Law enforcement must get tough on ugly side of fitness and beauty industries

Increasing numbers of customers, in particularly the weak and vulnerable, are falling prey to strong-arm sales tactics of unscrupulous operators

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 April, 2016, 12:13am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 April, 2016, 12:13am

Would you fork out HK$190,000 for a facial treatment? How about a fitness package that runs you into a HK$1 million debt? Such rip-off deals normally would not stand a chance in a sophisticated city like Hong Kong. But increasingly, more customers, in particularly the weak and vulnerable, have fallen prey to strong-arm sales tactics of unscrupulous beauty and gym operators.

The latest case saw a mentally disabled kitchen worker allegedly conned to take out loans and sign up for service contracts that cost him HK$1 million in total. The money was said to be mainly spent by a loan agency on “debt restructuring” and fees to a trainer at Fight Factory Gym. The 25-year-old, who had difficulties in answering questions at a press conference, is now under pressure to sell his live-in flat to pay off the debt. Earlier, an 18-year-old autistic man was allegedly forced to pay for courses at California Fitness and take out loans totalling HK$90,000. The two customers have had some money returned, but are still struggling to clear the debts.

Mentally disabled Hong Kong man ‘forced into HK$1 million gym debt’ is eighth case in 12 months ... so will anything change?

With two such cases coming to light in a week, the situation calls for concern. The trade union helping the two victims said it had received eight complaints regarding mentally challenged customers since last year. The fitness centres claimed they could not tell that the customers were intellectually handicapped. Such excuse is tantamount to admitting that all customers are subject to the same sales tactics and is hardly acceptable.

The problem is not unique to fitness centres. Last Saturday, nine beauty parlour owners and staff members were arrested by customs officers for allegedly making false claims about the treatments and forcing a customer to pay HK$190,000 for a facial treatment. The customer concerned was mentally sound, but she was forced to sign bills prepared without her consent.

The use of harassment, coercion or undue influence to impair a consumer’s freedom of choice is liable to five years’ jail and HK$500,000 fine under the amended Trade Description Ordinance a few years ago. But only until last year was the first jail term handed down. Two women were each jailed for three months for fooling a customer with a lymph therapy to help reduce risk of breast cancer. Customs officials have so far looked into 97 such complaints. The rising number of cases underlines the need for stronger law enforcement to reap deterrence. It is also in the interest of the industries to get rid of such high-pressure sales tactics lest customers will steer clear of their services.