Cooling-off period would foil TV cheats

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 July, 2007, 12:00am


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Fierce competition in the marketplace should be good for the consumer. That has not always proved to be the case, however, with the pay-TV industry. Complaints of pressure-selling and misleading tactics have resulted in calls for the government to intervene to protect the consumer. It has promised to consider tighter regulation. That is good but it lacks a sense of urgency. There is a simple measure that would protect the consumer, which should be easy to put in place.

The victims of the most objectionable examples of improper sales practices are to be found among the most vulnerable in the community - the elderly and the frail. To people largely confined to home, television is the closest to being a necessity of life, after food, shelter and health services. Such people are an obvious market for pay-TV, but they are also the group among whom cost is likely to be the decisive factor.

One complaint about misleading sales practices targeting the elderly keeps cropping up. Nine months ago, a group of mostly senior Tuen Mun residents said they were tricked into signing up by a salesman who said they would have to have the service if they wanted to continue watching free-to-air TV after digital broadcasting was introduced. A residents' committee spokesman said most of the victims were uneducated or even illiterate. When they refused to pay, the company sent in debt collectors.

Last month, there were calls for police and government action after about 100 complaints from Kwai Chung residents in three months - 50 about door-to-door salesmen from a different company who used the same trick. The other half were from subscribers who said they could not get through to the service provider to have the services disconnected - a common anecdotal complaint among pay-TV subscribers. It is one that tends to be borne out by a survey of customer hotline services published in this newspaper today. It found that pay television hotlines, particularly for Cable TV and i-Cable, were often busy or operators were not available.

It is worrying that these complaints do not tell the full story, if a survey by the Democratic Party is to be believed. Almost half of 1,358 people who took part regard the sales tactics of pay-TV and telecommunications service providers as 'improper'. Nearly 45 per cent said they had lost money as a result of fraudulent sales tactics.

In response to the concerns of lawmakers, who have passed a motion calling for a crackdown on improper practices, the government promised to consider toughening legislation after the merger of the Television and Licensing Authority and the Office of the Telecommunications Authority, and in the meantime to look at measures such as arbitration on contract disputes.

This is to be welcomed as far as it goes. But it offers no early prospect of protection from any ongoing unscrupulous tactics. There is a simple, tried and tested way to protect consumers undertaking a long-term financial commitment. It involves giving them time to reconsider - a 'cooling off' period before a sale takes legal effect. It is used for insurance contracts, for example.

A pause for reflection of, say, a week might well cost pay-TV providers some prospective subscribers. But it would also result in fewer requests for disconnections from customers who feel deceived, and do no harm to the companies' tarnished image.

Companies and salespeople should have nothing to fear from a cooling-off period if their services offer good value and they are selling them honestly.