Buyers deserve a cooling-off period

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am

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The consumer watchdog has finally named a beauty-salon chain that has stalled action to address 61 complaints of unscrupulous sales practices involving transactions worth HK$8.5 million. The Consumer Council has reprimanded Q&A+ Health Spa for pressuring customers to buy beauty treatments or pay large fees to enter a slimming competition that never existed, and for charging credit cards without giving customers a chance to verify how much they were being billed. The 'naming and shaming' action is not before time. The South China Morning Post reported six months ago that at least two women had been forced to sell their flats after entering the competition and being charged for treatments, and the watchdog's attempts to mediate with the company have failed. Police arrested 11 people, of whom three remain on bail.

With the benefit of hindsight a scam usually looks like that - for example 'free' slimming services in return for a deposit, refundable upon reaching a weight reduction target, which means a slimming centre is betting on the failure of its services. Though scarcely credible these offers prey on personal insecurities and fears related to appearance, such as ageing and career and relationship prospects.

A business's good name is priceless. The watchdog has refrained so far from promptly naming companies under notice, instead issuing warnings and giving them a chance to clean up their dealings. This approach put reform ahead of punishment and could be seen to be in the best long-term interests of consumers. It cannot be a real surprise, however, that some dubious companies abused the good intentions behind it. It is good to see that the council has had enough.

A cooling-off period during which buyers of services can reflect on their commitment might have saved some victims. An amendment that will being service contracts of six months or longer under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance, and introduce a cooling-off period, was not tabled as expected last year. We trust officials will delay no longer.