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.

What should be changed

Which is why Mr Lim wants the laws changed to target recalcitrant individuals.

"Civil action seems limited in its effectiveness, which is why I prefer criminal action where there is evidence of wrongdoing... Go after the errant director directly. The threat of criminal prosecution usually deters business owners from dishonest behaviour."

He suggested having the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority - with whom businesses must be registered - impose a time-bar on errant retailers from opening up another shop, similar to that imposed on fraudsters and those declared bankrupt.

This would curtail individuals who operate and shut down fly- by-night companies, only to open them under a different name.

It would also require amendments to the Companies Act, and possibly revisions to penalties under the Penal Code. Mr Seah thinks the Attorney-General's Chambers might want to relook the definition of cheating to include "this sort of unacceptable, repeat behaviour".

With a more obvious definition that captures recalcitrant offenders, police are more likely to take action, he said. This would send out a strong deterrent message.

But Mr Yeo thinks any changes should come in the form of enforcement powers. "We should distinguish between hard-sell tactics and outright dishonesty - existing criminal laws are wide enough to cover the latter."

Other MPs have called for a body with statutory powers. A separate body could be created or powers could be appended to Case.

Several lawyers and MPs Insight spoke to pointed to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). A government champion of consumer laws, ACCC has successfully sued Apple for failing to live up to promises to repair faulty computers, phones and iPods. It can also impose fines on errant companies.

Having consumer protection laws like a mandatory warranty for a certain period gives peace of mind, said ChrisChong and CT Ho lawyer Richard Tan. But while Australia can afford to impose such laws due to its sizeable domestic market, it might be harder in Singapore, he warned.

Meanwhile, Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa wants Case to have powers to slap fines on businesses with unfair practices.

Mr Nair said that besides penalties, there should be speedier avenues to seek recourse, especially if tourists are affected.

He favours appointing neutral adjudicators to resolve complaints on unethical business conduct, similar to how building disputes are settled at the Real Estate Developers' Association of Singapore under its Conciliation Panel.

Unlike mediation, the adjudicator is not there to negotiate, but to provide "rough and ready justice" in the form of a binding payout, he added.

"I'm not in favour of mediation where the 'bad hat' can gain something from the process because of technicalities," Mr Nair said.

If the party in the wrong is unhappy with the ruling, they can still lodge a complaint with the SCT, after paying the complainant. But, as long as the adjudicator has "sufficient common sense", Mr Nair thinks most cases would be resolved quickly.

"If he comes across any case of dishonesty, he can refer that to the police. That will be an effective filter for cases the police will have to look into."

But these new powers would require changes to the law. Association of Small and Medium Enterprises head Kurt Wee welcomes giving a consumer body more bite - but only if it does not cause businesses to incur more costs.

The Do Not Call Registry, for example, requires small and medium-sized enterprises to update databases, which adds another layer of compliance, he said.

"Looking at the full spectrum of the retail trade, I don't think errant retailers are rampant. Would having a statutory board focused on tackling these retailers be overdoing it?"

A faster and cheaper solution is better consumer education.

One criticism directed at Sim Lim Square management is that signs which name and shame retailers with high numbers of Case complaints are too small and only in English. Some Chinese tourists have mistaken the signs as advertisements for top retailers, said Case vice-president Ang Peng Hwa in a recent TV debate.

To deal with this, there will be new signs in about two weeks. Those at the centre's entrance will be at least A2 in size, and in English and Chinese, mall spokesman Sean Chia told Insight.

Mr Iswaran also said the Government will work with Case to better educate consumers on their rights. The body currently gives frequent consumer education talks. But consumers must do their bit. Case's president, Mr Lim, said: "Everyone has to take some responsibility - make sure you do your due diligence and shop around. If something is too good to be true, it might be."

rachelay@sph.com.sg

How consumers are protected elsewhere

Australia

Australia's consumer law certainly has teeth. Products and services come with automatic guarantees that they will work and do what a consumer expects.

For example, products must match descriptions made by the sales staff, on packing and labels, or in advertisements. They must also not carry any hidden charges.

If the product or service does not work, a consumer is entitled to a free repair, replacement or refund.

However, consumer guarantees do not apply if a customer got what he asked for but changed his mind, found it cheaper elsewhere, or decided he did not like the purchase.

Errant companies that do not comply with consumer protection provisions can be fined up to A$1.1 million (S$1.24 million), and individuals, A$220,000.

The laws are enforced and administered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), an independent authority of the federal government, together with each state's consumer agency. In cases involving financial services, a separate commission might step in.

The ACCC admits on its website it cannot pursue all the complaints it receives, and "rarely becomes involved in resolving individual consumer or small business disputes".

Instead, it prioritises certain areas, like consumer protection in the telecommunications sector or tackling cartels involving Australians, as handling such matters is likely to "provide the greatest overall benefit" for all.

California, United States

California has one of the strongest consumer protection laws in the United States, thanks to the power wielded by several advocacy groups, such as the Utility Consumers' Action Network.

The California Department of Consumer Affairs licenses and certifies more than 100 types of businesses and 200 types of professionals - including doctors, contractors and vehicle repair facilities - through 41 regulatory bodies.

These entities - semi-autonomous bodies whose members are appointed by the governor and the legislature - establish minimum qualifications for these professions, as well as investigate complaints and discipline violators.

Service representatives in the department can also answer consumer and licensee-related questions in 140 different languages.

The state encourages consumers to seek recourse through its Consumers Legal Remedies Act. Any consumer who suffers damage as a result of what is deemed unlawful can bring an action to recover damages, for restitution of property, or for punitive damages. Consumers can also apply to the courts to take out a court order.

Britain

If a product is faulty or does not match the description given, a consumer has the right to return the product and get his money back, including the cost of postage and packing.

And while not mandated, most retailers provide a returns policy out of goodwill, and even extend the return-by date during special shopping seasons, like Christmas.

Laws cover not only brick- and-mortar shops, but also those that reside in the digital sphere. Under the Consumer Contracts Regulations, customers have the right to cancel their order, up to seven working days from the day after they receive their goods.

RACHEL AU-YONG


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