Customer Service – the department dedicated to hindering customers?

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Buy Irish? Make sure you check the small print

I wrote recently about some comments in the Seanad and elsewhere from people concerned that Irish consumers were sometimes being conned into buying products that they think are Ireland, but are in fact not.

Here’s a great example from Tesco towards the end of 2009. Firstly, check out this picture of a display of toilet paper – you’d be forgiven for thinking that this stuff was made in Ireland.

And you’d be wrong – check out the small print from the back of one of the products:

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Can someone tell Dan White at the Herald that the NCA is going away?

Dan White of the Evening Herald wrote yesterday evening about the fact that Ann Fitzgerald has declined to accept her bonus, thought to be €37,000 – 20% of her €186,000 salary. In his article, I can’t for life of me understand why this woman on the left was being given a bonus of €37,000, Mr. White channels ValueIreland in his commentary on the usefulness of the National Consumer Agency, headed by Ms. Fitzgerald.

Some of Mr. Whites comments are as follows:

With public anger at Ireland’s sky-high prices at boiling point, the Government had to be seen to be “doing something”.

That something was the NCA, a worthy talking shop which, apart from occasionally producing useful cross-border price comparison surveys, did nothing to address the problems it was supposed to solve.

He does go on to say that Eddie Hobbs “quit the NCA board in frustration a while back”. Strictly speaking, this is incorrect as Mr. Hobbs left the board because of his frustrations with Celia Larkin rather than the NCA itself. It should be remembered that despite this posturing from Mr. Hobbs, he did offer to rejoin the board if the then minister, Ms. Coughlan, reappointed him.

Back to Dan White, and his article.

Last year, Ann Fitzgerald was supposed to get a bonus of €25,000, prompting me to post the question – Value for Money – Ann Fitzgerald of the National Consumer Agency?

And here we are, a year or so later, and a couple of more shopping surveys in the bag, and Ms. Fitzgerald is deemed to be worth an extra €12,000 compared to last year in bonus payments.

At a time when people left right and centre are taking pay cuts, cessation of bonus payments, pension levies and any other manner of payment cuts, Ms. Fitzgerald is somehow deemed to be worth an extra €12,000.

Because she’s worth it I suppose.

Well, she is heading up an organisation deemed so important that it’s going to be merged into the Competition Authority soon enough rather than be left as a standalone entity. This was announced as part of a recent budget cull on quangos – one of the few to be culled.

Probably not a problem for Ms. Fitzgerald as I’m guessing that she’s going to be appointed it’s new head honcho since Bill Prasifka, formerly of the TCA, has moved to become the Financial Services Ombudsman.

Maybe someone should have told Dan White that the NCA is going away though – maybe he wouldn’t have written this final paragraph in his article:

While the Government has so far shrunk from grasping the nettle, it is surely only a matter of time before this Government or its successor tackles the enormous number of quangos, most of which seem to serve no other purpose than to consume tens of millions of taxpayers’ euro.

In any such quango cull the NCA would be a prime target. Now that the market has achieved what it was supposed to do, what is the point of the NCA?

While Fitzgerald’s decision may have bought the NCA some time, the questions about its role and usefulness remain unanswered. Far better to scrap not just the NCA but also all of the other quangos and their automatic “performance bonuses” as well.

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More on Ireland’s Departure Tax

I wrote earlier this week about how, while I’m no fan of the governments departure tax, I don’t believe it can be blamed as much as it currently is for the woes in our tourism industry.

I questioned whether anyone actually knew which other countries charge a tourism tax as a way to illustrate how insignificant such a tax is when it comes to tourists deciding on where to visit.

I did some amount of web research trying to find a definitive listing of which countries charge a departure tax, but without much success. The waters are further muddied by the vast array of charges levied on air passengers (and again, probably unknowingly to most air passengers – just think DAA charges levied in Dublin as an example).

As an example, however, take the United Kingdom charges for example.

• For short-haul flights of less than 2,000 miles in economy-class – £11
• For journeys of between 2,001 miles and 4,000 miles – £45 for economy, £90 for business class and first class
• For journeys of 4,001 miles to 6,000 miles – £50 for economy and £100 for business and first class.
• For flights of more than 6,000 miles – £55 for economy and £110 for business and first class.

How do you feel now about our flat €10 tax?

If anyone can point me towards a listing of countries that charges an airport departure tax, drop me an e-mail via the Contact Page and I’ll publish the information here.

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Ireland’s Departure Tax – which came first, the tax or the drop in passengers

The topic of this blog post has been going around in my head for some time now, never quite making the light of day until now – so here goes. Actually, this will be the start of a bit of a tourism theme for the week.

It’s said that the €10 departure tax brought in by the government in one of their many recent budgetary attempts brings in something between €10m and €15m per month. It was expected to net €9m in 2009 and €150m in a full year.

While this tax is undoubtedly a regressive measure, we’re being told that it is because of this tax that airlines are flying less passengers to Ireland – Aer Lingus and Ryanair shouting the loudest on this one.

Yet, back in 2008, Tourism Ireland revealed that the number of tourists visiting Ireland in that year had fallen 3.3%.

Had the rot already set in even before this departure tax was decided upon?

The number of tourists visiting Ireland for a holiday dropped 20% in 2009, but given the turmoil experienced around the world because of a world wide recession, is that not the primary reason for the fall rather than this new departure tax?

Look at this another way.

Let’s assume you’re planning a holiday later this year, 2010. You’re going to fly somewhere. What dictates where you go? When you search the internet researching destinations for your holiday, do you check out hotels, attractions, sights, entertainment and places to eat, or do you first check how much is the departure tax that you’re going to have to pay when you leave?

Do you even know which countries you might visit charge a departure tax? When the tax is included in your air fare (as it is here in Ireland) you’re most likely never even going to know you’re paying such a tax.

The overall price of your vacation will determine when and where you travel – and if you’re flying somewhere, staying in a hotel and eating out for a couple of nights over a weekend, then the €10 cost of the departure tax isn’t going to be the deciding factor.

Ireland was, and still is, a very expensive destination for tourists to visit – it was in the good times, and in general (despite the fall in hotel costs in many locations), it still is now.

When potential tourists are experiencing recession in their own country and counting the pennies, we can hardly expect that they’ll be arriving here by the plane load if they’re going to have to pay through the nose for the privilege of spending a few days in Ireland.

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Fianna Fail & Consumer Protection – “more image than reality”

In recent days, the chairman of the Consumers Association of Ireland, James Doorley, has been critical of the proposal by the Department of Finance to scrap the Consumer Consultative Panel at the Financial Regulator once it’s merged back into the Central Bank.

Mr. Doorley believes that scrapping this committee appointed by the Minister for Finance would have the effect of preventing “meaningful input into the system of financial regulation”. According to Mr. Doorley:

those who pay should have a say and that the consumer voice should be at the heart of our new system of financial regulation, as it is consumers who are largely bearing the brunt of the financial crisis.

Mr. Doorley is speaking about a talking shop that didn’t meet at all during some of the most devastating months of this financial crisis at the end of 2008. As first reported here on ValueIreland.com, the panel only met once between July 2008 and March 2009.

There was an interesting exchange in the Dail earlier this week in reference to the abolition of this talking shop. Thomas Byrne, Fianna Fail TD for Meath East (one of the local TDs for Mr. Doorley as it happens) made this appeal to the Minister for Finance:

Last night, the Minister for Finance stated that he is consulting the various representative associations and interest groups. I would be keen for him to consult the Consumers Association of Ireland on this legislation and, if possible, to retain the Central Bank’s consumer panel in some form. It is included in the legislation in a different form, but perhaps it should be retained in a bid to keep the public’s confidence. The public is confident that we are looking after the consumer and doing the right thing.

However, more telling of the attitude of Fianna Fail to regulation and consumer protection in general, in response to a retort to James Bannon TD, Deputy Byrne went on to say:

However, keeping the panel would be more image than reality, since the reality is evident in terms of the regulator’s actions.

And there we have it. It’s more important to be seen to do something rather than actually doing anything at all – as I’ve said many times here before, the modus operandi of the current Fianna Fail government.

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ConsumerValue from the National Consumer Agency

During 2009, the National Consumer Agency set up a new section on their website – ConsumerValue. According to the web page blurb:

ConsumerValue aims to act as a single signpost directing you to resources informing consumers about how to seek the best deals.

ConsumerValue is not about changing the way you live your life. It is about making informed consumer choices based on full information and an understanding of what cost versus benefit mix is right for you.

While the site does provide a lot of information (and is therefore probably worth bookmarking), it’s actually quite hard to navigate your way around the many pages of information.

It’s also quite strange to see the many links provided on this government agency website to the websites of private profit making enterprises – this essentially amounts to free advertising for a select few, and a ringing endorsement from the NCA for these businesses.

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Readers E-mail – Is this a scam website? What can I do?

This e-mail came through from a ValueIreland.com reader recently. For the moment, I’m going to blank out the company name as I think the short answer to the question is no.

I ordered a hamper from ******* **** ******* based in Co Clare over a month ago. They have not delivered it and they do not respond to my enquiries or answer the phone but their website is still open to take money off people.

Have there been any complaints about them, is this a scam website? How do I contact them?

Back in June, I put together a series of top tips on what to watch out for on website when you’re shopping online – you can read those tips here.

Following those tips when checking out the website from the reader, there is a Company Registration Office entry with an address that matches the “real world” address for the company that is provided on the website. The website also provides a proper phone number on the site.

While they’re only cursory checks, it doess look like it might be a legitimate business website.

It is however still concerning that the company isn’t responding to the communication from their customers.

In situations like this, a little perseverance is required on the part of the customer to try to make contact. E-mails should be sent, phone calls made, and even a registered letter should be sent.

In all communications, the customer should be clear on what their expectations are from the business – are they looking for a refund, or are they still insisting on delivery of their order.

Of course, at the moment, given the “current economic climate”, the business may be undergoing some difficulties – which if it’s the case, they should really close down their site from accepting any further orders.

I did do a quick internet search for the company but couldn’t find any negative commentary about the business or the website.

If the company still refuses to respond to the customer, you can probably take it that they’re not acting in good faith.

In situations like this, it can be hard to chase down getting a refund or getting their order delivered. It could potentially be more effort than the original money handed over is worth.

However, the first thing to do would be to lodge a claim to the Small Claims Court – assuming the order doesn’t exceed €2000 in value. The cost of making a claim is €15 and can be done online.

If the business continues to ignore communications, including now from the Small Claims Court, then the claim will be automatically treated as undisputed. The District Court will then make an order in your favour (without you having to attend court) for the amount claimed, and direct that it be paid within a short specific period of time.

If the business doesn’t pay up in response to the District Court order, then you can arrange to send the Court Order (Decree) to the Sheriff for collection – but you will incur further costs if you do this – but this will be refunded to you if the Sheriff succeeds in executing the Court Order. There’s no guarantee either that the Sheriff will be successful in getting the money either.

While this can all seem like a pain to do, I think that it’s essential that consumers should go to this length if business attempt to rip them off. It’s because many consumers don’t do this that many business are brave enough to continue to do it – they incur no consequences because of their activities.

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When is buying Irish not actually buying Irish?

I’ve covered this topic a few times in the past, but I thought I’d come back to it again. I know from some of the e-mails I’ve received here and from some conversations with some friends and family, that the problem in trying to identify Irish made products is bigger than ever.

There’s been a fair bit of coverage in the media since earlier in the year where various parties are concerned that there are many products on sale in Ireland at the moment that may give consumers the impression that they’re made in Ireland when they’re actually not.

Back in January, Peter Donegan and I had a little over and back on Twitter about this very topic – Fiacla toothpaste was an example of a product where consumers would be easily misled. Fiacla, despite the name, isn’t made in Ireland any more. He published a follow up post on that which is available here.

Here’s some comments on the topic from Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail) from the Order of Business on February 4th last:

Supporting home industry and buying Irish-made goods will be an important part of the economic recovery. In recent times many people have been enquiring in shops about Irish-made goods in the belief that they are protecting and maintaining jobs at home.

However, it has come to light that the branding on some imported goods is misleading and people are buying goods they believe incorrectly to have been made in Ireland. Some examples were brought to our attention in recent reports. For example, if one eats “Old Time Irish Marmalade” in the morning one will believe it is Irish made but it is sourced in Portugal. Likewise one would be certain, having bought Siúcra sugar to put in one’s tea, that it was Irish sugar. It is sourced in Germany. One has to be particularly careful when buying salmon. There is smoked Irish salmon and Irish smoked salmon, but the latter might be imported and processed in Ireland.

These are only three examples but if this is comprehensive and there are many other such examples, we can see immediately that the economy is being undermined and that people who genuinely want to help home industry and buy Irish-made goods are being misled.

There is nothing illegal in that type of branding but we must make consumers aware it is happening. There is little point in exhorting people to buy Irish-made goods if that danger exists. I gave only three examples but I am sure there are many more. Producers in Ireland who have learned of this practice must feel very angry at present. We must protect our own and be certain that any product that goes on the shelves as Irish is Irish made.

Unfortunately, just words though. There was no meaningful debate on the issue, and no follow up on the day, nor any promised for the future (as if the Seanad could do anything anyway).

Something which is happening at the moment, which should help clarify things for Irish consumers, is the product database being developed over at ThinkIrish.ie. This database should eventually contain all Irish made products which we can refer to and make our purchases, safe in the knowledge that we’re buying Irish products.

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The Benefits of the Tax Saver Scheme with Dublin Bus

Here’s a great example how you should regularly review financial type decisions just in case things have changed – either the offers available or your own circumstances.

Sometime in the past, I had decided that it wouldn’t have been worth my while buying an annual Dublin Bus ticket through the Tax Saver scheme.

However, after looking at things again (particularly because of my increased use of public transport), I absolutely have to buy an annual ticket through the Tax Saver scheme – check out the savings I’m going to make below.

A saving of over €450 – what a fantastic boost for the savings! And that’s not even counting any extra journeys that I might take by bus at the weekends.

So there you go – just because you decided that something wasn’t worth your while in the past doesn’t mean you can’t find benefits now or in the future. Think back over your past financial decisions and see if you could revisit any of them to see if things have changed.

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