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Consumer protection in Hong Kong

Do your sums on travel deals, Hong Kong customs warn as complaints soar over packages and services

About 45 per cent of 469 cases last year involved sales practices of travel agencies while a third of them were about airlines

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 8:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 11:11pm

There were more than 460 complaints about travel packages and services last year, a 38 per cent jump since 2016, Hong Kong customs revealed on Wednesday, but just four arrests as complainants frequently withdrew their cases.

About 45 per cent of the 469 complaints involved the sales practices of travel agencies, both in their stores and online, while one-third of the cases were about airlines.

Kwan Kin-keung, head of customs’ Intellectual Property Investigation Bureau, said the authority found no criminal element in 195 cases as customers were simply complaining about tour duration, room size and service quality.

“We launched a full investigation into 274 cases but 60 per cent of these complainants withdrew complaints or refused to cooperate, therefore we could not follow up on the matter,” Kwan said.

He said officers were looking into whether the remaining cases involved aggressive sales practices, bait advertisement, misleading omissions or wrongly accepting payment.

Kwan said some complainants were pushed into signing up for expensive travel club memberships and packages as salesmen bombarded them for hours in a room.

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“Customers were not allowed to use mobile phones. Salesmen followed them to the toilet. The shop even played loud and fast beating music to exhaust customers mentally so that they would sign the contract without reading the conditions clearly,” Kwan added.

Other cases involved complainants signing up for memberships in 200 instalments – which cost around HK$1,000 (US$128) a month over 15 years. But they could not receive holiday packages, such as trips to resorts, or services until the membership was fully paid up.

Kwan advised customers to do their sums and calculate whether the travel services they finally received were worth the money they had paid over the years.

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There were 354 complaints in the first four months of 2018, three times the amount in the same period last year. But Kwan said 65 per cent of the cases resulted from the sudden closure of Action Travel Services in March, which left more than 220 customers in limbo ahead of the Easter holiday. Three directors were arrested.

The amended Trade Descriptions Ordinance against unfair sales practices, such as false and misleading trade descriptions, bait advertising and wrongly accepting payment, came into force in July 2013.

Among the four arrests last year was an official at Miramar Travel.

Last July, the travel agency and deputy manager Thomas Chan Hei-shing were fined HK$18,000 in total for failing to tell customers about a cut in the cargo fuel surcharge, making it the first travel agency convicted under the amended ordinance.

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They failed to tell four customers that the fuel surcharge for their Emirates flights had been reduced by HK$1,839 per person when the four signed up for a tour in April 2014, the court found.

Instead, they and their travel companions were each given a HK$800 discount in what the company labelled an “all-inclusive package”.

The court also ordered the agency and Chan to pay more than HK$14,000 in compensation.

Also last year, a 42-year-old female director of a travel agency was arrested as the firm falsely claimed on a brochure that its one-day mainland China tour was covered by a designated tour accident scheme.

Under the ordinance, any trader who engages in dishonest sales practices, such as applying a false or misleading trade description to a service or product, is liable to a maximum fine of HK$500,000 and five years’ imprisonment.