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

Lawmaker calls for a cooling-off period to counter aggressive sales tactics

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 December, 2015, 1:42am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 December, 2015, 9:08pm

One of Hong Kong’s biggest fitness chains has been accused of using strong-arm sales tactics to force a mentally disabled man into signing up for classes and taking out loans that left him HK$700,000 poorer.

The man, who gave only his surname, Wong, complained that he ended up spending so much after he was coerced by staff at a California Fitness centre in Mong Kok into borrowing money from banks and even loan sharks to foot the gym bill.

His case was one of nine complaints made to lawmaker Tang Ka-piu against the same fitness centre, mostly involving young adults who were forced to part with smaller amounts of money.

Tang said it showed the woeful lack of protection for consumers from unscrupulous sales tactics employed by companies selling services such as fitness programmes and beauty sessions.

“We’ve seen many cases where people would make complaints or ask for help just a day or less after buying a service package,” said Tang.

He called for a seven-day cooling-off period, which would allow consumers to amend terms and counter aggressive practices.

READ MORE: 11 staff at Hong Kong fitness centre arrested after customers offered free trial say they were duped into signing deals

Wong, who has a mild intellectual disability and works as a cleaner, first signed up as a member at the California Fitness centre in 2013, according to his sister, speaking on his behalf yesterday.

She called the fitness centre and was told that Wong had signed 20 contracts over the last two years. She managed to get hold of 10 of those contracts, costing a total of HK$213,000 and covering 288 sessions, but did not obtain the rest because the centre was charging her HK$50 per copy.

“It came to a point when my brother had indicated that he had no more money ... a trainer then took him to the bank for a loan,” she said, and later to a middleman who got him to borrow from several banks and money lenders.

Another case involved a 19-year-old student, whose mother said she was forced to sign a HK$1,400 contract as gym staff confiscated her Hong Kong identity card. They ended up charging her a total of HK$18,000 by repeatedly claiming previous transactions had not gone through.

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

A spokeswoman for California Fitness said employees were not aware that Wong was mentally disabled and the company was looking into the matter.

“We believe this is only an individual case,” she said, and other cases would be “dealt with accordingly” once the company had a fuller picture. She also clarified that the student’s case had been resolved and a settlement signed with the girl’s family last week.

An experienced trainer told the Post that gym staff were constantly under pressure to boost sales and lock customers into pre-paid packages.