all that, getting back cash or assets from the errant party is difficult if they refuse to pay. Victims can file a writ of seizure and sale, but this requires more time and higher costs, as the bailiff charges for expenses. They might also wish to hire a lawyer to enforce the order.

Worse is if the other party has nothing to seize, said Chua Chu Kang GRC MP and lawyer Alvin Yeo. "That's why people sometimes give up and don't bother with civil recourse."

What about going to the police and getting criminal charges laid? Lawyers say that some of the tactics employed by retail scam artists could amount to cheating under Section 415 of the Penal Code. But the police will probably advise consumers to go to the SCT or Case, they point out.

"Our boys in blue are overstretched," says Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP Hri Kumar Nair, a lawyer who also chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law.

"There are so many disputes of small amounts, do we want our police to spend limited resources chasing these things?"

What about the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act then? Under this law, Case can invite errant retailers to sign an agreement to not engage in unfair trade practices, and to agree to give refunds to aggrieved consumers.

Since March 2004, it has served 22 such agreements, which were signed by 17 retailers, some in the beauty, medical and electronics industries. Mobile Air was among these.

The problem is these agreements are purely voluntary, and there are no criminal penalties if merchants later refuse to follow the terms of the agreement.

When companies refuse to sign these agreements, Case can file an injunction - a court order for the merchant to stop engaging in unfair practices.

But the injunction usually applies to a company name, not an individual's. As a result, it is a costly and ineffective measure, admitted Case's president, Mr Lim.

"I have to get witnesses to give statement, engage a lawyer, seek approval from the Injunction Proposals Review Panel, go to court. And then after the litigation process, all it takes is for the owner of the business to get a family member to set up another company and we're back to square one."

Of the five injunctions since 2004 - six, if Case succeeds in its current case against Mobile Air - Mr Lim said most of those involved have opened similar firms.

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