Sonya Spasova: The pandemic does not invalidate our rights

As any other extraordinary circumstance, it disrupted the plans of hundreds of thousands of people and created serious problems

The imposed state of emergency has created unprecedented circumstances. Many cannot make use of their prepaid holiday to a destination abroad and what they share is that their efforts to cancel the arrangement and get a refund or postpone the reservation have been unsuccessful. That is where we come in. The experts of the ECC-Net are tasked with informing consumers about the stipulations laid out in the European and the national legislations, says Sonya Spasova, Director of European Consumer Centre - Bulgaria, in an interview to EUROPOST.

Ms Spasova, the Covid-19 pandemic inarguably disrupted the plans of hundreds of thousands of consumers in Bulgaria and all over Europe and the world. What are the most common reports and complaints that you have been receiving since countries first moved to impose mitigation measures?

The pandemic disrupted the plans of many people, created serious problems, but it does not invalidate our consumer rights. Over a third of the reports and complaints filed with the European Consumer Centre - Bulgaria since the beginning of March concern cancelled trips and holidays abroad due to the pandemic. We see mostly complaints about customers still waiting to get their plane tickets money back even though it has been a month or two since their flights were cancelled. We also see requests for assistance in getting refunds on hotel reservations or property rents abroad that could not be used due to the pandemic. We have also received inquiries about how to proceed as a consumer when concerts or other events of this type have been cancelled.

Of course, the grievances are similar to those in other countries - the entire European Consumer Centres Network has processed over 34,000 pandemic-related complaints from March to early July - mostly in the areas of air travel and accommodations.

What rights do Europeans have in this environment of massive wave of flight cancelations - what does European legislation say on the matter? Is the pandemic being treated as an “extraordinary circumstance” that relieves airlines from the obligation to pay compensation?

In the event that a flight is cancelled by an airline company, the carrier is required to offer travellers a choice between these options - get a refund for the ticket price or get a seat on the next available flight or a flight at a later date. Under the European Commission's latest interpretative guidelines on EU air passenger rights regulations, the pandemic is indeed treated as an “extraordinary circumstance”, which means that passengers have no right to additional compensation from the airline company in the event of flight cancelations.

What type of problems caused by the pandemic are you helping to resolve in the area of prepaid holiday reservations?

Prior to the pandemic many consumers would take advantage of the option to make early reservations. They would pay for their summer vacations months, even a year in advance. However, the imposed state of emergency has created unprecedented circumstances. Many cannot make use of their prepaid holiday to a destination abroad and what they share is that their efforts to cancel the arrangement and get a refund or postpone the reservation have been unsuccessful. That is where we come in. However, it should be noted that if a consumer makes a reservation under terms that preclude them from cancelling it for free, they may be denied a refund. In that case they need to be flexible and ask for the holiday to be moved to a later date. If the reservation has been made via a travel company, the terms of the contract signed with that company apply.

Please tell us a bit about how the European Consumer Centres Network works. What kind of cooperation do you have with your fellow members of the organisation in other countries? Can people turn to these centres for assistance irrespective of the EU country they are in?

The European Consumer Centres Network (ECC-Net) has had representation in Bulgaria since 2008. The entire network celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. ECC Bulgaria works in close cooperation with the other 29 centres - in all the other Member States plus Iceland, Norway and the UK.

In Bulgaria, the ECC operates under the umbrella of the national Commission for Consumer Protection. First and foremost, the experts in the Bulgarian branch of the network are tasked with informing consumers about the stipulations laid out in the European and the national legislation. In other words - about the rights and obligations of consumers and retailers. Furthermore, we provide advice on and assistance in resolving specific issues with retailers registered in another Member State, Iceland, Norway or the UK. In those cases, we always work in coordination with our colleagues in the centre responsible for the consumer's place of residence or the country of the retailer's incorporation. For a consumer to be able to turn to any centre in the network, four conditions need to be met - they have to be a natural person and be in the respective country, their complaint has to be against a retailer in another Member State, Iceland, Norway or the UK, and last but not least, they have to have made an attempt to contact the retailer, irrespective of the outcome. Once a consumer has turned to us, our goal is to help them strike an agreement with the retailer.

The power of our centres is in negotiating because we do not have any oversight responsibilities. At the same time, ECC-Net is a known entity and retailers have respect for it. Last but not least, it is important to note that thanks to the massive amount of statistical data collected by the centres, we can identify areas in need of legislative changes.

Slowly but surely Bulgarians are starting to rely more on online shopping. What are the most important steps to follow? What type of details about the retailer and the transaction should we keep? What is the timeframe in which we should expect to get our money back in the event that our order never arrives?

I think it is extremely helpful for consumers to know their rights when it comes to warranties and returning faulty goods as well as the right to cancel an online order - in other words, the option to return the blouse or pair of shoes you bought from a given website within 14 days without stating a reason for it. When shopping online, you should keep in mind that there are a tonne of inventive ways for someone to scam you. When shopping from foreign retailers, for example, a clear sign of such threat is the lack of contact information provided by the retailer, incomplete or confusingly presented information about the price of the product or service as well as limited choice of payment methods. We recommend that people check in advance whether they have a way to contact the retailer in the event of a problem. And if the website offers nothing more than an online form as a means to communicate with the retailer, you should proceed with caution. Under the EU legislation, every online retailer is required to list its physical address, phone and e-mail on its website. A good idea is to peruse the reviews and see how other consumers have rated the online retailer in question.

Another sign of a potential problem is if the website has everything in all sizes and colours and if all the items have discounts. In short, if the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is!

When shopping online, it is always prudent to keep a copy of the order, the invoice or receipt, the shipping bill, the confirmation as well as our entire correspondence with the foreign retailer. That is because, before filing a complaint with us, consumers have to have sought their rights with the retailer first. Time of delivery for a given product depends on the retailer's conditions, but under the law it should not be over 30 days, unless your agreement with the retailer stipulates differently. If that deadline comes and goes and you are still waiting for your order, you should write the retailer and give them more time. If the item is still not delivered after that, you have the right to cancel the contract and get your money back. If you have issues with a foreign retailer in another Member State, you can always contact us.

Let us talk about warranties. Online purchases do not come with a paper document attesting to the fact that the appliance - a stove or a washing machine, for example - has a two-year warranty. No instructions are given that the consumer has to find this information on the website and print it. What if something happens to your computer and your entire correspondence with the retailer gets lost?

Every item, whether purchased online or at a physical retail space in the EU, comes with a two-year warranty by law, it is there in the regulations. If your appliance malfunctions or breaks down at any point during that period, you can exercise your rights under the warranty and ask for the item to be repaired free of charge or replaced. The claim is filed with the retailer and the problem has to be resolved within 30 days. If it is not, you have the right to break the contract and ask for a refund for the entire cost of the appliance or a discount.

The invoice or receipt you get and the warranty card are documents that prove you have made a purchase - whether it was online or at a physical store location. This is why we should require and keep those. The paper version is a backup option that takes some time, but it affords additional peace of mind. As for the concern that something might happen to your computer, it is advisable that you save copies of important documents on other storage devices or print them.

Lost luggage and damaged suitcases are no rare occurrence at airports. Airline companies always respond to resulting claims by acknowledging €30 worth of damages for a BGN 250 suitcase in an effort to minimise their costs. What are our rights in this case?

If your luggage is damaged or missing, you need to fill in the so-called PIR at the airport - a special protocol that documents the problem. Within seven days you need to fill in a similar form on the airline company's website. If the suitcase has not been found in 21 days, it is considered lost and another form has to be filed on the airline's website where you claim damages. Send the company a copy of the plane tickets and the luggage stickers as well as the PIR and photos and save a copy of the claim as proof.

No matter if the suitcase is lost or damaged, the maximum claim amount is about €1,600 as laid out in the Montreal Convention. The amount depends on the actual value of the damage in that particular case. Our advice is that passengers consider insuring their luggage before flying if it contains valuable items. Laptops, cameras, jewellery and house keys, for example, should not be part of luggage that will be checked. It is wise to keep those items in the hand luggage.

Customers have a growing number of complaints about rent-a-car services, like “new” scratches for which the company asks for additional payment. How should we stave off this type of unfair treatment?

When using rent-a-car service, you should be careful to return the vehicle during business hours. It is important that you receive a document that the car is inspected and accepted without complaints by a company employee. If you fail to return the vehicle during business hours, the inspection will be scheduled for the next day. In such cases, sums may be withdrawn from your credit card to cover damages. If you absolutely need to return the vehicle after business hours, you should park on one of the designated spots. It is a good idea to take several photos as evidence that the car is in good condition. You can save yourself unpleasant situations if you are more vigilant when negotiating rent-a-car service. You should take note of the information about possible additional fees for some services as well as rules concerning fuel and the amount required as deposit.

How can we spot knockoff goods so that we avoid getting scammed?

A suspicious order of this kind may be found and destroyed by the customs authorities. To protect ourselves against such unpleasant outcomes, we need to make sure that the website we are shopping from is legitimate. A visit to the official website of the brand can tell you whether the distributor you have chosen is authorised or on the contrary - blacklisted. Last but not least, if an offer seems too appealing, especially in comparison to other retailers, that should signal a red alert for fraud. If a consumer orders such a product and is subjected to unfair treatment by a foreign retailer, they should contact us.

Close-up

Sonya Spasova has been at the helm of the European Consumer Centre - Bulgaria, part of the European Consumer Centres Network (ECC-Net), since July 2019. Prior to taking the position, Spasova was in charge of a strategic segment of the ECC operations - communications. She has been in the field of resolving consumer disputes since 2015. Before joining the team of European Consumer Centre - Bulgaria, Spasova worked as a journalist at the newspapers Trud, Standart and Novinar.

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