Fake Nigerian bankers are the least of our worries: Welcome to the UK's rip-off conumser culture

I imagine the offices of the LA Fitness HQ last Wednesday morning were quite fraught, with lots of finger pointing, a few red faces and a lot of emails to sort through. If ever there were an example of when companies should deviate from their rulebook, this was it. And if ever there were a salutary lesson in risk management in the age of social media, you couldn’t do better than this one.

In case you missed it, this was the distressing case of a heavily pregnant woman, on benefits after her husband was made redundant and moving 12 miles away from the nearest gym, who wanted to cancel their LA Fitness membership because they simply could not afford to pay.  LA Fitness, demonstrating both an extraordinary lack of compassion as well as an unbelievably short-sighted approach to customer relations, refused to back down, even after The Guardian’s consumer champion got involved.

It was fairly obvious to the many Guardian readers and people on Twitter who set about shaming the company and, in some cases, offered to pay the outstanding fees it was demanding, that LA Fitness didn’t have a moral leg to stand on.  It is also questionable whether the company had a legal right to enforce the terms of their contract.

Which? lawyers suggested a recent ruling by the High Court that some of the small-print terms for thousands of gym membership contracts were unfair and therefore unenforceable could be applied to the LA Fitness contract.  The judge stated that gym agreements that set minimum membership periods of 12, 24 or 36 months are ‘so weighted as to cause a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations in a manner and to an extent which is contrary to good faith’.

With a PR disaster on its hands and members cancelling their own contracts, LA Fitness finally backed down and waived all remaining charges for the couple.  As well as highlighting the power, and the perils of social media, this case shows how easy it is for companies to tie unwitting or vulnerable consumers into contracts and payments that are certainly morally and probably legally unfair.

The Office of Fair Trading received about 1,500 complaints about gyms in the four-month period to December last year and is expected next week to announce a crackdown on gym contracts that customers cannot cancel.  This must mean the fitness industry is in danger of overtaking estate agents in the popularity stakes (although with such sneaky contract clauses as ‘sole selling rights’, which mean you have to pay commission even if you find a buyer yourself, it will be a close run thing).

Last week, Labour leader Ed Miliband followed up his condemnation of ‘predatory capitalism’ with a call for an end to Britain’s ‘rip-off consumer culture’.  He highlighted a number of areas for immediate action, from the £2 billion banks make every year from unauthorised overdraft fees to airlines that charge extra for baggage, paying with a credit card or even checking in without printing out a boarding pass (really!).

This isn’t about scams, the uninvited letters, emails, phone calls and texts that trick you out of your money, even though these are growing in number and sophistication: most of us recognise there is no stash of cash in a Nigerian bank account waiting to be liberated with our (financial) help but some are more devious, such as the phishing emails that aim to dupe you into parting with your security details by looking as if they’re from your bank, until you realise you don’t actually bank there and there are odd Spanish words in the text.

No, this rip off is often perpetrated by legitimate firms, sometimes apparently quite reputable ones, fleecing us at pretty much any opportunity.  Even savvy consumers need to be constantly on their guard to avoid getting sucked in to unsuitable or even useless contracts.  The highest profile scandal is payment protection insurance (PPI), sold by banks alongside financial products to unsuspecting consumers who often didn’t even know they were buying it.  It is meant to provide cover if you become ill or are made redundant, but guess what?  It rarely pays out.

You’d think the banks would have learned their lesson after the endowment mis-selling fiasco, but in the first six months of last year they had to pay out £557 million in compensation to the hundreds of thousands of people who were mis-sold PPI.  I wonder what they’ll get up to next?  Maybe they’ll just cut out all the pretence at selling us something we need and take the money straight out of our accounts?

Top of my 'useless-product pops' is the extended warranty, which is rendered almost obsolete by  the Sale of Goods Act.  This requires products to be of satisfactory quality, durable, fit for purpose and match their description.  Under this law, if your washing machine packs up the day after the manufacturer’s two-year warranty runs out, it should be repaired or replaced by the retailer:  it's a pretty useless washing machine that only lasts two years.

The rip off is everywhere: energy companies with their confusing and unfair tariffs that stop you getting the best deal; the supermarkets' multi-buy 'bargains' that aren’t saving you anything at all; holiday companies that automatically add in travel insurance whether you want it or not; the ‘legal loan sharks’ offering cash with interest rates of over 4,000%; and London 2012 charging you full price to take your new-born baby to the Olympic games.

And in the midst of all this ripping off, the government is pursuing plans that could mean less protection for consumers.  Believe it or not, the bodies responsible for looking after consumers’ interests were due to be abolished or merged under reforms announced by the business secretary, Vince Cable, in October 2010.

Because of the prime minister’s concerns about the costs of the transition, very little has happened.  Apart, that is, from consumer watchdog Consumer Focus being unable to hire staff and cuts to local authority funding for trading standards, meaning consumers are more vulnerable than ever.

Over the last few decades, the rise of consumer protection law has reduced the importance of the ‘caveat emptor’ principle.  But with the consumer protection regime in disarray and businesses of all types finding ever more devious ways of parting us from our cash, it may be that, as buyers, we had all better beware.

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