Getting “cheated” by errant retailers can be a frightening experience.
Under the Penal Code, the punishment for cheating is incarceration for a term which may extend to 3 years, or a fine, or both. In one of the illustrations provided in the Penal Code, a person is guilty of cheating if he puts a counterfeit mark on an article, intentionally deceiving the victim into a belief that the article was made by a certain celebrated manufacture, and thus dishonestly induces the victim to buy and pay for the article.
However not every bad experience with an errant retailer gives rise to a prosecutable offence of “cheating” within the meaning of Penal Code. It is not always easy to prove fraudulent and dishonest intention on the part of the seller.
When fraud and dishonest intention cannot be clearly established, for instance, you can only establish that you have been sold a defective product, or that the product sold fails to match up with the retailer’s description, one possible option is to turn to the legislation of the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act (CPFTA). This legislation aims to protect consumers against unfair practices and gives consumers additional rights in respect of goods that do not conform to the contract. While the CPFTA lays down the substantive rights and remedies available to consumers, it is also important to consider the avenues in which these rights may be enforced. So what can you do next?
- Negotiate with the retailer
Consumers may want to first consider the viability of negotiating directly with the retailer or seller concerned. After all, retailers may in fact be receptive to a settlement. If the transaction is one that involves goods, you (as a consumer) might be able to request for an exchange, return the item for a partial or full refund, or receive some form of compensation in kind. If the transaction is one that involves a form of service, you might be able to negotiate for a partial or full compensation in cash or in kind.
Negotiating with the retailer is a direct and expedient approach that does not require any third-party intervention. Nevertheless, there may be instances where parties fail to come to an agreement, or the seller may even be uncontactable for negotiation in the first place. Under such circumstances, you may wish to consider the following alternatives:
- Approach Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) for general and specific assistance
You may approach CASE for general and specific assistance. CASE is a non-governmental organisation that represents consumers in negotiations and mediations vis-a-vis governmental authorities and retailers. Generally, CASE addresses any broad inquiries in relation to consumer rights via phone assistance or walk-in consultation services. However, should you decide to formally and specifically resolve your complaint via CASE, you may elect to do so in 2 ways.
First, you may file a case with CASE, following which their customer relations officer will correspond with the retailer on your behalf to work towards an amicable resolution. To be eligible for this option, you must first be registered as a CASE member (administrative charges will apply accordingly).
Second, you may apply for an assisted case. CASE will assist you in drafting a letter to the retailer to communicate your concerns, after which you will be required to personally deliver this letter to the company. Unlike the “file a case” option, you do not have to have to register as a member of CASE, but no follow-up action will be provided by them.
Whether a case or an assisted case is filed, 2 criteria must be fulfilled. First, you must, by law, be considered a “consumer”. By legal definition, a “consumer” is one who has the right to receive goods or services from a supplier, or who has a legal obligation to pay a supplier for goods or services that have been or are to be supplied to another individual.  For example, a consumer may be one who makes a transaction for a product or a service for personal use. Conversely, it does not include individuals who make transactions in the course of business.  Second, one must ensure that the consumer who made the purchase is the individual making the complaint. Tourist-consumers who wish to flag inappropriate retailer behaviour may lodge a complaint with CASE, but are also advised to approach the Singapore Tourism Board.
CASE is unable to address complaints made by consumers who purchase products from overseas companies, unless these companies are based in Mainland China, India, Macao SAR or Malaysia.
- Approach CASE Mediation Centre
If the dispute reaches a stalemate and/or if you and the retailer are agreeable to a mediation, a session will be facilitated by one of CASE’s accredited mediators. Mediation allows both parties to amicably resolve their dispute through the facilitation of a mediator. Mediation fees apply, depending on the claim range and whether the parties are members of CASE.
Once a settlement has been reached, a settlement agreement will be signed and given to both parties. In the event that a settlement is not reached, the officer in-charge will re-assess the case and either continue with correspondences or recommend other alternatives, as is suitable for the case at hand.
- Small Claims Tribunal
Another alternative is to file a claim with the Small Claims Tribunals, via the Community Justice and Tribunals System.  The tribunal hears claims not exceeding $10,000 (although this limit may be raised to $20,000 if both parties agree to it). All claims must be filed within 1 year from the date on which the cause of action accrued. For example, if a cause of action accrued on 15 September 2018, the last day to file the claim would be on 14 September 2019. Under this approach, it must be noted that lawyers are not allowed to represent any parties in proceedings.
Proceedings at the tribunals begin once a claim is filed. A consultation date will be fixed for the parties to appear before the Registrar in Court, before the matter is fixed for a Hearing before a referee, where necessary. The hearing can occur within 24 hours of the date of the consultation. Here, the referee will make a decision on the merits of the case.
- Report to the respective online platforms’ support team
As you might have observed, some of the suggestions proffered above are only workable if the retailer is present to make decisions. However, we note that this may not be possible in all instances, particularly in light of online marketplaces where it is seemingly “easier” for sellers to abscond. Oftentimes, consumers make payment for online purchases that are not delivered to them, and are left helpless upon realising that the seller has either removed their listings or deactivated their accounts.
Fortunately, assuming that most of these accounts are registered under legitimate marketplaces such as Carousell and Shopee, they will be regulated by support teams. Consumers may simply report the seller (by obtaining his account through their private chat) or listing (if it is still active) to the support team. This will usually be followed by a suspension of the seller’s account where necessary, and an investigation into the transaction with the help of other enforcement agencies to get a refund.
Ultimately, when entering into any transactions, it is always worth erring on the side of caution. Advice such as verifying the legitimacy and reputability of the seller and his intentions, as well as safeguarding one’s prepayment should always be borne in mind. Where online sales are concerned, it is also prudent to consider the number of reviews that a seller has and the content of these reviews. More industry-specific tips may be found on the CASE website.
 Section 2 of the CPFTA.
Please refer to section 5 of the Small Claims Tribunals Act to check if your claim is within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal. If you have filed a claim that is outside the Tribunal’s jurisdiction, the Tribunals may discontinue your claim either at the Consultation stage or at the Hearing stage, and the filing fees paid are not refundable.
Have a question or need legal advice?
If you have a legal question regarding being cheated, you can get a Quick Consult with Adeline Chong or other lawyers. With Quick Consult, you can check out in minutes and for a transparent, flat fee of S$49, the lawyers will call you back on the phone within 1-2 days to answer your questions and give you legal advice.
This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.