Consumer advocacy and protection: is there something better?

Since I started my regular blogging I’ve been quite critical of both the National Consumer Agency (NCA) and, more recently given my experience of how it actually operates, the Consumers Association of Ireland (CAI).

My concern is that the consumer, through either of these organisations, doesn’t actually have anyone to actually stick up for them. The NCA is supposed to enforce the consumer legislation that we’re told will protect consumers but they don’t. The CAI tells us that they are a pressure group that represents the Irish consumer, yet can you remember the last time they put any pressure on anyone? Or when was the last time they reported to us how they’ve represented our interests on the multitude of boards and committees they sit on?

The National Consumer Agency is pretty much a spent force now since the announcement by the Government that it would be merged with the Competition Authority. This is a pretty ignominious end for an organisation that in the end, took longer to set up than it eventually existed for.

The Consumers Association of Ireland operating model is at the end of it’s lifespan now as well. Set up in 1966, and effectively operating in the same way is it did on day 1, the Association depends on the sometimes intertia of its continually falling membership not to cancel their direct debits for their monthly magazine.

I did start to broach this subject in a post earlier this month when it was suggested that the NCA and parts of the Financial Regulator would be combined when the NCA is merged with the Competition Authority.

But is there something different, and better, that can actually be done to protect and represent Irish consumers? Answers on a postcard!

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Plastic fantastic? Being smart when using your credit cards

Irish News of the World

Sunday May 31st, 2009

Diarmuid MacShane

Plastic fantastic? Being smart when using your credit cards

Do you remember the advertising for your “flexible friend”? That was how Access (now Mastercard) credit cards were advertised in the 1980’s. Credit cards are fantastic in making it easy to spend our money – ore more particularly other peoples money – they can also be a severe danger to our personal financial health if we let our use of them get out of control.

The Central Bank said that in February new spending on credit cards was only €766m which was the lowest in 3 years. However, year-on-year spending still increased, but by only 3.3% – a value that was normally about 10%.

On the other hand, MABS (the Money Advice and Budgeting Service) said that consumer debt in Ireland is a growing problem. They have reported that already this year, more than half of those calling their advice lines where having problems with repaying credit card debt, as well as personal loans and overdrafts. This was a 25% jump in just 12 months.

So, playing your cards right by following the top tips below will mean that you can get all the benefits with none of the troubles when using your credit card.

Don’t break the rules

The key thing to remember about using a credit card is that any time you use your card outside the basic rules of your credit agreement you’re going to be charged extra by your provider.

If you go over your credit card limit, you’ll be charged between €6.25 and €12.70 each time.

Make sure you pay your bills on time or else you’ll be hit with the late payment charges that can range from €6.35 to €15.24.

And if you make a payment and it bounces (you don’t have enough cash in your bank account to pay the credit card debt), then you’ll be charged an “unpaid item fee” ranging from €3 to €19.05.

It’s worth remembering that if you end up in difficulties, these charges could end up being charged to you each month until you get things under control again.

Looking after your flexible friend

There are some simple things that you can do to make sure you don’t get hit with any of these fees – in a worst case scenario fees that could cost you over €500 per year.

The first simplest trick is to pay your bill by direct debit. This will mean that you’re always going to get your payment in to the credit card company on time.

To make sure that you always have enough money to pay your bill, you could avail of the text message service provided by some banks that lets you know when you bank balance drops to a certain level.

Lack of interest

Obviously the best way to save yourself cash on credit card interest is to make sure you pay your credit card bill in full when it’s due ever month.

If you can’t, then the next best thing is to be on the credit card with the lowest interest rate. The AIB Click card has the best rate in the market at the moment at 8.5%. This compares to the worst in the market of 17.9% on the Ulster Bank Classic card.

Wherever possible you should avoid withdrawing cash from your credit card. Interest on cash advances is anything from 5% to 7% higher, with the highest rate being the AIB Platinum card charging 23.4%.

And that doesn’t include the 1.5% that each credit card provider will charge you on each cash amount that you withdraw. Which they’ll charge you interest on as well.

Minimum Repayments

Unless you’re “snowballing” your debts which I wrote about in the past, you should never just restrict yourself to paying the minimum repayments on your credit card.

Martin Lewis, the UK Money Saving Expert, has a minimum repayments calculator on his website to show just how long you’ll be stuck in debt if do.

As an example, say you have €5000 on your credit card at 14.5% with a 2% (or €10) minimum repayment amount. If you only pay the minimum amount, it would take you 28 years and over €6000 in interest to clear the debt.

If you pay the minimum amount in the first month – about €100 – but then pay that amount every month, rather than the 2% minimum, you could save yourself nearly €3000 in interest.

Pay per use

Of course, one of the most frustrating aspects of using a credit card in Ireland these days is that it actually costs us to use one. The most infamous companies credit card surcharges are found when buying tickets for travel.

One trick that does work to avoid these surcharges is to buy vouchers from the same companies, and then using the vouchers to pay for your travel tickets – this works particularly well on the Ryanair website.

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Filling prescriptions in Northern Ireland can save you money

A regular reader of has sent us in this e-mail about getting prescriptions filled in Northern Ireland – something I wasn’t aware of.

My husband gets 2 x 6 months prescriptions annually for tablets and I buy them this way rather than monthly. I imagine I make a saving but in reality that is probably not the case. Today we got the prescription and I decided to telephone a chemist in the North to enquire

1. If they would take a Southern Prescription
2. How much for the six months?

The answer – since last November new legislation provides that they can fill any prescription from any European country and they costed the prescription, here I pay €500 – there tomorrow, I will pay €374, a saving of €126.(€252 saving in a year and I have to earn €500 to pay this).

They also said they would welcome my business.

In addition they sell Celebrity Slim which I buy now and then at a saving of €4.50 a pack, so will stock up on them too. Its not all down to the currency exchange.

Now my tyres are nearing the legal limit so it’s a no-brainer…..

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Shopping up north – watch out when withdrawing cash

Update: Check out the 2016 listing of Special Offers from the various Northern Ireland grocery chains.

Irish News of the World

May 31st, 2009

Diarmuid MacShane

Shopping up north – watch out when withdrawing cash

A reader e-mailed us a top tip for anyone withdrawing sterling cash when up north for their shopping.

The reader notices that when using an Ulster Bank ATM in Newry, they weren’t charged charged a foreign currency withdrawal fee by their bank.

However, when using using an Alliance & Leicester ATM when in Belfast, they were charged €3.17 in fees.

What the reader found most bizarre was that the foreign currency withdrawl fee wasn’t charged by Alliance & Leicester, but by their own bank, Permanent TSB.

So that you know exactly what to expect if you’re travelling north, give your bank a call before you ring and find out what they will charge you if you withdraw sterling while there.

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Websites you can trust – what to watch out for?

In the past, I have compiled top tips to protect yourself when online – Avoid Online Scams, Protect your personal data, Avoid Financial Phishing, and Top Tips for Online Credit Card Security.

However, this top tips series will fill in some of the blanks not covered by the previous top tips – specifically, how can you check out a website to decide whether it can be trusted or not.

I’m putting these top tips together now due to the large number of new Irish consumer websites being set up at the moment, and particularly in light of the issues I’ve highlighted with some new consumer websites set up recently (here and here).

So, here are a few things to check out when deciding whether or not you can trust a website that you find interesting and would like to use:

1.    Find out who’s behind the website

Is it clear who is behind the website – are there the names of the people behind it, or the company name, available on the website? Don’t get involved with a website unless you’re sure that it’s real and you know exactly who you’re dealing with.

If it’s a company, then you should be provided with their company registration details. You can find out more about the company using the Company Registration Office website.

You could also check the website registration to see who’s behind the website – if it’s a .ie, you can go to to get the website details. will give you similar information for .com and other types of websites, but it’s easier to hide who’s behind these kinds of websites.

2.    Find out what other people are saying about the website

Do a web search for the name of the website and the name of the company or people behind to see what other people are saying about them. You may find comments, positive or negative, which will help you decide to use the site, or not.

3.    Find out how you can contact the people behind the website

Check the Contact Us page, and the About Us page to see what contact details are provided. Are there e-mail addresses or phone numbers? Or is there just an anonymous Contact Form?

When checking for contact details, consider how you’d fare if you had a problem and you needed your money back, or needed to actually speak to someone about a problem. Enough details now?

It is an EU Regulation that contact details be provided on a business’ website. If it’s not provided, ask yourself why they might want to make it hard for people to contact them.

4.    Find out where the people behind the website are based

In addition to the above contact details, if you’re handing over personal information, or making purchases, from a website, you should consider what you’ll need to actually find the business.

Say, for example, you’re having no luck with a product you bought that doesn’t work and you want to submit a claim in the Small Claims Court.

Is there a physical address for the people behind the website available? Is the address sufficient that you could actually find the place if you had to?

One tip – if there is a company name on the website, you can check the Companies Office website above – there should be an address available there.

It is also an EU Regulation that a business’ premises address is  provided on their website. If it’s not provided, ask yourself why they might want to make it hard for people to find them.

5.    Is the website secure?

The top tips referred to above include information on how to check if a website secure – i.e. look for the gold lock symbol, or the https:// before the website address.

One thing you should also confirm is that following clicking on links around the site that when you do actually begin to provide personal details, are you still on the same website you originally visited, or have you been redirected to a different URL.

6.    Check the small print before handing over details

Before giving away any of your details, you should check for pages such as Terms & Conditions, Disclaimers and Notices. Are you happy with their contents – are there any conditions that you don’t understand, or that you find suspicious?

7.    Don’t hand over unnecessary information

When you’re filling in forms on websites you’re using, always bear in mind the reason that you’re at the website and whether or not the information you’re being asked for is suitable and relevant.

For example, if you’re buying some books online, would it be appropriate for someone to ask you for your bank account details or your PPS number?

Check the Privacy Policy on the site to see what they’re going to do with any information they’re asking for that you are actually willing to give.

8.    If in doubt, don’t

At any point, if you’re not sure about what’s happening or what you’re seeing in front of you, stop.

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Product Warranties – more information

Last week, I wrote this post “How long is my purchase guaranteed for? 1 Year? 2 Years?” where I advised that European legislation now meant that in some situations, consumers could expect their consumer rights to last 2 years rather than the 1 year we mostly expect.

I received a follow up e-mail from the original reader which provided further information, and while my advice still stands, their situation is actually now somewhat different.

They bought the Sony Playstation in question from Virgin Megastores which since went out of business. It’s something we should all remember, but when we buy items from a retailer, our contract is with them and not the manufacturer of the item.

So, in this readers case, as Virgin Megastore went out of business, they were simply out of luck and there was no grounds for them to have their rights enforced.

The reader had contacted Sony directly and attempted to have their European 2 year rights enforced, but as Sony correctly pointed out, that 2 year period is only enforceable on the retailer, not the manufacturer.

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Government cuts – the government still don’t get how to go about it

This goings on in this article from the Irish Independent last week really frustrates me – TDs snub bid to cut minister pensions.

HALF of sitting TDs getting ministerial pensions have snubbed government attempts to get them to agree the amount their payments should be cut by.
The Department of Finance received replies from only 16 of 31 sitting Oireachtas members who still enjoy ministerial pensions after it wrote to them more than a month ago to seek agreement on a reduction. The others appear to have ignored the letter.

To be fair to anyone who’s been approached and asked to accept these cuts voluntarily, I’d have a little sympathy. At a certain point in time, it was deemed right and acceptable for the current situation to exist. An entitlement was created (as childrens allowance and over 70’s medical cards, and the old age pensions are entitlements) so to ask someone to give up their entitlement isn’t the way to get what you want.

As the government are trying to do with many other entitlements, they do have an option to remove them, as pointed out in the article:

In another embarrassing blow to his authority, Taoiseach Brian Cowen will now have to force through the pension cuts after failing to get the co-operation of some recipients.

But, as I pointed out before, these kinds of cuts are short term in nature and so small that they won’t have any major impact on our budget deficit this year, or any other year.

Such cuts are for show, and there’ll be a bigger show if the government did actually bring in legislation to make the cuts obligatory. But it’s all still show.

As I suggested here previously – why not do something constructive about this, and for the longer term:

Instead of cutting benefits for everyone in one go, why not cut the benefits for anyone who doesn’t have them at the moment? Remove the entitlements to benefits for anyone may in the future who expects to get something rather than taking it from someone who has it already.


To my mind, this is a simple way to get something accepted by the government without so much opposition, but I obviously accept that it’s a longer term thing. However, with less opposition at the time of making decisions in this way, it’s alternatively possible that they could make cuts across a wider range of areas in one go – without the piece meal tinkering about the edges they’ve been involved in for the past 6 months.

I see that since I originally composed this post, Brian Cowen has made his move on this and is proposing a 25% cut in pensions entitlement. Which just goes to show how pointless the cuts are in the first place. All for show!

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Useless quango reorganisations – Financial Regulator and National Consumer Agency

This story went up on the RTE website yesterday evening – Commission to replace Financial Regulator. The main point of the article is the planned realignment of the industry regulating responsibilities of the Financial Regulator back into the Central Bank (where it resided originally anyway).

However, of more interest to consumers will be the following statement:

The role of informing consumers, currently carried out by the Financial Regulator’s consumer director, will be transferred to the National Consumer Agency, which is being merged with the Competition Authority.

To a certain extent, I think that the principle of this move is to be welcomed. That is, that advice for consumers comes from a centralised organisation – rather than disparate organisations giving frequently overlapping advice to consumers which only serves to further confuse rather than clarify and inform.

But why not go further?

The National Consumer Agency doesn’t always prosecute when it comes to breaches of consumer legislation, but when it does, it names and shames.

The Financial Services Ombudsman does follow up and make judgements in favour of consumers, but they don’t release names of the offending businesses.

Why now, as well as amalgamating the information provision services, bring the consumer protection legislation enforcement responsibilities together into one place as well?

Throw the Financial Services Ombudsman into the mix proposed above, and provide one less place for consumers to have to worry about when it comes to knowing where to go to make their complaints.

That in itself would reduce much of the potential consumer confusion when it comes to who is actually supposed to look after their interests.

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More consumers helpless at the hands of negligent Bord Gais Energy and HSE

This week has seen two more instances of customer data losses by two more Irish organisations. These are the 12th and 13th incidences of data loss tracked in this running total I’m keeping – Who has lost their customers personal data?

The Health Service Executive (HSE) in Roscommon were the first to be outed. This is the 4th entry of the HSE on the list. According to this article:

Yesterday it was revealed that the Health Service Executive (HSE) and gardai were investigating the theft of 15 laptops in Roscommon town.

The HSE confirmed tonight that information on one unencrypted laptop contained sensitive details relating to a social worker’s case notes involving nine families.

The larger second incident affected Bord Gais Energy, and many of their new electricity customers. According to the same article:

A laptop containing the bank account details of 75,000 Bord Gais electricity customers has been stolen, it was revealed tonight.

The energy company confirmed that the laptop – which was not encrypted – was one of four taken during a burglary at its Dublin offices 12 days ago.

The usual questions have to be asked here – and unfortunately, many of us watching such data losses and data protection screw ups are tired of asking them.

While it’s understandable that a social worker would have case notes on a laptop, it’s ridiculous that the laptop wasn’t encrypted. Last September, the HSE was impacted in exactly the same way – this is the reporting from that occasion:

The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner said it is surprised that people still carry around laptops with sensitive information, which is not encrypted.

That’s 9 months ago. Why weren’t the remaining laptops in the HSE encrypted since then? I know there’s a lot of laptops in such a big organisation, but surely 9 months was enough time to protect them all.

The more egregious foul up here is that of Bord Gais Energy. There is no legitimate reason that would necessitate a company such as this to store the personal banking details of their customers on a laptop.

The fact that the laptop wasn’t encrypted compounds this balls up. And the fact that the laptop was stolen from inside their office doesn’t negate that fact. Any responsible company nowadays ensures that no sensitive data is stored on portable devices at all, and where this unavoidable, precautions are taken to ensure that devices are encrypted, and further, other measures can be taken to ensure such data is deleted either automatically or remotely.

I have a couple of serious concerns here.

Firstly, the Data Protection Commissioner was complicit with Bord Gais Energy here in keeping this data theft secret and leaving 75,000 customers hanging out to dry and left blissfully unaware that their bank details were in the hands of criminals.

Secondly, from the coverage that I heard on RTE Lunchtime news, it’s most likely that Bord Gais Energy are unlikely to get anything more than a slap on the wrists from the Data Protection Commissioner for this negligence. The DPC, who have been helpful to and our information requests in the past, are unfortunately doing the classic National Consumer Agency cop-out of “working with” Bord Gais Energy rather than actually defending the interests of consumers – the primarly purpose of DPC.

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Travel Insurance – shop around for the best value

Irish News of the World

May, 2009

Diarmuid MacShane

Travel Insurance

The past week has seen some dire warnings about the dangers of going abroad without being adequately covered by suitable travel insurance.

There have been horror stories about having to pay tens of thousands of euros in hospital costs for even something as simple as a broken arm.

While all the well known insurance companies will sell you travel insurances, and a number of specialists as well, there are a few tricks you should know that will save you money.

There are some credit cards, such as available from National Irish Bank, that provide you with free travel insurance on any holidays that you book and pay for using the card.

Watch out too for travel companies, such as James’ Villas, that will offer you free travel insurance when you book your holiday with them.

Finally, Quinn Direct offers its customers who already have car and health insurance the benefit of free travel insurance until the end of 2010.

While anything free is great, make sure though that you read the small print to make sure all eventualities are covered.

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