Consumer protection paramount

Updated: 2016-07-12 07:50

(HK Edition)

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Consumer protection paramount

The Trade Descriptions Ordinance, enacted to protect consumer rights, showed its effectiveness on Monday. Two senior staff members of the troubled fitness chain California Fitness were arrested by customs officers for allegedly failing to provide services after receiving payments from customers and thereby breaching the ordinance. But the case also showed that our consumer watchdog may need more teeth to handle intimidating and misleading sales practices prevalent in the city's fitness and beauty industries.

The drama began a week ago when the chain's newly opened Whampoa outlet closed down following the filing of a winding-up petition against the chain's operator JV Fitness. Customs officials revealed that they had received more than 100 complaints about the chain's failure to provide services to customers who had paid their membership fees or for courses with personal trainers. But that was only the tip of the iceberg.

In fact the issue had already come to light when the Consumer Council announced in April that it had received more than 200 complaints a year against California Fitness over its sales practices since 2013. The number of complaints constituted more than half the total complaints lodged against these types of fitness companies in 2015.

One wonders why it took so long for the council to finally publicize the name of the company as the number of complaints was already alarmingly high three years ago. And naming names seems to be the best the watchdog can do given the limited powers vested in it by the existing law.

While the Trade Descriptions Ordinance has gone a long way toward consumer protection, more needs to be done. It is hoped, for instance, the government can take heed of the council's repeated calls for legislation to introduce a cooling-off period on sign-ups so that efforts to trick or coerce consumers into signing up for membership or pre-paid services will be rendered useless.

Another way to strengthen the watchdog is to endow it with the power of investigation and litigation. At present the council can only encourage complainants to resort to civil suits. It would be ideal, however, if the council's adjudicative power could be enhanced. While such changes will definitely require a major revamping of the body, it is worthwhile in the long run.

Meanwhile, consumers themselves should enhance their vigilance against such malpractices. The council and police have time and again issued warnings about such deceptive services. It certainly serves them best if consumers prevent themselves from falling into these traps rather than seeking refunds and justice afterwards. "Prevention is better than cure" is a saying which is always true.

(HK Edition 07/12/2016 page10)