The sharp and the toothless: weighing up the consumer watchdogs

Who should you call when things go wrong, and how likely is it that they will be able to intervene?

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock

 

A quick glance at the infrastructure built to protect Irish consumers over the past 20 years or so would suggest we’re pretty well served. We have an overarching consumer commission, a less overarching consumer association, a consumer centre, a special court for small claims, an ombudsman for the banks as well as the actual Central Bank. There is a watchdog for mobile phones, and authorities for advertising, broadcasting and food. And there is a regulator for the skies above us.

But who do you need to call when things go wrong in your world, and how likely is it that your call will be answered and your problem resolved?

 

Competition and Consumer Protection Commission

The marriage last autumn of the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority gave us the CCPC. The stated role of the new kid on the block is to act as an advocate for all consumers and to be a repository of consumer-related information. It is supposed to play a role in enforcing consumer legislation and improving our understanding and awareness of the consumer protections we have and the benefits of shopping around. It also carries out research and publishes sporadic price surveys.

In its own words, it is here to “represent the voice of the consumer, defending consumer interests at the highest levels of national and local decision-making. We provide you with information about your consumer rights and personal finance. We help you to manage your money, with useful tools and information to help you get the most from your money and help you make smart decisions.”

While it is a useful organisation, it is not, perhaps, as useful as it might be. For a long time the main authority on consumer issues has been operating without the level of funding it was once promised by a Fianna Fáil-led government, which is obviously a problem.

Another problem is that it is not legally allowed to intervene on behalf of consumers and make contact with companies that have transgressed, so it can seem somewhat impotent when consumers need it the most. It can’t act in an advisory role for individual customers when it comes to trying to find better services in specific cases, and the price surveys it carries out do not include key areas such as groceries – which is where consumers spend most of their cash.

However, it is still worth logging complaints with the CPCC. While it may not be able to do anything to help individual consumers out, it uses all the contacts it has with the public to establish patterns of behaviour, and it can act if a particular company or industry in engaged in a widespread practice that goes contrary to consumer law. consumerconnect.ie, 1890-43243, 01-4025555

 

Consumers’ Association of Ireland

This is a voluntary organisation that represents Irish consumers in the public sphere as well as offering advice and information and carrying out occasionally surveys. In many ways, it operates like Which? or Consumer Reports, the powerful consumer groups in the UK and the US respectively. However, there is a key difference: funding. Both the UK and US organisations have very deep pockets and can afford to carry out exhaustive research on behalf of consumers. They can also afford to take expensive legal actions to bring rogue traders to heel.

The Consumers’ Association of Ireland can’t afford to be so proactive and its resources are relatively meagre. As well as a grant of about €60,000 from the State, it gets an annual subscription fee of €96 from about 8,000 members, taking its annual income to substantially less than €1 million. It sits on dozens of committees and boards, both nationally and internationally.

While it might be the poor cousin, it sometimes punches above its weight, and, unlike the CCPC, it can and does provide a voice for consumers on live issues. Its spokesman Dermott Jewell can frequently be heard on the airwaves arguing on behalf of consumers. Whether his appeals for fairness and justice do any good is another question. thecai.ie, 01-6373961

 

European Consumer Centre

The European Consumer Centre is a pan-European organisation that directly engages with consumers and offers free information and advice services on cross-border consumer rights. Since it was set up 10 years ago, its centres across Europe have assisted more than 650,000 consumers, while its Irish arm has assisted almost 36,500 people. If you have ever been wronged by a car hire company elsewhere in the EU or let down by any other service provider from member states outside our own, then this is the best point of contact.

Unlike the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission – and the Consumers’ Association of Ireland – it can fight on behalf of individual consumers and it frequently wins fights that would otherwise be unwinnable either because of language barriers or because consumers here have no idea where to turn when bad things happen to them elsewhere in the EU. In the past five years, it has helped secure refunds for consumers totalling more than €500,000.

If an Irish consumer gets into difficulty with a retailer or service provider outside of this jurisdiction, the European Consumer Centre can get involved and help to build a solid case, which it then passes on to its counterpart in the relevant country to make contact with the trader. It has also published reports on topics such as air passenger rights, commercial warranties, fraud in cross-border e-commerce and the availability of chargeback procedures across the EU. eccireland.ie, 01-8797620

 

Financial Services Ombudsman

The Financial Services Ombudsman investigates customer complaints in relation to the financial sector. Although it has its limitations, it has certainly improved the lot of many Irish consumers who would otherwise have been left without a voice. Its role is to adjudicate on complaints in connection with the financial sector, to redress wrongs and, where justified, to make compensation awards. The office of the ombudsman made headlines in recent weeks after it had a pivotal role in uncovering the mismanagement of the accounts of almost 1,400 Permanent TSB mortgage holders, although it was ultimately the Central Bank that brought PTSB to heel.

As the arbiter of unresolved disputes, it acts impartially, something that many consumers find frustrating, because, when it comes to financial matters, there is virtually nowhere else they can turn for advocates. The ombudsman operates at a certain remove from consumers, which can be problematic, not least because making financial complaints is complex and involves filling out a lot of paperwork, which can be daunting for individual consumers, particularly when they are taking on banks with very deep pockets and big legal departments.

The fact that the ombudsman is only empowered to deal with complaints going back six years is also a big minus.

The odds are not in the public’s favour. It rules in favour of consumers only a quarter of the time, and two-thirds of the complaints it upholds are only partly upheld. And although the phrase “partly upheld” might make it sound like it is taking on big banks in a meaningful way, it can mean as little as €500 in a case involving sums of more than €200,000.

There have been some positive developments in recent times, however. Changes to legislation introduced in 2013 allows the Ombudsman’s office to “name and shame” offenders - in the past all cases were an entirely private matter between the interested parties. This has given financial service providers an incentive to take their responsibilities to consumers more seriously as bad press is not something they tend to court. This has led to more banks resolving cases before they get to the FSO. financialombudsman.ie, 01-6620899

 

The Central Bank

Are you a consumer looking for help from the Central Bank? Forget about it. “The Central Bank cannot get involved in individual disputes between financial services providers and consumers, which is the role of the Financial Services Ombudsman,” its website informs us rather tartly.

And would you like some help understanding financial products? Forget about it. “Since 2010 the function of educating and assisting consumers in personal finance matters has resided with the National Consumer Agency (now the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission),” the Central Bank’s site tells us.

Having said that, it does have a role in consumer protection. And that is “to lay down requirements for how providers deal with consumers, and to ensure compliance with those codes at a systemic level”. It ensures compliance through measures such as “mystery shopping, themed inspections and advertising monitoring”.

 

ComReg

If you have a problem with your mobile phone provider, your broadband provider or your landline provider, your first port of call should be ComReg. Actually, that is not true, strictly speaking. As ComReg makes clear, in the event of a problem your first port of call should be the service provider. It is only when you have exhausted a company’s internal complaint systems that ComReg will start to entertain you.

ComReg has an “advisory role” and will help callers to make a formal complaint, albeit it in a hands-off sort of way. It also monitors the complaints that come in and escalates any potential breaches of regulations and can raise any persistent problems with specific providers.

It is only when a complaint falls on deaf ears that it will even consider making contact with an operator directly seeking an official response. Its ability to act depends on the nature of the complaint. If a company has contravened a regulatory obligation it can intervene, but it can’t act on behalf of consumers when it comes to handsets or anything not directly related to the provision of a service. It can’t prescribe compensation for any consumer complaint.

“Operators may, depending on the circumstances, offer compensation as a goodwill gesture but this is totally at their discretion.” Yes, that seems a bit weak to us, too. comreg.ie, 01-8049668, 1890-229668

 

Commission for Aviation Regulation

If you have problem with an airline, this regulator should be your first port of call. EC regulation 261/2004 covers people who are denied boarding or those who have had a flight cancelled or delayed. Under the rules, EU member states had to establish common rules on compensation and assistance and to nominate a specific regulator to handle complaints. The Commission for Aviation Regulation was designated as the State’s enforcement body.

As in most cases, passengers should send copies (it is very important that the original documentation is never sent, just in case it goes missing) of all receipts to the airlines with which they booked flights. Submissions should also include booking references, passenger names, original flight details and new flight details.

If an airline has not made an initial response within 15 working days, you can contact the Commission for Aviation Regulation, again sending copies of receipts along with booking references, passenger names, original flight details and new flight details.

All passengers departing from EU airports are covered by the regulations, as are all passengers departing from outside the EU but arriving here. The regulations do not apply to passengers travelling free of charge or at a reduced fare not available to the public, nor to passengers who have not checked in on time. aviationreg.ie

 

Small Claims Court

“Court” sounds daunting, but it shouldn’t be. Any grievance against a retailer or service provider that has a financial worth of €2,000 or less can be pursued through the Small Claims Court; there is no need to involve a solicitor.

You can make a claim for goods or services bought from someone selling them as part of their normal business, although, if you bought a bed on the side of the road from a man you’ve just met, that will most likely not be covered. Anything to do with hire purchase, loans or credit cards is not covered, and nor are most claims about rental properties.

You start the process by lodging a claim at Courts.ie or downloading an application form from the site. You give details of the claimant (you), the respondent (the business), the amount claimed and the details of your claim. You must complete an application and pay the €25 fee. Your claim is then processed by a District Court clerk.

The clerk informs the business of your claim, after which it has 15 days to respond. If it doesn’t you win and the District Court makes an order in your favour. If it does dispute your claim, the court registrar negotiates with both parties to try to reach an agreement. The setting tends to be informal and private. The registrar asks both parties to outline their side of the story and tries to reach a deal. If this isn’t possible, a hearing before a District Court judge is arranged.

 

Pricewatch

And if you can’t get no satisfaction from any of the above, we are here to help. pricewatch@irishtimes.com

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