Saturday, 11 October 2014

More rights

Last week I described some of the rules in the Consumer Protection Regulations, some of the rights we consumers have that help protect us against abuse and mistreatment. If you didn’t get a chance to read it you can find a copy on our blog and Facebook group. But those rights were only the beginning, there’s a lot more.

Some of them seem a bit technical but it’s often the little technicalities that protect us.

Section 13 (1) (b) of the Consumer Protection Regulations says that any “supplier who offers a commodity or service to a consumer fails to meet minimum standards and specifications if” “the commodity or service causes a probability of confusion or misunderstanding as to its source, sponsorship, approval, or certification”.

A later section, 13 (1) (d) forbids a company from claiming that an item “is of a particular standard, quality, or grade” or that it’s “of a particular style or model” if their claims “cannot be substantiated”.

What this means is that someone who sells you something has to be very careful about how they describe it. If they say that it’s a particular model, then that must be true. If they say it’s of a particular quality then that also must be true. If they say the items are from a particular country then that must be true as well.

Most importantly if they say that their item has been approved by a particular company or regulator then they can’t be lying or exaggerating. For instance you’ll occasionally see that a piece of technology has been approved for use with devices from a certain manufacturer. That isn’t always true. In China there were cases of fake iPhone charger cables that exploded, injuring their users. Some years ago here in Botswana a reader showed us the jeans he’d been wearing when the battery in his Nokia cellphone spontaneously caught fire. The problem was that it wasn’t actually a Nokia battery, it was a replacement he’d bought having been assured it was suitable for his phone. He was lucky only to have his jeans catch fire.

A supplier will also be in deep trouble if they claim that an item has been certified by a regulator. We’ve seen cheap electrical irons that appear to have an approval mark but which turns out to be fake. They weren’t approved by anyone at all, they were fakes, extremely dangerous fakes. Luckily electrical irons are covered by one of the Bureau of Standards’ compulsory standards and can be seized and trashed if they’re not safe to use.

Unlike a number of other countries we’d don’t have an authority in Botswana that controls the advertising agency but that doesn’t mean we’re not protected from misleading offers.

Section 15 (1) (d) of the Regulations says that a supplier “shall fail to meet minimum standards of performance if” they advertise something “with intent not to supply reasonably expected public demand”. So a special offer or a discount that is advertised has to be backed up by sufficient quantities of the product to satisfy a normal level of interest. For instance a store can’t advertise fantastic reductions on the price of televisions if there’s only one discounted TV in stock.

The only exception to this rule is “unless the advertisement discloses a limitation of quantity”. So if the store only has a handful of items they want to discount and dispose of they have to be open and honest about that. All it takes is for them to say something like “but we only have 5 left, it’s first-come, first served!” Anything else is abuse.

Section 17 (1) (a) goes a little further, forbidding suppliers from “making false or misleading statements of fact concerning the reasons for, existence of, or amounts of price reductions”. So if the supplier says there’s 10% off the prices today then that must be factually true. I think it’s also fair to say that it they deliberately increased the prices yesterday so they could reduce them the next day, claiming that the goods were now discounted, they’d be in trouble as well. Price reductions must be exactly what they claim to be, real reductions in price. Anything else is abuse.

The next section is a very good one, it’s just a shame that so few people know about it. It says that it’s “an unfair business practice” if someone claims that “a part, replacement or repair is needed when it is not”. What could be simpler than that? If your car mechanic, cellphone or laptop repairman or your electrician says that something needs to be fixed then he must be telling the truth. There was a series of news stories from the UK a couple years ago in which various consumer bodies and newspapers deliberately caused a very minor fault with a piece of equipment and then asked a variety of supposedly reputable companies to diagnose the fault. A significant number of the companies deliberately exaggerated the nature of the fault to make themselves more money. They were then publicly named and shamed. Deservedly so.

How confident are you that this doesn’t happen in Botswana as well? I’m certainly not. We’ve heard many times from consumers who’ve been asked to pay for expensive repairs that turn out to have been unnecessary, just very profitable for the repairer. The problem is that very few of are qualified to argue with the person we believe is an expert.

The good news is that the Consumer Protection Regulations forbid all of these behaviors, it’s just a shame that so few abusers of consumers are facing the consequences.

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