Getting help from CAP

What happens when you complain to Consumers Association of Penang (CAP)? The issue could be about anything, from poor quality products or services to tenancy or pollution. What action can CAP take?
On noting down your complaint, the staff of the Complaints Section will investigate your problem. They might be able to give you an opinion on the merits of your case or suggest an argument or approach that you have not thought of. If necessary, they will act on your behalf to press the other party for redress, compensation or for better services.

Since CAP started in 1969, with only one staff member, a typewriter on a table with a few chairs in borrowed premises, its consumer protection activities have grown tremendously. In 1972 the number of complaints received was 55.

In 2009 the Complaints Section staff were kept busy attending to 1,403 new complaints, not to mention the many  files carried forward from the previous years as some cases took more than one, two or even three years to settle. There were cases where complainants were advised to refer to the Consumer Claims Tribunal, Small Claims Court or were advised to engage a lawyer. There were also 1,779 telephone calls from the public seeking CAP’s advice and making enquiries on the progress of cases handled by CAP.

The list below shows some of the types of complaints received by CAP through the years:

  •   Public service: telephone bills, promotions and billings by handphone companies, IWK charges, public transport, drains, local authorities, police;
  •   Contractual/guarantee/shares: problems faced by guarantors of loans, termination of membership of timeshare companies, delay in refund of money from shares in co-operatives and other general  problems with cooperative loans , salary deductions for phantom loans;
  •   Housing: late delivery, defects, abandoned projects, interest on loans, strata titles, maintenance fees,  sinking funds, booking fees and non-compliance with Tribunal awards;
  •   Insurance: delays in getting claims, non-disclosure, rejection of claims, cancellation of annuities and misappropriation of premiums;
  •   Labour/employment: unfair termination, termination benefits, foreign workers, breach of contract;
  •   Motor vehicles: car defects, late delivery, false registration, car dealers;
  •   Financial institutions: phantom ATM withdrawals, high fees ,credit cards, service charges, mortgage reducing term assurance (for housing loans), problems with properties bought on auctions, transfer of loan accounts to third parties;
  •   Professional services: negligence, breach of contract, unethical conduct, fees and charges;
  •   Direct selling: fly-by-night companies, bogus lucky draws, cooling-off periods, agents absconding with payments;
  •   Environmental issues: air pollution, factories set up in residential areas;
  •   Food: contaminated food, lapsed shelf-life, foreign matter in food;
  •   Correspondence courses/private institutions: delay in fee refunds, non-receipt of certificates;
  •   Tours and travel: tour not conducted according to itinerary, poor quality accommodation, lost or damaged luggage, charges and services provided by express buses;
  •   Land: delay in transfer/subdivision/issuing land title, low compensation by government in compulsory compensation cases;
  •   Hire-purchase: signing blank agreements, repossessions, forged signatures, higher prices than quoted in agreement;
  •   Miscellaneous: problems with get-rich quick schemes, tenancy, pawnshops, mail orders, money lenders and bogus investments.

Through complaints received and handled we see more clearly the deficiencies or strength of the laws. For example, when there is one complaint about a defect in a product, it could just be an isolated case where we seek redress for the complainant. But if we receive many complaints about the same product, something is obviously wrong with the system. In such a situation, besides seeking redress, we also proceed further, for example, by writing to the relevant authorities asking for a ban or a change in the legislation, or by publicising the issue.

So CAP’s approach is basically two-pronged: We seek to resolve consumer complaints by helping consumers to help themselves. At the same time we look beyond the issue of resolving complaints by fighting for better consumer rights and legislation. We also propose amendments to laws or introduction of new laws where there is a need. For example, there is a dire need for an Unfair Contract Terms Act but the government is sitll dragging its feet.

Seeking redress

Even though CAP handles consumer complaints on an individual basis, we encourage groups or communities with common grouses to come together to solve their problems. Our reasoning is that one consumer’s dissatisfied voice can be easily dismissed but a chorus of discontented voices in unison cannot be ignored. It could be a group of neighbours affected by pollution from a nearby backyard factory or a community of affected fisherfolk, estate workers, farmers or villagers.

So besides representing the individual consumer, we help communities, especially those in the rural areas, articulate problems affecting their livelihood and living conditions by providing counselling, education programmes and legal advice.

CAP’s work in these situations usually begins with a request from the locals to help with a community crisis. It could be pollution from a nearby factory killing their crops or catch; lack of basic facilities like piped water or electricity; or a development scheme driving them off the land. CAP’s Rural Section staff will help the community to organise themselves, for example, into an action committee headed by local leaders. In getting the people to present their grievances and problems to the authorities, CAP will help them prepare surveys, collect evidence and write the petition. We will help arrange for meetings with government authorities and companies concerned, and prepare for briefings and interviews with the press.

Sometimes in the process of seeking redress, legal action becomes a necessity. Until last year, there was a CAP’s Legal Centre working closely with the Complaints and Rural Sections is, which provides legal advice and representation to complainants. This Centre handled public interest cases and represented individuals and communities in need of legal assistance but who were unable to afford the heavy legal fees. One example is the Legal Centre’s victory in its application to stop moneylenders from using the small claims procedure in the magistrates’ court to collect debts. This case is an important victory for the public because until then moneylenders had been using the small claims procedure to sue borrowers as it incurs less cost, time and hassle.

At the same time CAP helps publicise consumer rights issues by holding press conferences. We also send many press releases and letters to national newspapers, both on issues relating to individual complainants and on issues arising from our own research. We also publicise the issues in our own newspaper, Utusan Konsumer (in four languages), and in books, pamphlets and posters.

An example of CAP’s success in campaigning for and publicising issues is in the area of pyramid-selling and direct sales. Since 1976 we have regularly highlighted cases of consumers being cheated in these get-rich-quick schemes. Our efforts finally paid off when the then Ministry of Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs (now known as the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Co-operatives and Consumerism) moved to protect consumers with the Direct Sales Act 1993 and the Consumer Protection Act 1999.

Looking beyond the complaints

CAP is not content with just winning redress nor do we stop at obtaining satisfactory results in consumer complaints. We take the matter of public interest further by lobbying for better consumer laws and government policies, and for better enforcement of existing consumer legislation. The process is long and arduous and often takes many years but our efforts have not been fruitless. Better laws are introduced as in the case of direct sales. But sometimes such action doesn’t take so long to bear fruit. For instance, legislation to control pawnbrokers swindling their debt-ridden customers came two years after CAP’s first appeal to the government. Legislation protecting the country’s environment and controlling pollution from palm oil mills and rubber factories also came after two years of CAP’s lobbying.

CAP also pushes for legislative changes and enforcement of rights by lobbying and by publicising issues. In-depth and on-going studies of important issues, which draw on raw data obtained from complaints received by CAP and the results of tests and surveys, are written up in memoranda and reports. They are then submitted to the authorities concerned, arguing for legislative changes. In this, CAP has succeeded to a remarkable degree.

Some products reported by CAP to be harmful have been withdrawn and banned. For example in 1986, the Drug Control Authority of the Ministry of Health banned or restricted the sale of pharmaceutical drugs like dipyrone, amidopyrine, pizotifen, oxyphenbutazone, chloroform, antipyrine, phenacetin, cyproheptadine, and stanozolol. The following year, a few more were banned or restricted. This was done after CAP sent the Health Ministry detailed reports on the toxicity of these drugs.

More recently, the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Co-operatives and Consumerism announced that the Hire-Purchase Act 1967 will be amended so that  banks or  motor credit companies need to get a court order in order to repossess a vehicle if  more than one-third of the monthly instalments have already  been made.  This is what CAP has recommended for many years.

CAP’s increased participation in high level policy-making activities means more dialogues with the authorities. Thus our policy recommendations are seriously considered. Through these activities CAP acts as a pressure on government authorities to establish and enforce better laws affecting consumers.

For example between 2000 and 2003, CAP actively contributed to the formulation of the proposed “General Consumer Code of Practice for Communications and Multimedia Industry.” As of today CAP is also involved in the revision of the very same Code.

To sum up, the rationale behind all of CAP’s activities is based on the concept “value for people”. As an organisation oriented toward social reform and consumer protection, CAP sees itself as an effective means and channel through which the individual and the community are able to exercise their rights to fight business malpractices, to press for fair and better services from both the public and private sectors, as well as to demand protection of these rights from the authorities.

CAP can help you, especially if you are from the disadvantaged or poorer section of society, if you cannot afford legal services, and if you are not articulate or confident enough to handle grievances on your own.

What are your rights?

You may not be aware of it but there‘s a wide range of laws to protect you, the consumer, from getting a bad deal. We look at some of the existing laws relevant to you in various aspects of your life — when you buy a product or a food item; when you buy something bigger like a house or a car on hire-purchase or insurance; when you contract a service, consult a professional like a lawyer or doctor, go on a holiday tour; when you rent a room or use public transport; when you get or leave a job; or if you have a neighbour who has converted his house into a noisy, dirty shop or factory.

While these laws provide the consumer with some protection, there are certain areas which are not well-regulated, giving the consumer few, if not no rights at all. In case of malpractice — for instance, in banking involving automated teller machines (ATMs) or in tenancy.