Thanh Nien Daily, Vietnam, November 24, 2008

Local buyers need to collect evidence and officially report their complaints if they want to challenge businesses that rip people off, said consumer advocates.

General secretary of the Vietnam Standards and Consumers Association Do Gia Phan said local consumers have rights, they’re just unaware of them.

The group’s deputy chairman Ho Tat Thang said his association can file lawsuits against companies that employ unfair practices.

But he said greedy and irresponsible traders are rarely brought to court because consumers who complain about getting cheated fail to provide even the simplest of evidence, such as a receipt.

He said Vietnam had laws that could force firms to compensate consumers they swindle by overcharging, mislabeling or selling counterfeit goods.

But he said the association couldn’t spend time chasing lawsuits without evidence.

An August survey by the association showed that only 41 percent of consumers in 10 cities and provinces were fully aware of their rights while half believed it was the job of the government or watchdog organizations to make sure their rights were protected.

Thang said the association had settled about 70 to 80 percent of the 1,000 official complaints filed with it last year out of court.

The number sounds good, but when considering Vietnam’s 85- million plus population, the fact is that most consumers simply don’t report being ripped off.

Riding the rip-off wave

The Ministry of Science and Technology reported in September that over 30 gasoline stations in the country had been caught overcharging for fuel or selling adulterated gas mixed with anything from kerosene and water to mud and booze.

Many had rigged their scales to show higher amounts than had been dispensed.

But commercial fraud does not end there.

The ministry also said that over 93 percent of stylized crash-helmets in the domestic market were unsafe for motorcyclists.

All this on top of the fact that market control agencies have blamed kidney stone cases in several Vietnamese children on melamine-tainted milk.

Thang said unfair trade practices were rife throughout nearly all sectors in Vietnam.

The association estimated the average consumer lost between 8 to 10 percent of the value of their purchases so far this year due to unfair practices.

The number is a significant jump from the 5 percent recorded in 2006 when a previous group of gas stations had been caught overcharging.

“No group of consumers has ever been hurt by unfair trade practices as much as Vietnamese customers have been recently,” said former general director of Competition Administration Department Dinh Thi My Loan.

George Cheriyan, director of the India-based non-profit organization Consumer Unity & Trust Society International, said Vietnam should learn from India, which effectively enforces its Consumer Protection Act and National Consumer Disputes Redress Commission through special forums akin to special courts.

Loan said local consumers should be protected by similar special courts in Vietnam, arguing that special labor and businesses courts already settle specific disputes here.

Vietnamese legislators have said a new consumer protection law, slated for 2010 or 2011, is being drafted.

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