Time to say no to being ripped off

Irish Times
Miriam Donohoe, Jul 21st, 2004

Ireland needs more people like Cobh shop owner Denis Murphy. Last Friday in the Cork Circuit Court, the 43-year-old turned down an offer to settle a case he brought against AIB for overcharging him on handling fees, and on interest when his account was overdrawn.

Murphy’s story is one of persistence, spotting the “errors” that were made by his local AIB branch and going the legal route, despite being fobbed off by one bank official after another.

The bank had offered Murphy €35,000 on the steps of the court to settle the case but he wasn’t interested. He wasn’t going to take “silence” money, he said afterwards. He wanted to ensure it didn’t happen again. Even though the court awarded him just €20,000 as well as his costs, he said he was delighted with the outcome. “I hope this is a wake-up call to AIB in general”.

It’s a well-worn cliche, but we are living in rip-off land, paying over the odds for a wide range of goods and services.

But we barely raise a whimper in protest. People like Denis Murphy are a rare breed.

We are well used to being told that we are paying too much for consumer goods, especially since the introduction of the euro.

Further confirmation of this came last week with an EU Commission price survey of 24 consumables which made for disturbing – actually blood-boiling – reading.

It confirmed that Ireland is one of the most expensive places to shop in western Europe. It found, for example, that Pampers sold in Ireland cost 164 per cent of the EU average. In Britain they cost just 63 per cent of the EU average. Now why on earth should that be?

The survey also showed fresh ground coffee cost more than four times as much in Ireland as in Finland, a country noted for being expensive.

While we are used to moaning about being ripped off for everyday consumer items and services ranging from groceries, meals in restaurants, hairdos and dental work, a more subtle and sinister type of rip-off culture has surfaced in recent months with overcharging revelations at AIB and other financial institutions, and admissions of overcharging by mobile phone companies O2 and Vodafone.

We had our own experience at home recently with Eircom. We opted to avail of a special broadband offer to upgrade our internet access, but discovered at the beginning of May that our telephone bill included charges that were not part of the agreed broadband package.

We rang customer services and a woman undertook to investigate the matter. A couple of weeks passed without any response.

We eventually lodged complaints about inaction with customer services, and the “Feet On The Street” department whose saleswoman had convinced us on the doorstep of buying the broadband deal in the first place.

After a lot of time, effort and frustration pursuing the complaint, we eventually got the €200 or so we were due.

Surely it is time for consumers to take a serious stand. Whether it’s being ripped off in a straightforward way by high prices, or having the wool pulled over our eyes through overcharging by stealth, we shouldn’t take it lying down.

Why aren’t we protesting in the most vigorous way? An attempt last year to mount a one-day boycott post the introduction of the euro and the “rounding up” of prices fizzled out miserably.

We moan about ‘Rip-Off Ireland’ but we still return to the coffee shop where the cappuccino is €5, the restaurants where the main courses start at €25, and the hairdresser where a blow dry is €30. We should be voting with our feet and putting it up to those who overcharge to come up with a better deal. It has worked in the airline industry.

The Consumers’ Association of Ireland, for all its bleating when big rip-off stories emerge, has done nothing to improve our lot. Director of Consumer Affairs Carmel Foley is hardly visible these days. The Tánaiste has set up a Consumer Strategy Group to look at the issues and to report by the end of the year. Let’s not hold our breath. It is more lip service, I fear.

To its credit, Fine Gael has tried to raise awareness with its ripoff.ie website. The valueireland website also focuses on high prices.

‘Rip-Off Ireland’ is hitting close to home with my family this summer, having opted to spend our holidays in Borris in the “Costa del Carlow”.

We are highly jealous hearing friends return from holidays abroad boast not just of unbroken sunshine, but of fabulous meals out for about half the price we are paying here at home.

My nieces bought gorgeous clothes in Zara in Lanzarote last week for a fraction of the cost of buying the same items in Henry Street in Dublin.

Here on the “Costa del Carlow” I came across what surely must count as a “Grade A” rip-off. In a local “flourishing” garden centre I was quoted €16 for an apple tart. The girl behind the counter whispered that it was indeed an outrageous price to charge, even if it was a lovely apple tart. She said she was embarrassed herself at the price. I was happy to make a modest stand against ‘Rip-Off Ireland’ by politely declining the sale, and buying a €3.30 tart in the local shop in Borris instead.

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