Minister Gopee-Scoon's address on the occasion of World Consumer Rights Day 2017
March 15, 2017: World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD) is observed annually on 15th March. This celebration is an occasion for solidarity within the international consumer environment as well as an opportunity to reinforce the rights and responsibilities of consumers; highlighting market injustices which may seek to undermine these rights. This year, Consumers International’s (CI) theme for World Consumer Rights Day is “Building a Digital World Consumers Can Trust”. The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), through the Consumer Affairs Division (CAD), incorporates the topic “Protecting Consumer Rights in the Digital World” into its ongoing consumer outreach and education initiative. This arm of the CAD’s education campaign focusses specifically on safeguarding consumer rights and interests in three (3) major areas relating to digital commerce while empowering the consumer to navigate the online arena carefully and responsibly.
In the present global environment, technology and knowledge bases are advancing at a rapid rate. Utilizing digital resources has transformed the way in which we communicate, innovate, create and even the way in which we consume what has been created. Social media, online forums, trading websites and online stores have given the modern consumer the benefit of increased access, choice and convenience. However, with this benefit, consumer- related risks associated with identity theft, lack of protection of sensitive information and other related privacy issues and unfair business conduct, by online merchants who remain relatively anonymous, have become very apparent. “Protecting Consumer Rights in the Digital World” is a tripartite approach that seeks to educate on three key issues potentially faced by consumers who engage in online commerce and offers guidelines on mitigating risks related to these identified issues. These three focus areas include:
- Access and Choice
- Online Security, and
Access and Choice
Purchasing goods from the comfort of one’s home is certainly more convenient than driving to a store, while offering a virtually unlimited array of choices and the opportunity to compare prices. Such is the allure of online commerce. However, there are various issues relating to this seemingly boundless plethora of goods. To address this focal area, the importance of making clear and informed purchasing choices, based on research and proper investigation, must be underscored. This includes the importance of checking online reviews and background information regarding merchants prior to purchase and thoroughly inspecting goods upon receipt; the need to examine and inquire about website purchasing, return and shipping policies, warranties, additional taxes and the use of this information in guiding consumer behaviour. This initiative issues an open challenge to all consumers to become more active and conscious actors in demanding value for money.
In respect of e-commerce and online use as a whole, security and privacy are paramount concerns. Measures to protect against identity theft, fraud and software corruption cannot be ignored. The MTI’s focus for WCRD seeks to address this issue through the reinforcement of safe internet practices and vigilance such as:
- Updating security software on all devices – particularly devices on which digital purchases are made;
- Avoiding the use of generic, singular passwords for all online accounts and profiles;
- Ensuring use of secure websites; and
- Being proactive and consistently reviewing credit card statements and issuing queries, in a timely manner, if discrepancies are observed.
The final focal area is that of redress. Often, consumers are faced with the anxiety of purchasing from foreign companies or the disappointment of not receiving the item as anticipated or in the desired condition. An informed, responsible and empowered consumer is a strong force with which to reckon. Knowledge of return and refund policies, prior to purchase, is important in order to refer to such policies when dialoguing with merchants.
In this very critical area, the Consumer Affairs Division (CAD) is seeking to improve on the available mechanisms for redress for consumers, including the digital consumer, through enhanced policy and legislation. A revised National Consumer Policy will address consumer wellbeing through enhanced consumer empowerment and protection. This will provide new enforcement options, sanctions and remedies that will allow the Division to safeguard consumers’ interests better in a dynamic and fluid environment.
It is important to bear in mind that for both local online merchants and social media businesses, the Consumer Affairs Division has made various avenues available where concerns can be heard and action undertaken. This can be done through the Division’s E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org, the Facebook Page and Consumer Protection hotline at 800-4277 and at the Division’s various offices.
Technology is a powerful, far- reaching tool with many benefits. As the Consumer Affairs Division seeks the best interest of consumers, I urge citizens to be informed, make full use of consumer protection services and seek redress where needed. The Ministry of Trade and Industry through the Consumer Affairs Division looks forward to continuing to be of service to the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, particularly our young people.