Too rich to feel ripped off?

The Irish Times
Conor Pope, March 5th, 2007

What’s the story with consumer campaigns?

Irish consumers fed up with being ripped off at every turn might do well to look to the UK, where there is a whiff of revolution in the air. Sick of price increases, British consumers have risen up in recent weeks and individuals and groups have taken to the internet to orchestrate protest campaigns targeting the government, football clubs, banks, utilities and supermarkets.

Some 1.8 million people signed an anti-toll petition posted last month on Downing Street’s official website. The volume of traffic to the petition, which called for the scrapping of a planned vehicle tracking and road pricing system, briefly crashed the website. It also forced Tony Blair to send an e-mail to all the signatories, defending the government’s position on the issue. While the petitioners may not have brought about a policy change yet, the volume of signatures must have given Blair cause for concern.

AN ELECTRONIC PETITION service might work here. Although when PriceWatch asked the Government last week whether it might consider implementing such a system on its website to allow people to voice their dissatisfaction with policies, the answer was less than promising. We were told such a proposal “had never come up” and a spokesman said the suggestion “would be considered”.

British utility companies have also been targeted by internet campaigns that have been partially responsible for some four million households switching gas or electricity suppliers. A number of sites have highlighted price increases and helped people to switch utilities. British Gas alone lost over one million customers in 2006 and was forced to cut its prices by as much as 17 per cent.

However, Britain’s banks may have the most to lose from the mini consumer revolt. According to the website www.moneysavingexpert.com, over €7 billion is taken illegally each year from customers who have exceeded their overdraft limits. The site details the laws governing such fees and has complaint forms demanding refunds that can be downloaded by the public. Nearly one million forms have so far been downloaded and the rebates the banks will be forced to pay are likely to cost tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds. While the banks deny any wrongdoing and claim their charges are fair and equitable, many are resigned to refunding substantial sums of money if their customers complain loudly enough.

The mood of protest has reached the football terraces. Manchester United supporters travelling to a recent game at Fulham organised a boycott of the match programmes and the stadium’s catering facilities in protest at prices. Ticket prices increased from £32 last year to £45 (€69) this year, while the prices that supporters of other, less popular clubs pay was static. And the management at other Premiership teams have started to accept that crowds have dropped significantly in recent weeks in protest at price increases and admit that price freezes are inevitable.

There is little sign of such militancy brewing here. Prices go up and although we grumble, we always give in and accept the increases as if they were inevitable.

“A lot of people have enough money and don’t seem to care if they are being ripped off,” believes Diarmuid MacShane, who runs www.ValueIreland.com. He set up the site three years ago to provide information about good-value deals and services and to help people “avoid the so-called rip-off merchants”.

MOST PEOPLE ARE resigned to it and even if they’re not, they feel there’s not a whole lot they can do about it,” he says. “Gas prices might be going up or broadband customer service might be appalling – to pick just two areas, but when people look at their options, there is either no competition or all the choices are equally as bad. Irish people are also pretty reluctant to complain in the first place,” MacShane adds. “I think it comes down to apathy. People are asking what difference it will make if they stand up and complain.”

There are several other Irish sites that offer consumers a platform to complain. The discussion forums on Boards.ie are always busy, with people complaining about the shocking service offered by Ireland’s broadband and phone providers. Askaboutmoney.com is also a useful resource that allows people to vent their spleen, but neither of these sites has yet become an instrument for real change.

Perhaps the most well-publicised consumer awareness site was Fine Gael’s Ripoff.ie. Despite the publicity, it never really captured the public’s imagination, and is now populated by little more than self-serving press releases. It is not updated frequently, so it is increasingly irrelevant and its close association with a political party makes it look like it is trying to exploit people’s outrage over overcharging to win votes.

Another reason that inertia reigns here, says MacShane, who recently joined the executive of the Consumers’ Association of Ireland, is because the regulatory bodies, including the Irish Financial Regulatory Authority, the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority, do not give consumers enough support. “If people saw that regulatory bodies were taking a tough line against banks or supermarkets, that action was being taken,” he says. “I think they might become more motivated. I’m not optimistic that a lot is going to change, I think things will only change when money starts to matter more to people, when things get a little tighter.”

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