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'You better watch out' - Shifty sellers with big deals concern consumer protection agencies

Published:Sunday | December 23, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Some unscrupulous merchants are luring shoppers into their entities promising deals they have no plan of delivering.

But the Consumer Affairs Commission (CAC) and the Fair Trading Commission (FTC) are keeping a close watch on entities and are prepared to take action against them.

Across the print and electronic media, scores of sellers are offering deals, free gifts, discounts and other attractions to woo buyers into their establishment as the Christmas shopping peaks.

However, the CAC and the FTC are warning shoppers that "all that glitters is not gold".

The two state entities admit that they do not have the manpower to do a 100 per cent monitoring of the scores of advertisements, but they say they are doing their best to catch the shifty sellers.

"We have someone whose job is to daily monitor the media, but then all of us (at the FTC) keep watch and we receive complaints from consumers," said Dr Kevin Harriot, competition bureau chief at the FTC.

"It is not only false advertising that we are on the lookout for, but also misleading advertising," added Harriot.

He said in cases where the FTC determines that the advertising was false or misleading, it meets with the seller and attempts to arrive at an agreement to remedy the situation through a 'consent order'.

Taking the merchant to court is also not ruled out.

Persons can be fined up to $5 million and be sentenced to more than one year in prison for misleading ads.

Eagle-eyed agency

At the CAC, complaints of false and misleading advertising are frequent, but the agency is also eagle-eyed.

"We try very hard to keep an eye out for the unscrupulous, but with our human resource constraints we have to depend on vigilant consumers," Dorothy Campbell, education, information and communication specialist at the CAC told The Sunday Gleaner.

"We vet the newspapers and especially check the fine print for the glitzy offers or the bait and switch and any other underhand activity by advertisers," said Campbell.

She argued that in cases where a consumer believes the merchant was less than honest in his advertising, that consumer should report the matter to the CAC.

"We will investigate to verify if what was advertised is what is being offered, and if we find that there was anything wrong, we will discuss the issue with the merchant and quietly suggest that they should correct the situation," said Allen.

That is about the full extent of the action that the CAC can take until the proposed amendment to the legislation governing its operation is done.

For more than a year the Parliament has been debating legislation to give the CAC additional powers, but it was only two weeks ago that the Senate approved the amendments to the Consumer Protection Act.

Industry Minister Anthony Hylton is to announce the date when the amended legislation will take effect.

With the new legislation, the CAC will be given greater powers, including the keeping of records, the investigation of breaches under the act as well as power to institute and carry on legal proceedings.

Where the commission's mediation procedures fail, the new act will give the CAC the power to establish a consumer protection tribunal to hear consumer-related matters in order to determine whether certain practices are in breach of the act.

The tribunal will be able to call and examine witnesses; and call for and examine documents, requiring them to be submitted to the commission to be verified by affidavit.

The tribunal will also be able to make orders relating to the strengthening of provisions regarding advertising and display of prices, the recovery of damages from a breach of warranty, and to generally increase the fines for contravention of provisions relevant to warranties.

In addition, the tribunal will be able to ensure that a provider is allowed time to conduct verification of a complaint prior to the payment of a refund where there is a dispute.

That is good news for Allen and the team at the CAC. "We are looking forward to it."

  • Contact the CAC

CAC Head Office - 876-978-4998/978-5309; toll free - 1-888-991-4470

Montego Bay Office - 876-940-6154; toll free - 1-888-991-9525

Manchester Office - 876-625-0487