Saturday 10 October 2015

The Brits are catching up with us

They’re even overtaking.

The UK’s new Consumer Rights Act 2015 has recently been enacted and it gives the Brits some new protections. For instance goods bought by consumers in the UK must now be “of satisfactory quality”. Ok, that brings them to our level. You’ll remember that our Consumer Protection Regulations (enacted fourteen years ago) require suppliers to offer commodities and service that are “of merchantable quality” which it defines as meaning “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased”. Roughly the same thing.

Another new British rule states that goods should be “fit for (a) particular purpose” that the consumer mentions to the supplier. Again they’re catching up. Our laws require suppliers to supply goods that are “fit for any particular purpose made known by the consumer”.

However there is one area where they’ve now not only caught up but they’ve overtaken us. Brits now have a new right that I think we should copy.

As well having a right to buy things that are of satisfactory quality they now have the right to insist on certain things if the goods are faulty. To begin with if something is faulty they have the right to insist on either a repair or a replacement. However they now have a new, much more powerful right. If the repair or replacement option fails within thirty days of the purchase the British consumer has a right to INSIST on a refund.

This still gives a store the chance to fix the item or offer a replacement but if that fails then the consumer can cancel the entire deal and get their money back. It’s about time we had the same right. We hear repeatedly from consumers who bought a cellphone or laptop that persistently went wrong and all they ever got were endless promises of repairs. This new rule would still allow a store to repair an item (which is only reasonable) but if means that if after a few weeks the customer still doesn’t have a functional device they can go back to the store and insist on a full refund. It’s their right.

The other big change in the UK’s law is that these rights now extend to digital content as well as physical content. Fewer and fewer of us are buying music and software on disk these days and instead we’re buying it online. Those purchases are covered as well and that’s another area where we need to catch up.

However even if we were to catch up, there are still numerous gaps in our consumer protection laws.

In particular we need protection against the massive upsurge of business and investment “opportunities” that make false promises about the income and profits that can be made. You’ll remember the Eurextrade Ponzi scheme that was targeted specifically at Botswana and was aggressively marketed within the country by its local representatives. They claimed that the scheme could offer “up to 2.9% daily”. That was clearly nonsense but we know of many people who lost their life savings to this scam. Slightly less malign are the multi-level or network marketing schemes that offer a false opportunity to make money from the recruitment of multiple levels of people beneath each recruit. The evidence that these promises are false can be seen in the figures these companies are forced to publish in other countries, showing that only a very tiny minority of recruits make any profits at all and the vast majority make a loss.

I propose an addition to the Consumer Protection Regulations in the list of “acts of unfair business practice” along the following lines:
"advertising business or employment opportunities with claims of income or profits that cannot be readily substantiated"
There’s also an urgent need to include compulsory “cooling off” periods and an absolute right to clarity in contracts.

Cooling off periods are an essential protection for consumers. You might argue that consumers who make rash decisions should face the consequences but there are many situations when they are pressurized and manipulated by sales people into taking decisions they later regret. They need an opportunity to change their minds.

Suppliers will argue that cooling off periods will inconvenience them and will cost them money recovering their goods, but we can protect them from that. The cost of the return can be deducted from the deposit the customer gave the store when they signed the agreement.

Some countries, such as South Africa, provide limited cooling off periods but only for direct selling, not when the consumer initiated the purchase. Other countries provide such periods in a wider range of circumstances. This is an area where we are lagging behind and I think we need to be a step ahead. I propose the following as a starting point:
“Any agreement relating to a sale of goods on any form of deferred payment shall contain a statement explaining that the customer may cancel the agreement in writing within 5 days of signature of that agreement. Any penalties applied by the supplier as a result of the cancellation may not exceed the amount of any deposit made when the agreement was signed.”
We also need to insist that stores, particularly those who sell on credit or hire purchase are much, much clearer about the content of their contracts and what will happen if the customer experiences problems repaying. We hear regularly from consumers who genuinely didn’t understand how their agreements worked and who often end up impoverished as a result. I suggest the following:
"It shall be an unfair business practice for any supplier who offers products or services for sale by way of any form of deferred payment not to clearly and completely explain to customers, in writing and before the customer signs any agreement, the details of the agreement, the penalties that might be applied and obligations incurred in the event of default of payment."
Our current consumer protection laws are very good but we can’t risk falling behind other countries. We can’t let our laws fall behind.

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