Who you gonna call? Your bumper guide to consumer rights

Pricewatch: It’s important to know what you’re entitled to – and what you may not be

Sometimes a product doesn’t match your expectations as a consumer - it’s good to know what to do about that. Photograph: iStock

Sometimes a product doesn’t match your expectations as a consumer - it’s good to know what to do about that. Photograph: iStock

 

In a good week Pricewatch gets scores of complaints from readers who have been let down by shops and service providers. In a bad week we get hundreds. Alongside all the grim stories of customer disservice we get good news stories too – although to be honest, they are pretty rare.

But not a week goes by without us getting at least one email or message from someone who doesn’t quite grasp how the law works for and against them and what steps – if any – they might be able to take to seek redress when they think they have been wronged.

The lack of accurate information can often see people fly off the handle with the wrong people at the wrong time and without any possible hope of a successful outcome. Similarly it can also lead to people accepting a situation they do not have to accept.

Last week alone we got three such mails. There was one from a reader who had been bamboozled by a retailer who claimed it had absolutely no responsibility to help him get a dishwasher fixed on the grounds that it was just over two years old and, as a result, out of warranty. He was told that his only option was to deal directly with the manufacturer.

We also heard from another reader who was pretty annoyed that a retailer would not allow her swap one dress for a slightly different dress, in what she thought was a clear and flagrant breach of her rights as a consumer.

And then there was the message from someone who was fuming because an online retailer had refused to honour the sale price of an item on the grounds that it had been priced in error and had been mistakenly “sold” for less than 50 per cent of its actual price.

We also heard from someone who had a legitimate complaint who was threatening to go to the “Consumer Association” for redress.

To deal with the first of those last. While there is a Consumers Association of Ireland, and although it certainly does have a role in our society, it has neither the capacity nor the legal authority nor the will to intervene on behalf of individual consumers who are struggling to get redress.

And now onto the others. A retailer is not obliged to sell a product as a listed price if that price is wrong. Even if payment has been accepted online a retailer can cancel the sale if a product has been priced in error on the basis that the contract that has been put in place was flawed from the get-go.

Nor does a retailer have to give a customer an exchange. Many will do that without delay but the reality is there is no law that says a customer has a right to a refund on an exchange unless there is something wrong with the product or if is not as advertised.

And finally, there is widespread confusion amongst consumers and shops about warranties and guarantees and consumer rights and who has to deal with who when things go wrong.

With all this in mind we thought it might be a good idea to outline some of the rights consumers have and some they don’t have, point to some of the avenues people can travel to seek redress, and maybe offer a few tips on bow to be the best consumer you can be.

Who you gonna call?

When it comes to regulators, Ireland is not found wanting although how effective the regulators are is something that is very much open to question.

There are regulators looking after air travel, financial institutions, and telecommunications. But as anyone who has even been let down by their bank or abandoned by their airline or left hanging on the line for hours on end trying to fix problems with their phone or broadband will testify, the regulators are sometimes part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

To be fair, they can also wield power effectively – something we saw when the Central Bank finally took the banks to task over their mismanagement of the tracker mortgages of many thousands of people, some of home lost their homes as a result of the banks’ behaviour in what was accurately described as one of the greatest financial swindles in the history of the State.

We also have an over-arching consumer organisation and an EU-wide one as well as a low-cost court we can go to if things go badly wrong and ombudsmen who are there to adjudicate on matters of high finance and public bodies.

But when it really comes down to it, it’s hard to find an authority willing to advocate on behalf of individuals in real time, which is why we are unlikely to see any let up in the flow of emails, Twitter and Instagram messages, calls and letters in the days ahead.

Competition and Consumer Protection Commission

Since Pricewatch was born this unwieldy-sounding body has had almost as many names as Santa Claus, something we don’t think has helped its cause when it comes to consumer awareness. First it was the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs and then it became the National Consumer Agency. We can only imagine that the powers that be reckoned this name was too catchy and self explanatory and so changed it to the somewhat Soviet-era sounding Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC).

Its role is to give us a voice and answer any consumer-related queries we might have and to enforce competition and consumer protection law in Ireland. It won’t help you if you have a problem with a specific company and is not legally allowed to intervene on behalf of consumers or to make contact with companies that have made life difficult unless the issue is widespread and pervasive.

Contact: consumerconnect.ie; 1890-43243, 01-402 5555

The European Consumer Centre

The European Consumer Centre (ECC) is a Europe-wide organisation that engages with consumers, and offers information and advice services on cross-border rights. It can, and does, fight the corner of consumers who have been wronged and often wins fights that would otherwise be impossible to win because of language barriers or because consumers here have no idea where to turn when bad things happen to them elsewhere in the EU.

A good example of how it works can be found in the recent pandemic unpleasantness. Since early 2020, through its 30 centres across the EU and the EEA, ECC Ireland’s parent organisation, the European Consumer Centres’ Network (ECC-Net), secured cancelled flights reimbursements totalling more than €2.5 million on behalf of passengers using its services. It said that 75 per cent of a total of 6,000 flight cancellation complaints received by the network were successfully resolved following its direct intervention.

If an Irish consumer gets into difficulty with a retailer or service provider outside of this jurisdiction, the ECC can help build a solid case, which it passes on to its counterpart in the relevant country which can then make contact with the trader to have the problem resolved.

Contact: eccireland.ie; 01-879 7620

The Central Bank

The Central Bank is the big kahuna presiding over Ireland’s financial system although it works alongside the CCPC and the Financial Services Ombudsman in some areas. It also looks after the Central Credit Register, the centralised system for collecting personal and credit information on loans.

Contact: centralbank.ie

ComReg

If you have a problem with your mobile phone, your broadband or your landline, you go to ComReg. It has to insist you have exhausted a company’s internal complaints system before it can help. It can be a slow and frustrating experience – as anyone who has ever dealt with mobile phone operator will tell you – but at least ComReg can show its teeth betimes.

Contact: comreg.ie; 01-804 9668, 1890-229668

The Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman

The Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman investigates customer complaints in relation to the financial sector, including banks, building societies, credit unions, brokers, money lenders, hire-purchase providers, health insurance companies and retail credit firms. Given the complexities of the cases – an the sometimes intimidating responses from financial institutions when challenged – the process can be slow.

Contact: fspo.ie; 01 567 7000

The Ombudsman

The Ombudsman examines complaints from people who believe they have been unfairly treated by providers of public services such as Government departments, local authorities, the Health Service Executive and publicly funded higher education bodies. It can also examine complaints about private nursing homes.

Contact: ombudsman.ie

The Consumer Association of Ireland

This is a voluntary organisation which represents Irish consumers in the public sphere in as much as it can, given a small budget and a small office. It can and does provide a voice for consumers on live issues. What it can’t do is help you out if you have been given the runaround by a company or shop.

Contact: thecai.ie; 01-637 3961

Commission for Aviation Regulation

The Commission for Aviation Regulation has a busy old year what with the grounding of almost every aircraft in the EU for almost 18-months. It is there to help people who are denied boarding or those who have had a flight cancelled or delayed, and are entitled to such things as refunds, assistance and compensation.

Small Claims Court

“Court” sounds a bit terrifying but it’s not as scary as it sounds. The process is pleasingly simple. Any grievance against a retailer or service provider that has a financial worth of €2,000 or less can be pursued here and there is no need to involve a solicitor.

You lodge a claim at courts.ie or download 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.

Contact: courts.ie

Rights and wrongs when you are shopping

1. If I have a receipt I can get a refund: A shop is never under any obligation to give you a refund or exchange just because you have changed your mind or fancy the jumper in a different colour. While good retailers allow refunds or exchanges they do so because it makes sense to keep shoppers happy rather than out of any legal obligation.

2. Once a product is faulty I can get a refund or a replacement: Retailers are legally obliged to make sure what they sell is as described, of satisfactory quality and fit for purpose. If it is not one of these things then they must offer you a refund, a repair or a replacement. But they choose which of the Rs is offered so if they try and fix the product you might have to accept it.

3. I can’t return a product because I lost the receipt: Despite what you may be told, you don’t actually need a receipt when you are returning something. All you need is proof of purchase. Obviously a receipt is an easy way to prove you bought something in a particular place on particular date but a bank or credit card statement should work too.

4. If the warranty expires I am snookered: This is one of the great myths peddled by shops and manufacturers. It is nonsense. Under European Directive 1999/44/EC, every country in the EU must ensure a retailer is liable for “non-conformities” which happen within two years of purchase. The Sale of Goods Act on the Irish statute books gives you even more power and covers goods for up to six years depending on what it is. If a washing machine or sofa, for example, falls apart through no fault of your own five years after you bought it, you can seek to have it replaced or repaired.

5. The shop says you have to talk to the maker: This is another of the great myths of retail. Your contract – and we can’t stress this enough – is always with the person you paid. If you buy a phone directly off Apple for example and something goes wrong, then you deal with Apple. But if you buy a phone off Vodafone or Three and it acts up, then they have to resolve the problem. You can choose to deal with the manufacturer but you can not be compelled to do so. This doesn’t matter if the product is two weeks old or two years old.

6. I lose rights during the sales: Actually you don’t. While you might see signs warning that absolutely no refunds will be permitted on sale items they are actually against the law. It doesn’t matter if you pay full price or get 98 per cent off, you have a right to expect what you buy to be of an acceptable standard, fit for purpose and as advertised. If not you have the right to get it repaired or replaced, or to get a refund. No matter what the sign says.

7. Shopping online makes me more vulnerable: Nope. If you shop on EU-based sites (which means UK-based sites are no longer included, thanks for that Boris) you have more rights than when you shop in actual shops. For a start, you have a 14-day cooling-off period which kicks in on the day the product arrives by post. You can send any order back for any reason as long as it’s not perishable or made to your personal specifications and once you have the packaging. Once the product is returned the seller has 14 days to return the money. There are some exclusions including concert and airline tickets.

8. I don’t have to pay any tax on products bought from the UK: Oh, you do. Thanks to Brexit, the UK is now known as a Third Country in EU terms and you have to pay taxes and charges on everything bought there. A delivery company is entirely within its rights to withhold delivery until you pay up. It is worth pointing out that many companies in the UK will charge you all the taxes at the point of purchase in which case there should be no extra charges.

9. I can’t travel because of Covid so can get a refund: This is one of the most common misconceptions we have heard over the last 18 months. While it seems logical that an airline – or a hotel or music venue – should return you money you have paid if, because of public health rules, you can’t travel to the airport or to the venue or hotel, they are not legally obliged to do so once they provide the service even if you can’t actually avail of it. So if you have a flight booked for Milan or Paris or Madrid and you can’t go but the plane takes off then you are not legally entitled to your money back.

10. The place I bought something from shut but I never got it. My money’s gone: If you paid cash you are in trouble but if you pay for something with a credit or debit card and something goes wrong you can apply for a chargeback. Call you bank or card provider, explain what has happened and ask for the chargeback process start. They might push back but push back harder. It is your right.

And 10 consumer commandments

At least try to shop around: We are creatures of habit and shop in the same places and stick with the same utilities, banks and health insurers. This is costing us money so shop around and switch often.

Always keep some records: Keep a word document detailing all your dealings with your providers. It might be a pain but knowing when you called a company and who you spoke to will make your life much easier if things go wrong.

Do not be an impulse shopper: Before you buy always ask: do you need this thing and is it good value for money (as opposed to cheap)?

If seems too good to be true: If a deal seems to too good to be true, then get a grip on your excitement and remember that it IS too good to be true. That’s all we have to say about that.

Be deeply suspicious: No one reputable will ever cold call you looking for your bank details or bank statements. Treat all such calls with great suspicion.

Look at you bank statements and bills: You don’t have to read them over breakfast or anything but at least look at them every now and then. Big companies profit from our unwillingness to even open – never mind actually read and try to understand – the bills and statements they send us either virtually or physically.

Don’t be a pushover: Companies make resolving problems as difficult as possible. The hope is that difficult customers will just go away. Don’t do that.

Try to be nice: Working as a shop assistant or in a call centre can be incredibly difficult and not very well paid. If you have a grievance, there is little or no point in shouting at the lowest-paid staff member, the very person who has no power to effect change. Always be polite – and always make sure you are addressing your complaints to the right people.

Think about where you shop: And then shop locally. It makes a huge difference to economy and to the people who live in your town, village or city.

Read the terms and conditions: We know that sometimes they are longer than the Bible so a handy way to scan them is to copy the whole thing into a Word document and use Ctrl-F to look for key words you think might be relevant.

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