Consumer watchdog: ‘It doesn’t help that a lot of the work we do isn’t sexy’

The National Consumer Agency might not be able to bring a rogue trader to heel easily, but the body’s chief executive, Karen O’Leary, says it’s a nimble organisation that can achieve real results

Karen O’Leary of the National Consumer Agency

Karen O’Leary of the National Consumer Agency

Mon, Jan 6, 2014, 01:00

The biggest problems the National Consumer Agency (NCA) faces is that it can’t do what most people think it does.

The agency, which has been charged with protecting Irish consumers for more than six years, is not some class of souped-up Joe Duffy Show, able to right a wrong with a single phone call. And it does not have the statutory authority to bring rogue traders to heel whenever it wishes.

While it is understaffed and underfunded, it still plays a key role in highlighting the rights consumers have and ways they can save money. Its multiple shopping surveys have exposed the rip-off prices some retailers and service providers have charged us and although it could do more to name and shame the guiltiest parties at least it is doing something.

Its chief executive, Karen O’Leary, has been in her job for less than a year and is keenly aware of some of her agency’s limitations. “We are the voice of consumers, but it doesn’t help that a lot of the work we do isn’t sexy or newsworthy,” she says.

“Consumers are interested in what we do mainly when they have a problem and they need help. If someone has an issue which is very specific, then it can be frustrating for them when we are not in a position to intervene. If someone rings us with a complaint about a broken washing machine and how it is being handled by a retailer, we have no enforcement powers. In that case our role is to provide them with information,” she explains.

Information provision is a big part of its job: the agency handled about 55,000 calls and email contacts last year as well as conducting multiple surveys and managing websites aimed at empowering consumers to make better choices.

But when can the NCA actually help people in real time? “When it goes beyond a single issue and turns into a practice,” says O’Leary. All told, about 5 per cent of the calls made to the agency are flagged by its staff on the basis that they highlight issues that are potentially widespread across a particular sector or retailer.

She cites a recent case involving Xtra- vision. It was forced into a climbdown last November after a row broke out over its refusal to sell the Xbox One games console unless customers also bought an additional computer game at a cost of at least €50. People who placed orders for the console were furious, and, after a social media storm blew up, the NCA intervened.

Enforcement route
“When it came to Xtra-vision we had two choices,” O’Leary explains. “We could have gone down the enforcement route or tried to get them to fix it there and then, before Christmas. It would not have been very helpful to anyone if we had taken the enforcement route because we would still have been talking about it well into the new year, so instead we went to them and expressed our view: that their

insistence that people buy games before they could get the console was either misleading because the company had changed the goalposts, or else it was a simple breach of contract.”

The company reversed its position, expressing regret at “any upset or inconvenience that may have been caused to customers”.

The NCA hasn’t been with us for very long. In 2005 the then government commissioned a Consumer Strategy Report as unease mounted at the cavalier manner in which service providers and retailers were treating their customers. The report made for grim reading. It found that Irish consumers were lazy, ripped off, unwilling to complain and confused. We knew little about our rights and found the legislative protections complex and confusing. There was also an absence of consumer advocacy. The well-meaning Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs did little more than launch a few prosecutions against individual retailers and publicans it found guilty of overcharging each year.

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