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Communications Specialist at the Consumer Affairs Commission, Dorothy Campbell, addresses a JIS ‘Think Tank’.
Photo: Dave Reid

Story Highlights

  • As the country deals with the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the Government has put in place measures to protect consumers from price gouging as they purchase products to protect themselves from the virus.
  • To protect consumers, both Houses of Parliament approved the Trade (Sale of Goods During Period of Declaration of Disaster Area) Order 2020, which came into effect on March 31.
  • Under the Order, the CAC has been authorised, on behalf of the Industry Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Minister, to demand that books, accounts and other documents relating to the business be provided, so that claims of price gouging can be investigated.

As the country deals with the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the Government has put in place measures to protect consumers from price gouging as they purchase products to protect themselves from the virus.

Price gouging is the practice of increasing the price of an item that is in demand in the midst of a disaster (natural) or emergency (public health).

Communications Specialist at the Consumer Affairs Commission (CAC), Dorothy Campbell, says merchants will focus on the items that are in highest demand during an emergency.

“So, during the hurricane season it would be lumber, zinc sheets, tarpaulin and all those kinds of things. With the COVID, it’s the hand sanitisers, disinfectants and masks. It’s taking advantage of the consumer in a time of emergency and time of natural disaster,” she tells JIS News.

To protect consumers, both Houses of Parliament approved the Trade (Sale of Goods During Period of Declaration of Disaster Area) Order 2020, which came into effect on March 31.

Under this measure, retailers found to be charging customers exorbitant prices for goods during the COVID-19 outbreak can be fined up to $2 million for this breach.

“Since the Order came in effect, consumers had general complaints via the telephone, persons would call in to say that they have observed the excessive pricing and they would make generalisations about the price doubling or that the price is way out of hand,” Ms. Campbell says.

Under the Order, the CAC has been authorised, on behalf of the Industry Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Minister, to demand that books, accounts and other documents relating to the business be provided, so that claims of price gouging can be investigated.

Ms. Campbell is encouraging consumers to report cases of price gouging to the CAC.

“What we have found is that persons are posting on social media, saying that these are the items and they are at such and such locations. So, what we ask persons to do is to give us a receipt. The last thing we want to do is to have a case that is not verifiable. Since under COVID we are restricted in terms of movement, we are asking consumers to assist us by sending in receipts, and the names of the locations where these are occurring,” she says.

“That has not been very forthcoming either. We are getting some kind of anecdotal information and we can’t truly investigate a case unless we get some specifics and at least we know where to go to verify whether this is happening or not,” Ms. Campbell adds.

So far, the CAC has received about 30 complaints from consumers regarding price gouging.

“There are large increases in cleaning products, sanitisers and also in other products. We still have to verify what was the original price and what was the markup. So, we’ve ask complainants to submit their receipts as evidence of these cases,” Ms. Campbell tells JIS News.

With access to CAC offices restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints should be made online at the agency’s website.

“We are asking consumers to either call us at 876-906-5425 or they can send us a tweet or file on Facebook or even go to our website, cac.gov.jm, and fill out a complaint form on one of the dropdown options and we will handle it from there or you can send an email to info@cac.gov.jm,” Ms. Campbell says.

She adds that despite the ongoing restrictions, the agency has the capacity to conduct investigations once complaints are filed and verified.

“Our complaint officers are trained in dispute resolution, so they understand how the investigative process works.

They ask you for specifics such as the location, the date of event and what transpired. If it is a matter of cost, how much you paid; is your receipt a proper receipt, which should reflect the location of the merchant and the item you bought and how much you paid [for the item],” the Communications Specialist says.

“Once we have verified that the transaction took place, we ask the consumer, ‘have you made any contact with the provider’. Once you have confirmed that you have made contact with the provider and there is no opportunity for resolution, we want to step in. But we usually ask consumers first to seek some kind of resolution on their own in an amicable way. If that doesn’t work, then we step in,” Ms. Campbell explains.

She further points out that if the rights of the consumer have been breached by the retailer, “we make a simple request that some kind of restitution be made, whether refund, repair or exchange of the item”.

“If that doesn’t happen, then we have to move further, which is to not only investigate… but we may have to seek the assistance of any other State agencies in order to ensure that this is enforced,” Ms. Campbell says.

The CAC is a government agency under the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries whose role is to enforce the Consumer Protection Act 2005 (Amended 2012) and a range of additional legislation, promoting competition and fair trading, for the benefit of all Jamaicans.

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