The European Consumer Centre Finland received 3,350 consumer queries (questions and complaints) in 2020. The number of queries increased by 6% compared to the previous year. As in the previous year, flights remained at the forefront of complaints concerning cross-border problem situations. In 2020, almost one third of all contacts were related in one way or another to the corona pandemic situation and the resulting cancellation of flight and travel bookings.
The cases handled by the European Consumer Centre Finland involved mostly online shopping and various online platforms used as the sales method of a product and service (in 77 % of the cases). As a result of the travel restrictions created by the coronavirus, consumers did little shopping at traditional brick-and-mortar stores while travelling abroad; rather, they increasingly shopped online.
The entire European Consumer Centres Network (ECC-Net) which had an office in 30 countries in 2020, was contacted by consumers on 167,874 occasions. In many countries, the number of contacts increased significantly during the coronavirus year. Air travel was also highlighted in the complaints received through the ECC-Net.
Refunding of cancelled flights was poorly handled during the coronavirus year
Of all the contacts received by the ECC Finland in 2020, 32% concerned cancellations and delays of flights and, especially, cancellations during the coronavirus year. In most cases, consumers had a clear right to be refunded, but paying a refund took a long time on the part of the airline. In addition, the travel reimbursement exceptions introduced in different countries due to the corona situation confused the situation in Europe.
Many had also purchased their flights through a popular foreign booking intermediary operating online. In such cases, there was often a lack of clarity in the cancellation situations as to from which party the consumer was to request reimbursement and which party was responsible for paying it to the consumer. Customer services were congested and, at worst, poorly or not at all available. Consumers were also given unrealistic promises about the timetable for the payment of reimbursements. Reimbursements were almost never paid as money but, rather, as travel vouchers, which were available for a new journey. The ECC-Net issued an external alert on the problems of booking intermediaries in October 2020.
After flights, the next most common contacts involved services purchased online (6% of the contacts), which included questions and complaints concerning car price evaluation services, dating services, various service fees and memberships. Contacts also involved hotels and other accommodation (5%) as well as package travels (4%), and were often linked to situations caused by the corona pandemic. With regard to other product groups, cosmetics and health & nutrition purchases also appeared in the contacts (3%).
Which countries were the location for traders that were subject to most complaints?
In the contacts received by the ECC Finland, a trader with which consumers had problems was most commonly located in Sweden (12% of the cases), Norway (11%), Germany (10%) and Spain (9%). While the problems mostly involved various travel operators and airlines, Germany stood out also with regard to car trade and the purchasing of car spare parts online.
The number of contacts concerning traders located outside the European Union amounted to 8%. Of such countries, the largest were China (17%) and the USA (5%). As the ECC-Net does not have the power to settle consumer disputes outside the EU, in such cases consumers can mainly be offered general advice.
Loan scams appeared in contacts as a minor phenomenon
Different types of loan scams were more clearly visible in contacts during 2020 than in the previous years, even though they did not reach the list of the most common topics. A total of 25 queries concerning loan scams were received in 2020. While there was always a different trader name used, the pattern was similar.
For example, a consumer in a weak economic situation had searched for a lender online and ended up contacting, via a search engine, a scammer located abroad. After receiving a tempting credit offer, the consumer was asked to make advance payments to obtain the loan, for example, under the disguise of covering the handling fee, speeding up the process of obtaining a loan or paying the fee for entering the country. After the consumer paid one advance payment, another followed. This continued until the consumer realised that there was a scam involved, at which point the loan scammer disappeared. For more information on loan scams and how to recognise them, see our newsletter 4/2020 (in Finnish).