SCMP Saturday, May 12, 2001

Curbing the cheats

Beauty treatments that dishonestly claim to reverse the ageing process, holiday homes lacking the promised facilities, store owners who entrap customers with the promise of false bargains - these examples of sharp practices are common the world over. All of them, plus a few home-produced scams, are familiar to local consumers and tourists alike.
The difference between Hong Kong and the rest of the developed world is that there is no single, comprehensive consumer law here covering such offences. Some come under the Trades Description Act, others under the Summary Offences Ordinance and a third category must be dealt with through the Unconscionable Contracts Ordinance.
This piecemeal approach makes prosecuting dishonest traders a needlessly complicated process, as well as extremely costly if consumers have to seek redress through the civil courts. More often than not, it is difficult to prove the seller deliberately set out to cheat. Under the present system even the offenders lose out, because some relatively minor malpractice is deemed to be criminal and the penalties can be unduly harsh.
A single piece of consumer legislation would simplify the process, ensuring that the offences and penalties are more consistent. In the information technology age, when the market is expanding with new products and services, it would make sense to have a mechanism under which offences can be quickly incorporated into a single piece of trade practice legislation.
It would also make more efficient use of resources. If, for example, a customer gets cheated by one of the dubious camera shops that continue to flourish in tourist-trap areas, an undercover officer has to go along posing as a buyer in order to catch out the cheats. Understandably, investigations of that nature must wait until the manpower is available - and that is not the most efficient use of officers' time, given the serious crimes that police must deal with.
There has been a gradual improvement in consumer protection in the 20 years of the Consumer Council's existence, but this aspiring world-class city has a long way to go before it catches up with its rivals. Even the mainland is reforming its laws in readiness for World Trade Organisation membership. Because the common law provides many avenues to pursue dishonest traders, there has been no sense of urgency in modernising the system.
As an interim measure, the council is pressing for changes to the three ordinances to widen the scope of the law, so that cheats can be made to pay for their misdeeds and compensate the customers they dupe.
But the best answer is a single piece of legislation giving the council power to take cases to court and rid Hong Kong of an unwanted - and largely undeserved - reputation as a place where buyers must beware and tourists are fair game for unscrupulous traders.