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Consumers Need More Information During a Data Breach – Necessary Consumer Protection Legislation (5 of 5)

Consumers Need More Information During a Data Breach – Necessary Consumer Protection LegislationThis is the last in my series of 5 blog posts about some extensive changes proposed for consumer rights legislation announced by Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mr. Richard Bruton, TD back in May 2015. The 4 earlier posts were as follows:

This final post is slightly tangential to the proposed legislative changes, but is inspired by the consumer information gaps I highlighted in the most recent post, (title).

In that post, I highlighted that in the spirit of facilitating better purchasing decisions through the provision of better information, it is my view that any contract change notifications should tell customers not only what the new contract terms were, but also what the previous terms were as well.

By clearly and promptly providing giving this information to consumers, businesses would be giving enough information to allow consumers decide how they want to act in light of the new information – i.e. the amended contractual terms.

Extend to That Information Imperative

It’s my view that a similar change should be applied within data protection legislation in Ireland. It should be required of any organisation that is impacted by a data protection issue – a breach, a leak, any kind of data screw-up – should be mandated to contact ALL their customers after any incident. Currently, only those directly impacted (supposedly) by such a data protection issue could be contacted after a data protection breach.

I believe that a mandate on businesses and organisations to provide a wider communication should indicate to each customer whether they have been impacted, they definitely haven’t been impacted, or whether it’s not known yet one way or the other.

Assuming any current communications to impacted customers gives times and dates of any impact, and the data impacted, then this additional information would either put some customers on notice that they may still be impacted, or would provide ease of mind to customers who definitely weren’t interested.

Assumption Contact Would Be Made

I should add in here, the above paragraph assume that the impacted business or organisation would actually be making contact with any of their customers that are impacted by a data breach.

This is actually a big leap, since the Data Protection Commissioner, in their “Breach Notification Guide”, merely required:

that data controllers who have experienced an incident giving rise to a risk of unauthorised disclosure, loss, destruction or alteration of personal data must give immediate consideration to notifying the affected data subjects

Ridiculously, the business or organisation impacted could very well “consider” contacting the impacted customers, but actually decide not to bother contacting them at all.

Remove Uncertainty

So, mandating that contact be made – and to all customers, and not just those impacted – would certainly remove the unnecessary uncertainty the exists currently when a data protection breach is publicised. Frequently, when a data protection breach is identified by a company, where the breach becomes public, there is for a period of time an information vacuum where customers of the business don’t actually know what’s going on.

They’ll know there’s been a breach, but they won’t be told whether they HAVE or HAVE NOT been impacted, and in the absence of this confirmation, they can’t take any definitive action to protect themselves.

While I acknowledge that they can take certain protective, or preventative, measures – i.e. monitor their matters more closely, they don’t know whether they need to start cancelling cards, or closing accounts, or any other definitive protection measures.

Even the current requirement where impacted customers are mandated to be contacted can give rise to uncertainty. Imagine your bank is impacted by a data breach, it’s gone public, and they’ve confirmed they’ll contact impacted people as soon as possible.

You don’t hear from your back after a week. Does that mean you’re not impacted? Does that mean you are impacted but they just haven’t gotten around to contacting you? Or does it mean you’re not impacted at all?

A requirement to contact every customer of an impacted business or organisation would significantly improve the lot of consumers / customers.

Invidious Information Gap

The current solution to this information gap is where a special customer service helpline is provided by the impacted business or organisation where their customers can ring in to ask if they’re impacted by the incident.

This then crosses into a separate area of interest for me – the provision of 1890, 1850 and 0818 contact numbers by most businesses and organisations.

These contact numbers, for those who need to find out if they’re impacted it or not, and call from a mobile (let’s face it, pretty much everyone now) cost more than they should, and minutes on such calls are not deducted from mobile minute bundles.

So, not only might a customer be impacted by a data breach, or even if they’re not, they’re additionally impacted financially by having to pay out of pocket for the phone call made to try to find out if they’re actually impacted at all.

Profiting from a Breach?

This financial impact could be even more galling, if, like SuperValu did a number of years ago, the contact number provided is an 0818 phone number rather than an 1890 or 1850 number (they eventually provided a non-0818 number, but only after the initial panic died down).

It is possible that the business or organisation who is providing an 0818 number will actually earn money on the back of each call a customer would make to that number. So, the longer you’re on hold, or kept talking on a call to an 0818 number, the more money the organisation you’re calling is making.

(This is why, for example, most high profile organisations who provide 0818 contact numbers will make it difficult to find geographic alternative numbers. It would impact their earnings from their telephone calls).

Mandating that impacted organisations contact all their customers would remove the need for these phone calls. I will come back to this topic later on on my SayNoTo1890.com website.

No big deal

As I said in my other post, it’s not like most organisations that we deal with today don’t already have our phone number, or our e-mail address, stored somewhere in their systems.

It is also quite likely that they have a comprehensive marketing platform in place, that assuming we let them, would pump out marketing blurb to us on a regular basis to try to get more and more of our business.

It would take very little for these organsiations then to arrange communications to all their clients to give them an update. They have to do It anyway for impacted customers, so it’s not a big leap to send a different message to the remaining customers to assure them there’s no impact.


More communication of more information to consumers is required – Consumer Protection Legislation (4 of 5)

Consumer Protection Legislation – more communication of more information to consumers is requiredThree recent posts here on ValueIreland.com have covered some extensive changes to consumer rights legislation announced by Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mr. Richard Bruton, TD back in May 2015.

As I’ve written about already, some of the proposals could be enormously positive for consumers, while some are simply populist nonsense and won’t really be of much benefit to consumers. The last topic from the proposals that I’ll cover in this blog post is referenced in the department press release above under the heading of “Information rights”.

GP Price Lists

In short, the proposals here will give consumers new rights to information prior to engaging in certain transactions, such as healthcare (e.g. GP services), social services, and gambling. The headline proposed change in this section is the requirement that price information for GPs and other medical consultations would be displayed clearly for consumers.

As I said in my original post, this can’t be argued with, though in a world where consumers should first and foremost be looking after their own interests, have we completely lost the ability to ask up front what the charges would be?

And while we’re all used to sometimes casually walking around a new town or city perusing the menus of restaurants prior deciding where to have dinner, I can’t really see that consumers in need of medical assistance would be acting in a similar fashion.

It is, however, within this section of the proposed legislation that I think is the biggest gap exists.

Information Gap

I’m sure most people are aware of the different newspaper adverts they might sometimes see indicating that particular service providers have changed certain terms and conditions of services they provide to consumers under contract.

So, a bank will indicate that they are now charging new interest rates, or a phone company is charging a new rate to make phone calls, send text messages or access the internet, or a TV company is changing their charges for their subscription packages.

These companies are obliged by law to provide notice to their customers when the terms of their contracts are changing.

However, in the world of information and communications in which we live today, this manner of notifying customers is hugely insufficient in two ways:

1. Very few customers see these notices

The first problem here is that such notices are not guaranteed to reach all of the customers who would be impacted by the change in contract conditions. This is particularly relevant given that the numbers of people reading newspapers is declining year after year, and given that these are adverts and not news articles, the information is not available via online newspaper editions.

Additionally, while the information may additionally be made available on the websites of the companies concerned, that would expect customers to regularly review the websites on the off-chance that something might change.

Only a cynic (eh, me!) would suggest that companies would actually prefer to keep this current mode of customer notification in place given the relatively small chance that customers would actually find out about the changes (unless it happens to be picked up as a news story as would happen in some cases), or wouldn’t find out about the changes in sufficient time to actually react.

2. Insufficient Information

The second problem I see with this method of information customers is that it doesn’t actually provide sufficient information to allow consumers do anything with the information provided in many cases.

The legislation requiring these notices be published in newspapers has been drafted and understood through implementation to mean that the companies impacted will only ever provide the NEW values – so, the new charges or the new interest rates.

Apart from on some rare occasions, there is no information provided in these notices as to what the value was previously, and what the actual change being made is, to allow the consumer decide whether they’re happy to accept the change or whether they want to take their business elsewhere.

So, for example, a bank announces that their interest rate – via such a newspaper article – is 0.1%. But what does that actually mean – and depending on the previous rate (e.g. either 0.2% or 0.05%) it could either be good or bad for the consumer.

There is simply not enough information to allow consumers decide what to do (as the VI slogan says, better purchasing decisions through better information).

What is needed?

The simple answer to the “insufficient information” issue is to require that these publicised notices will provide the consumer with a view of the “before” and “after” situation, and even, as is required in some financial services advertising, a specific explanation of the impact to the consumers. For example, “you will pay €60 more per year for your TV service”,  or “for every €100 saved, you will earn €5 less interest per year”.

Virgin Media does inform all customers of contract price changes

Virgin Media does inform all customers of contract price changes

Notwithstanding those proposals, it is in addressing the first issue of not sufficient numbers of customers being actually informed of the changes that more needs to be done. Though, as the snippet here shows, some are better than others – though, even they could improve as proposed below.

It is most likely that all the organisations that we deal with today have our phone number, or our e-mail address. It is also quite likely that they have a comprehensive marketing platform in place, that assuming we let them, would pump out marketing blurb to us on a regular basis to try to get more and more of our business.

It should be required now that these notifications of changes in contract terms and conditions should be delivered directly to each consumer who is a customer of these organisations. This is something that could be easily done, and in the long run, as well as being better for the consumer would be more cost efficient for the organisations concerned.

In the event of price increases impacting people already within contracts, there is a 2 month period in which consumers can opt to exit their contract – this has to be facilitated by the service provider. This could be facilitated simply via a link in any communication sent out.

New Form of Communication

So, the communication to the customer could be, “We’re increasing our prices, and you’ll pay €60 extra now per year for your TV. You can click here to cancel your contract within 30 days.”

Obviously, businesses are unlikely to make it as simple for people to cancel their contracts unless such an onus is put on them (which it should). On the other hand however, with a bit of thought from those more proficient in marketing than me, such a communication – even if it’s communicating the bad news of a price increase – could even be used to try to sell even more to the consumer.

Instead then, the communication to the customer could be, “We’re increasing our prices, and you’ll pay €60 extra now per year for your TV. You can click here to cancel your contract within 30 days. Or click here to avail of 2 months free if you sign up for a new 18 month contract.”

The key, however, is that with these new information requirement proposals, all impacted consumers would be given the information they need, in an efficient and timely manner, to allow them assess the impact of any contract changes that might be subjected to.

Finally, my last post in this series will cover an issue that’s been bugging me for a while, with a suggestion for how the information communication proposals presented above should also be expanded into data protection legislation for the benefit of consumer protection.


Proposed 30 Day Refund Period is good for consumers – New Consumer Protection Legislation (3 of 5)

Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation makes positive suggestion about automatic 30 day refund periodI wrote here last time (Consumer Protection Legislation – gift voucher proposals not worth the effort) out about my initial thoughts on the proposed consumer rights legislation put forward by Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mr. Richard Bruton, TD in May 2015. As I said in that article, I’m not 100% convinced that the gift voucher proposals have any worthwhile merit apart from their headline grabbing capacity. These headlines are from around the time of the original announcement back then:

The proposals do, however, contain some other positive and far-reaching changes that would impact on the day-to-day purchasing activities of Irish consumers, yet it’s only the voucher changes that generate the column inches.

30 Day Refund Period

This proposal will provide for a a standard 30 day period in which consumers can return faulty goods and get a full refund or replacement – their own choice.

The current hazy legislation, an amalgam of different acts going as far back as 1893, provides for a remedy for consumers where products are not of “merchantable quality”. The remedy from the retailer can be a choice of “refund, repair, replace”, but the chosen remedy is left to the retailer to decide, rather than the consumer.

It is claimed further that if enacted, these proposals would more clearly define for all concerned what the expected standard of “satisfactory quality” purchased goods would have to meet. Apparently, the Supreme Court has described the standard of “merchantable quality” as “archaic and somewhat mysterious” – something that most consumers who have tried to return faulty goods will confirm.

The definition, however, of a standard 30 day period after purchase within which consumers would have the right to themselves choose their own remedy having purchased goods that turn out to be faulty, or not of “satisfactory quality” is likely to have the greatest benefit for consumers.

Retailer Push Back

And, as mentioned previously, it’s also, probably, going to cause the biggest push-back from retailers as well. Now, instead of it being up to the retailer to decide the remedy, the consumers will decide.

Let’s face it: the current situation is a complete joke when it comes to protecting the consumer. The existing legislation provides for retailers to run through the following (possibly somewhat cynically presented) steps to avoid having to deal with consumers and their defective purchases:

  • Plan A – They’ll firstly do anything possible to do nothing at all, including ignoring complaints, insisting that the product isn’t actually broken, insisting that consumers deal instead with the manufacturer, incorrectly insist on receipt as only proof of purchase, or even insist that their returns policy doesn’t apply in this case.
  • Plan B – When confronted with having to do something, they’ll almost always plump for the “repair” option rather than replace or refund. The repair will take weeks, frequently without a like for like replacement product in the meantime. Frequently, the first repair won’t be successful and so is followed by a longer repair period, trying desperately to bring the consumer to the point of giving up.

It has been my experience, as it has I’m sure with many others, that actually getting a retailer to commit to a refund or replacement is far harder work for a consumer than it ever should be.

Hopefully, this new proposal – if it does go ahead – will vastly improve the consumer experience for many of us.

Problems – I see a couple

Unfortunately, outside of this new 30 day limit, the options seem to remain relatively hazy. The Department press release indicates that outside the 30 day limit, consumers have the right to repair or replacement, and if repairs after “a reasonable time” are still unsuccessful, then the consumer is entitled to a price reduction (to keep the item), or a return the funds to get a full refund.

Who gets to define “a reasonable time”? Is 4 weeks a reasonable time to fix a mobile phone, for example, if Samsung can actually ship 2 ½ million phones each day in that period?

The passage of time is a problem within the currently legislation, and outside of the initial 30 day period, this new legislation doesn’t seem to improve on the current situation.

Additionally, a new “out” is now available to retailers to try to frustrate the consumer getting to their normally ultimate aim of a full refund and return of the item.

Therefore, it will be interesting to see how this “out” – the proposed new “price reduction” option will work out. How faulty does a product need to be for this option to NOT kick in? And if it’s partially faulty, how partial will the refund be?

Back to the phone analogy, if a smartphone won’t access the internet, but makes calls, would this entitle the consumer to a 20% discount or an 80% discount (shouldn’t it be 80% given that internet access on a smartphone is now vital?).

In my next blog post, I’ll look in more detail at the proposals around the provision of information to consumers, and their rights to receive certain information in certain situations.


Gift voucher proposals not worth the effort – New Consumer Protection Legislation (2 of 5)

Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has proposed some useless changes to consumer legislation around vouchersIn my summary blog post recently (Consumer Protection Legislation – some good but some pointless changes proposed) about the May 2015 announcement of some extensive changes to consumer rights legislation announced by Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mr. Richard Bruton, TD, I noted that I expected that the greatest impact for consumers would be those impacting gift vouchers and the 30 day refund period for faulty products.

And not by accident, those changes would likely have the biggest impact on retailers, endangering their enactment at all.

30 Day Refund

For me, of most interest proposal which will provide for a standard 30 day period in which consumers can return faulty goods and get a full refund. This would be huge for consumers if it was to be enacted – the current hazy legislation regarding “refund, repair, replace” which leaves it down to the retailer to decide which remedy to apply, and over an undetermined time period, is probably one of the biggest bugbears and cause for confusion among consumers.

It will be interesting to see if this does go through as it likely to be rigorously opposed by retailers who hide behind the existing repair / replace options within consumer legislation to ensure they never have to return money to consumers for crappy products.

It is likely also to generate some comic conversations where within 30 days of purchase, retailers will try to justify how a clearly broken product is in fact operating exactly as it should.

Your smartphone won’t connect to the mobile network? Well, that’s the new thing – this is actually really supposed to be viewed as a Wi-Fi phone. Yes, that’s right, there are the Wi-Fi tablets already, so obviously the next step is Wi-Fi phones.

Developments and progress towards implementing the proposals here, and whether or not they’ll eventually be watered down before passing into law, will be worth monitoring.

Rights by Proxy

The new proposals includes somewhat innovative clause that would allow consumers who receive products or services as a gift be entitled to the same rights as if they bought the product or service themselves.

When I say innovative, maybe I should have said “makey uppey”. I’ve no legal background but I’m not sure that creating such a right by proxy would be very easily achieved.

More importantly, I’m not sure we really need such a new right to be provided to gift recipients. Existing consumer rights can handle such scenarios perfectly well without providing such rights by proxy.

Gift Voucher Changes

As I mentioned in my original blog post, I think these are mainly included in the proposals for their headline grabbing capacity, and the proposal is largely futile in its wish to ban expiry dates for gift cards and vouchers.

Regular readers here will know that I’m not a fan of gift cards and vouchers. You can read here my thoughts on why you should avoid gifts vouchers and instead, gifts could and should be much better thought out rather than plumping for the gift voucher catch-all.

I accept that, yes, this new legislation will remove the danger of voucher expiry from that list of dangers, but many other will still remain – and many cannot be mitigated through legislation.

Buyer should still always beware

The Irish Examiner Survey Says 46% of consumers don't check voucher termsAs in most things, the first line of protection for the consumer is the consumer themselves – which was always the case anyway when it came to expired vouchers. This article from the Irish Examiner [Survey: 46% do not check gift card conditions] highlights research carried out on behalf of the National Consumer Agency (NCA) [now the Competition & Consumer Protection Commission (CPCC)] which indicates that almost half of people receiving vouchers or gift cards as Christmas presents do not check the conditions of use.

Worse, consumers in many cases won’t even use their gift vouchers, never mind read the terms and conditions. According to estimates in this US article [1$billion in gift cards goes unredeemed], at least in 2007 up to 10% of all gift vouchers purchased were never redeemed. Whereas this article [Half of us have left gift vouchers expire] tells us that further National Consumer Agency (NCA) research has found that 48% of Irish people let gift vouchers and cards expire.

If consumers in general were to read the terms and conditions of their vouchers, and were to actually follow up and spend those vouchers in a timely manner, then we’d have no need for this legislation. In fact, in this view, even the vice-chairman of the Consumers Association of Ireland (Mr. Michael Kilcoyne) and myself are in agreement. In a recent article, Mr. Kilcoyne is quoted as saying:

But all the legislation in the world is no use if we, as consumers, don’t shop around and get the best deal for ourselves.

Rare wise and useful words. Next up, I’ll write a little more on what I think would be potentially the most beneficial proposal for Irish consumers – the automatic right to a refund within 30 days of purchase for faulty products.


Does CAI mean “can’t agree internally” or “confused and incoherent”?

The Consumers Association of Ireland (CAI), which we found out in Mondays Pricewatch is in terminal decline now seems to not even be able to co-ordinate their pithy soundbites for the media. You’d think that €60,000+ in government grants from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment could at least have funded a couple of mobile phones between them.

I mentioned earlier today that the Tánaiste, Mary Coughlan, had mentioned the possibility of bringing back price controls on Sunday.

First up from the CAI spokespeople was Dermott Jewell, the Chief Executive, quoted in this article from yesterdays Irish Independent, who said:

Price control was the last thing consumers needed, especially in a recession. “Once that happens competition goes out the window,” he said. “When that happens all prices find the one level at whatever is the highest possible price.”

Then, later on in the evening, on The Last Word with Matt Cooper on TodayFM, Michael Kilcoyne, the vice-chairman of the Association had the absolute complete opposite to say:

Well, I think that there is merit in the suggestion and it certainly should be examined. It’s an issue that I have raised on a number of occasions in the past. There is no justification for example for why some product should be up to 30% more expensive in the Republic of Ireland than it is in Northern Ireland. It quite simply is greed and a rip off.
Well, price controls would work, for example, where there’s a maximum price imposed on something. For example, it seems to me to make great sense that when you transfer the rate in sterling to euro and maybe allow a margin for fluctuations that it shouldn’t be any more than a difference of 2 or 3% rather than in some cases up to 30 or 40%.
What has happened is there are huge prices, that we all see evidence of great rip offs. There should be in some cases be a maximum price. There is no doubt about that. While the Tánaiste in the past has refused to consider that, I think that it’s one of the things that has to be considered.

So, one for and one against amongst the jokers at the Consumers Association of Ireland. Just as well the government isn’t trying to save money anywhere at the moment!!!


Consumers of Ireland – come together for the cause!

Are you a member of the Consumer Association of Ireland? Are you planning on going along to the Annual General Meeting of the Consumer Association of Ireland on October 30th in the Burlington Hotel at 1pm (not the Mansion House as originally advertised in the September edition of the Associations magazine, Consumer Choice).

As an Association member, council member, and a director of the Consumer Association of Ireland, I’ll be there. As will all the other directors and council members of the Association, including the Chairman James Doorley, the vice-Chairman Michael Kilcoyne and Chief Executive Dermott Jewell. You’ll get to hear speeches from Messrs. Doorley & Jewell letting you know about the activities and successes of the Association over the past 12 months.

If you are a paid up member, come along and ask not what you can do for your Association, but ask what your Association did for you during 2008 with your €91 membership and the approximate €60,000 annual grant received from the Department of Enterprise Trade, and Employment (€63,000 in 2004 for example)?

Come along and find out if you are getting value for money from your Consumer Association? As well as producing your 12 monthly editions of the Consumer Choice magazine, did you know that the Consumer Association of Ireland represents its members interests on upwards of 25 different other organisations? From the Financial Regulator to ComReg, from the Taxi Regulator to An Bord Bia, the Consumer Association of Ireland is attending meetings, fighting the good fight, on your behalf. Come along to the AGM and ask about the value of this representation?

Since I joined the Association, the turnout at these AGMs has been very low – no more than 30 people attended last year for example. Let’s change things this year – if you’re a member, please try to come along. If you know someone who is a member, please forward them this link and ask them to go along. It would be great to see as many members as possible there this year.

It’s your Association. You’re paying for it to exist – through your membership and your taxes. Take an interest in what’s going on and come along and get involved. Make sure you’re getting value for your money from your Consumer Association.


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