Clearing the air during a pandemic

Azlan Othman

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, all aspects of life have been affected, from business practices to education to recreational activities.

These unprecedented disruptions have led to changes that may previously have been unfamiliar, thus, leading to questions regarding what is acceptable in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.

According to the Department of Competition and Consumer Affairs (DCCA), under the Department of Economic Planning and Statistics (JPES), nearly 200 COVID-19 related complaints have been filed by consumers and businesses since March this year.

In response to the growing confusion surrounding consumer rights and appropriate business conducts amid the pandemic, the agency released a set of guidelines to address the immediate issues, such as pricing of goods and services and subscription or membership fee to a business that has been halted temporarily.

The DCCA said that “it is important for businesses to understand their obligations under the consumer law” by refraining from misleading consumers, making false claims regarding their products and services, and taking advantage of consumers who are not in the position to protect their own interests, such as informing consumers that an item is non-refundable after payment has been made.

The agency warned businesses against taking payments for goods and services when there are reasonable grounds to believe that these obligations will not be met.

One of the most common concerns revolves around product price hike, especially the question of price hike on products that are high in demand due to the outbreak, such as face masks and hand sanitisers.

Under normal circumstances, the DCCA said it “does not intervene on prices of goods in the market, other than a few specific goods that are set maximum price by the JPES and respective sector regulators, such as government subsidised items, under the Price Control Act”.

However, amid the current crisis, the agency monitors prices of products that are “critical to the health or safety of consumers, to protect public interest and to prevent unfair profiteering conducts”.

On March 21, the Ministry of Finance and Economy (MOFE) granted exemption on duties for personal protective products such as face masks and hand sanitisers. However, the agency warned businesses against setting maximum prices on these products to maximise profit.

“All businesses are expected to explain the price increase if an unreasonable hike has been observed,” said the agency. “Misleading claims by businesses about the reason for price increases will go against the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Order.”

With droves of businesses shifting to the online platform due to the pandemic, the need to enforce the price display regulation is becoming more pressing.

According to the DCCA, online businesses must be regulated “to protect consumers from being misled” while promoting transparency to ensure that consumers are able to make an informed decision before purchasing the good.

Another often-heard concern revolves around the cancellation of wedding events due to the social distancing measures. The DDCA advised consumers to check the terms and conditions that accompanied the booking. Even for bookings that do not obligate a refund, consumers should try and negotiate with the service providers directly “to discuss possible remedies”.

The agency added that both parties should be “considerate of each other’s situation” and try “to reach a compromise”.

The DCCA believes that both consumers and businesses need to play their roles in maintaining a healthy marketplace.

While the agency works on protecting consumer interests by ensuring fair business practices, it said, consumers are urged to exercise patience and understanding as well as be mindful of the circumstances faced by businesses during these challenging times.

The DCCA also suggested that any consumer concerns be formally reported for assessment via its hotline Talian Darussalam 123 or the PenggunaBijak app.