Following the corona pandemic, the world adapted to a new position: consumer rights must be safeguarded even in emergency conditions

Consumer Ombudsman Katri Väänänen

I first heard about the coronavirus at the beginning of January. I thought it was a distant thing that would probably have little effect on my life. But it turned out to be different. Never in the world could I have thought that as soon as in March everything would be turned upside down: official travel would be forbidden, meetings would be forbidden, practically the entire FCCA would be working remotely and I would spend almost all my working time on issues related to the coronavirus.

The most important issues in terms of consumer rights are related to the cancellation of flights, accommodations and package travel. The situation has constantly changed from the travel recommendations issued at the beginning of the crisis to closing borders. Our Consumer Advisory Services are swamped with questions related to when a consumer is entitled to being refunded for travel and when the transfer of the trip should be considered. The cancellation of leisure time events and the cessation or reduction of recreational activities are also causing similar problems to an increasing extent.

Consumer rights are maintained even in exceptional circumstances

Overall, the current situation is completely exceptional. There is no legislation addressing and no ready-made answers to some consumer right questions. Even when there is legislation, some companies have argued that it is not in force now. The situation will certainly seem chaotic in all respects, but it will not have a direct effect on the validity of the legislation unless the Parliament decides otherwise.

As the guardian of consumer protection legislation, our task is to safeguard consumers’ position even in exceptional circumstances. The EU Commission has also highlighted this in its guidelines on directives. Even if the situation is untenable from the point of view of many companies, the financial risk cannot be passed on to consumers. However, we also understand the difficulties faced by companies and take them into account in supervision. Customer services are naturally congested and there may be delays in payment refunds. Consumers are now also being asked to take care of themselves, as most issues can also be resolved afterwards.

During a crisis, the responsibility of companies is tested

As a result of temporary lay-offs, consumers’ financial problems also activate instant credit providers and raise questions about the reasonableness of interest rates in such situations. In order to prevent debt problems, the maximum interest rate for certain consumer loans was temporarily limited to be no more than 10% in July, even if the normal interest rate for the credit had been agreed to be higher than this. At the same time, direct marketing of credits was also prohibited until the end of the year.

Intimidation in the marketing of health products and scams related to miracle products are also highlighted as by-products of the crisis. During the crisis, it could be possible for companies to demonstrate their responsibility and not to exploit the weaker position of consumers. The EU Commission has therefore called for large marketers and platforms to cooperate in combatting scams.

No one knows how long the exceptional situation will last, but we will do our best to provide guidance on how consumers and businesses can steer through problem situations. It is in everyone’s interest that, even after the crisis is over, we have solvent consumers and service providers which compete with each other.

This text was originally published in Finnish on the Consumer Ombudsman’s blog.