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Opinion & Analysis

Weak regulation threatens e-commerce

A customer completing an M-Pesa transaction. The Internet and e-commerce have been life-transforming. file photo | nmg
A customer completing an M-Pesa transaction. The Internet and e-commerce have been life-transforming. file photo | nmg 

The Internet and e-commerce have been life-transforming, but some companies seem to be exploring consumer malpractice on the net that they would be sued for from bricks and mortar businesses. The problems seem to begin with the different foundations of consumer rights in different nations, with the company I have tripped up with three times in two months being a British one.

I fly reasonably often, between at least one trip a year back to Europe and work flights for clients, using an Internet booking service, Opodo, because it is easy and swift.

When all goes well, it’s a modern miracle. But when something goes wrong, Opodo customer service policy is that the consumer throws away the old ticket, books a new one at full price, and pays an extra Euros 50 charge for the privilege, which they don’t pay if they just book again through the main website. It has been explained to me by customer care as ‘discouragement’ on ticket changes and issues.

But when booking my most recent flight, a new option came up called a ‘flexible date’, I paid the extra Euros 9:70 and tucked my ticket away, sure, at least, that this latest flight could weather any necessary changes.

Until the moment came when the dates did change on a work trip being confirmed. I opened the flight confirmation email, and went to the section in big text saying it was a ‘Flexible date’ booking, and pressed the button, ironically marked, and I am not joking, ‘enjoy this service’. It took me to a website page with no details, except that I had to ring the customer service line.

Customer service weren’t interested in my flexible dates. The first two assistants were incredibly rude. The third was helpful, but regretful. She explained, checked, explained again that I would have to book a new flight at full price and pay a 50-Euro booking fee, and that was the ‘flexible date’ option. I then should contact their insurance line, who would pay any extra costs, if my cancellation reason qualified under the insurance.

I asked her to explain the difference between the ‘flexible date’ and the not flexible date options. She was a nice woman, but stalled: she had no answer, there was no difference.

It was probably just one clever marketing person’s idea of how to turn people’s concerns about possible date changes into an extra fee earner.

So I contacted Opodo’s PR agency in the UK: could their client’s management explain the flexible date option? They couldn’t, but were concerned. They came back to me and explained the option didn’t exist on the UK site — no surprises in that, as it would never get past the British regulators as an exercise in mis-selling — but only on the international website.

They also offered to refund my initial flight cost, as a compensation on my flexible date option having no flexible dates. But how many people are going to complain to the press office?

So for anyone using international e-commerce, they can count on British levels of consumer protection if they use the .co.uk, but none if they use the .com of a British service? Is it really true that consumer rights’ legislation on a company only cover what it does ‘on shore’, and in that case, who protects us in all the international services we use?

For me, I won’t be booking through Opodo again. I’ll use it as a search engine, but book directly with the airline it shows as cheapest. And maybe that’s how international e-commerce will regulate itself.

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