Hong Kong must introduce a cooling-off period for service contracts to protect consumers

The case of a man who ended up paying a fitness centre HK$700,000 highlights the need for the government and legislators to take urgent action

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 1:29am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 1:29am

Labour constituency lawmaker Tang Ka-piu says it is not uncommon for consumers with misgivings about service contracts at places like fitness centres and beauty salons to ask for help within a day or less of signing up.

Alas it is too late, even if an unscrupulous sales person has taken unfair advantage. That is a convincing reason why such commitments should include a seven-day cooling-off period for consumers to change their minds, cancel a contract and get a refund.

READ MORE: Mentally disabled Hong Kong man ‘strong-armed’ into signing up for gym classes that left him HK$700,000 out of pocket

Tang was commenting after a mildly intellectually disabled man, who only gave his name as Wong, accused the staff of one of the city’s biggest fitness centre chains of using strong-arm tactics to force him to sign up for multiple contracts and borrow money from banks and even loan sharks to pay bills that left him HK$700,000 poorer. Tang said this was one of nine complaints he had received against the same fitness centre.

The fitness centre told Wong’s sister he had signed 20 contracts over two years. A spokeswoman said employees were not aware Wong was mentally disabled and the company was looking into the matter. She also said the case of a 19-year-old student who signed a HK$1,400 contract after staff confiscated her identity card had been resolved.

READ MORE: Physical gym staff in Hong Kong investigated for forcing HK$38,000 membership on consumer

It is not the first time a fitness centre has got into strife over pressuring staff to boost sales by locking customers into prepaid packages. This has prompted politicians on all sides – and this newspaper – to lament a missed opportunity to include a cooling-off period in amendments to the trade descriptions law.

Fitness centres are in a very competitive industry. A cooling-off period is a common safeguard in some telecoms and financial services products. But the government told the Legislative Council when it was considering criminalising unfair practices such as false descriptions and bait advertising that a cooling-off period would be “complicated”, and needed further consultation to find a consensus. Wong’s case shows the need for a greater sense of urgency.