SINGAPORE: Complaints against the travel industry topped the list of consumer woes amid the COVID-19 pandemic last year, according to data released by the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) on Monday (May 31).
CASE received a total of 18,335 complaints across all industries last year, a 23 per cent jump from the 14,867 complaints the previous year.
The pandemic has "reshaped" the composition of consumer complaints, said the association, with about one in seven complaints last year related to it.
The biggest impact was felt in the travel and airline industries, with two out of five complaints in these industries stemming from COVID-19 travel restrictions, said CASE.
Travel businesses received a total of 1,800 complaints, more than three times the amount the previous year.
The airlines, medical consumables, clubs and hotels industries also saw sharp increases in complaints, said CASE.
Reports against the beauty, motorcars and renovation contractors industries dropped slightly due to pandemic restrictions, but these remain priority areas, it added.
With more people turning to online shopping and digital transactions last year, the number of complaints related to online purchases jumped 95 per cent to reach 4,366 last year, added CASE.
The most common e-commerce complaints were related to defective or non-conforming goods, and delayed deliveries or missing products, it said.
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TRAVEL AND FLIGHT BOOKINGS
The travel and airline industries received about 50 per cent of all pandemic-related complaints, said CASE.
People who cancelled or postponed tour packages, flights or hotel bookings due to global travel restrictions complained that they were unable to get back their deposits or prepayments.
Some were charged a penalty or administrative fee for postponing their trips, while others were given travel vouchers to be used at a later date instead of a cash refund.
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CASE said it assisted affected consumers by leveraging the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020, which provides them with temporary relief from contractual obligations to be performed on or after Feb 1, 2020, for contracts entered into or renewed before Mar 25, 2020.
For disputes with travel agents and hotels that CASE could not resolve, it guided consumers to file cases with an assessor from the Ministry of Law, also provided for under the Act.
The association said it approached airlines that received a higher number of complaints to urge them to offer flexibility in the use of travel vouchers, and the right of reimbursement if travel vouchers are not used.
CASE said it also engaged two local travel associations to urge their members to offer consumers a full refund for prepayments made for tour packages.
In total, CASE helped consumers recover more than S$300,000 in prepayments from airlines, travel agencies and travel portals, it added.
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Gyms and fitness studios received 356 complaints last year – a 91 per cent increase over the previous year – amid COVID-19 restrictions on these businesses.
People with prepaid memberships sought CASE's help to obtain an extension or partial refund as they were unable to use the facilities when gyms and fitness studios shut for a few months last year, said the association.
Gyms and fitness studios were not allowed to operate from April to June last year, during the "circuit breaker" and Phase 1 of reopening.
Consumers also found it difficult to book their preferred exercise slots due to capacity reduction in line with safe distancing measures, and sought a full or partial refund on their memberships, said CASE.
The bridal, hotels and restaurants industries received 169 pandemic-related complaints last year. Many people who were unable or did not wish to proceed with event bookings due to the circuit breaker and phased reopening measures faced difficulty getting back their deposits, said CASE.
Some bridal salons and hotels were only willing to postpone the date of the event or cited clauses claiming that bookings made are non-refundable, added the association.
CASE said consumers recovered more than S$97,000 worth of prepayments from their event contracts with its assistance.
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The medical and medical consumables industry received 1,256 complaints last year, of which at least 813 were in relation to medical consumables. Consumers generally complained about the pricing of face masks, hand sanitisers and other related consumables, said CASE.
Some consumers also said they were misled about the quality or efficacy of face and surgical masks.
CASE said it worked closely with the Ministry of Trade and Industry and Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore to monitor and flag profiteering behaviour and unfair practices.
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BEAUTY AND CARS
Complaints against the beauty industry and motorcars industry dropped to 1,363 and 1,180 respectively last year. This was likely due to the closure of non-essential businesses during the circuit breaker, said CASE.
About one-third of complaints lodged against beauty businesses were related to unfair practices such as aggressive sales tactics.
Some consumers complained that they were led to believe they were paying promotional prices for beauty treatments, but were subsequently pressured to purchase higher-end treatments at higher prices, said CASE.
Responding to complaints, CASE signed voluntary compliance agreements with three beauty salons that committed to cease unfair practices.
In the motorcars industry, about 36 per cent of complaints were related to defective vehicles. They generally involved consumers discovering defects in the car after purchase and seeking recourse from the dealers to no avail.
CASE said it rolled out an online campaign encouraging consumers to send their pre-owned vehicles for independent evaluation before making a purchase, and to educate consumers on their recourse under the Lemon Law.
Of the total complaints received across all industries last year, consumers were given advice on how to follow up directly with businesses in 87.4 per cent of instances, said CASE.
The remaining 12.6 per cent were filed with CASE, and involved the association negotiating or mediating with the businesses on behalf of consumers.
About 70 per cent of filed cases were resolved, with nearly S$2.8 million in cash and in kind recovered for consumers.
With COVID-19 drastically changing the consumer landscape, CASE will "strive to be relevant and respond to the needs of consumers on the ground in these challenging times", said CASE President Lim Biow Chuan.
"Given the shift in consumer shopping behaviour, CASE will continue to do more to educate consumers on how to protect themselves should purchases go awry."