Understanding Consumer Rights In Online & Offline World

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Consumers are people who buy and use goods or services. For instance, a person who buys a ticket to watch a movie is a consumer, and a person who uses a gift voucher gifted from someone else is also a consumer.

Consumers have a right to file a complaint for any deficiency in the services or goods used by them. However, consumer protection law does not apply to people who use goods and services for commercial purposes. For example, a person who buys large machines to use in their business is not a ‘consumer’. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule. People who use goods for self-employment are considered consumers, such as artists who buy art supplies for their work or beauticians who buy beauty products.

A consumer also includes someone who buys or hires goods or services online. For example, if you order from an online clothing website (like Myntra or Amazon), you are a consumer.

Consumers also include people who with issues related to food items, such as issues with food adulteration, poor quality of food, lack of proper service from restaurants, etc. Such issues can cover problems across a wide range of products, starting from the water that goes into the production of items like juices and the sale of animals like chicken, fish, etc. that are expressly intended for human consumption.

What exactly are consumer rights?

Consumers who are unaware of their rights are vulnerable in the marketplace. It is vital that they be aware of their rights so that they can make choices confidently, and with due regard to their interests. Consumer rights include, but are not limited to, the following:

Right to protection against goods and services which are hazardous to life and property

Goods should not only meet the consumers’ immediate needs, but also fulfill long-term interests, and the use of goods and services should not result in any harm to consumers. For instance, if a person uses a medicine that cures an immediate ailment such as the flu, but then goes ahead to cause worse side effects, then such consumers are qualified to file a consumer complaint.

Right to be informed

Consumers have the right to be informed about the quality, quantity, potency, purity, standard, and price of goods. Sellers must put out authentic information on the product labels and not make false claims.

The government also publishes a price monitoring list for essential commodities along with mandi prices, daily price reports, educational material on consumers’ digital safety, etc. Some State Governments, such as the Tamil Nadu government, have also published advisories to educate consumers.

Right to choose a variety of items at competitive prices, wherever possible

Consumers have the right to get basic goods and services at fair prices. For example, you have the right to buy medicines either from the hospital medical store or from general stores at fair prices.

Right to file a complaint at Consumer Redressal Forums

Consumers have the legal right to use redressal forums to file their complaints. Every consumer has a right to file a complaint and be heard so their grievance can be resolved.

Right to seek redressal against unfair trade practices

Unfair trade practices usually relate to cheating, deceiving, or defrauding the consumer through schemes, advertisements, etc. Consumer protection law protects consumers from being exploited and creates a system for the consumer to claim a fair settlement.

Types of Consumer Complaints

Every person has a right to file the following types of consumer complaints under consumer protection law:

E-commerce complaints

“E-commerce” transactions refer to the buying and/or selling of goods and/or services (including digital products) over digital or electronic networks. It includes the production, distribution, marketing, sale, or delivery of goods and services by electronic means.

E-commerce entities, such as online shopping websites like Flipkart and Amazon, have long been treated as service providers who work for a profit. They are liable whenever there has been a violation of consumer rights. One of the major reforms brought about by the Consumer Protection Act, of 2019 is that it lays down a set of rules to govern these e-commerce entities. Those rules include the following:

E-commerce entities will have to respond within 48 hours of filing a complaint.

Complaints can be made anywhere, regardless of where the purchase was made.

E-commerce entities such as Amazon and Flipkart, are now required to display the details of the sellers, such as their legal name, geographic address, contact details, etc.

These entities must not directly or indirectly manipulate the goods’ prices, and must not adopt any unfair or deceptive methods of sale.

They are prohibited from exaggerating the quality of a product, and posting fake reviews.

The law mandates the protection of consumers’ personal information so that personal details are kept confidential and the privacy of consumers is protected.

Complaints about misleading advertisements

An advertisement is a promotion through television, radio, or any other electronic media, newspapers, banners, posters, handbills, wall-writing, etc. A misleading advertisement is one that says untrue things about the goods and services, which can mislead the consumer in buying them or deliberately conceal important information about the product (such as known side-effects). Advertisers can be sued for making misleading claims in their advertisements. Examples of misleading advertisements include claims of being the first toothpaste to have a certain beneficial composition when it actually isn’t or advertising schemes that seek to increase profits without passing on the benefit to consumers.

Complaints about unfair trade practices

Unfair trade practices have a broad definition under consumer protection law. They include false statements about the goods’ standard, quality, and quantity, and the marketing of used/second-hand goods as new goods. It also includes false claims about a warranty, or the warranty period being scientifically untested, etc. This has resulted in several lawsuits, one involving a noodle maker labeling its packets with false lead content, replacing the labels of pharmaceutical drugs to extend the expiry period, marketing adulterated goods with different ingredients than stated on the label, etc.

Complaints about restrictive trade practices

Restrictive trade practices are those which manipulate the price or delivery of goods, which in turn, affect the flow of supplies in the market. This leads to consumers facing unfair costs or restrictions. Restrictive trade practices are usually executed in some of the following ways: price fixing, dealing exclusively with certain clients, restricting the resale values of sold goods, and mandating that buying one good or service entails buying other goods or services. One real-life example of this is the inbuilt price of delivery and fixing electronic goods. This ensures that the consumer ends up paying for the service, whether they want to or not, making them bear unfair costs.

Complaints about defective goods

Defective goods are goods with a fault, imperfection, or shortcoming in the quality, quantity, purity, or standard which is required to be maintained by the seller, under the law in force. Some examples include adulterated or imperfectly brewed beverages, malfunctioned machinery, misshapen artifacts, etc.

Complaints about spurious goods

Spurious goods are those which are falsely claimed to be genuine, fake, or imitative of real, original products. Such goods are often of inferior quality and infringe upon the trademarks and copyrights of legal owners of the original goods. A common example is of medicines and cheap make-up products found in local markets. Often, spurious medicines are marketed under another drug’s name or imitate/substitute another drug in a deceptive way.

Charging above the MRP (Maximum Retail Price)

Overcharging generally occurs in covert ways, when sellers charge the consumer more than what is prescribed as the Maximum Retail Price of a product. It is a gross violation of consumer rights.

Complaints about food

Presently, the consumer protection law also addresses grievances related to food products. For example, customers can file their grievances about packaged food like the presence of adulterants, expired goods, missing FSSAI licenses, etc., or serving issues like the lack of hygiene, and presence of pests, etc. at the Food Safety Connect Portal.

Consumer Complaints against E-commerce Platforms

Consumers can complain against unfair trade practices involving products bought through e-commerce platforms and retailers. Any person who owns, operates or manages any digital or electronic platform offering goods or services for sale, is an e-commerce entity. An e-commerce entity is separately governed by e-commerce rules in India.

These rules are only applicable to professional and commercial businesses and not to an individual acting in their personal capacity. For instance, a consumer can complain against Amazon as it is an e-commerce entity regularly engaged in the activity of the sale of goods through its e-commerce website.

Interestingly, the product liability for an e-commerce entity extends beyond India. This means that these platforms are equally liable under Indian consumer protection law, in addition to their own country’s domestic laws. For instance, a foreign e-commerce entity such as Liyid delivers its products in India; in case of any harm caused due to defective products, a product liability action can be brought against Liyid in India and in the foreign country.

Liabilities of e-commerce platforms

E-commerce platforms are held liable for the following:

Price manipulations on their sites

Negligence in services provided and discrimination against customers.

Misleading advertisements, unfair trade practices, and inaccurate descriptions/information of products.

Refusing to refund or return a defective product.

Failure to provide warnings or instructions with respect to the goods or services availed by a customer.

False descriptions, and violations about the authenticity and images of the goods or services advertised for sale on their platform.

However, e-commerce platforms will not be liable if the dangers of the product are common knowledge. For example, if a consumer misuses or alters a dangerous product like flamethrowers, then the e-commerce entity cannot be held liable for this.

Complaining to E-Commerce Platforms

E-commerce platforms have to establish a ‘Grievance Redressal Mechanism’ and should appoint a ‘Grievance Officer’ for Indian customers to address their concerns. The platform has to display the details about the Grievance Redressal Mechanism. The Grievance Officer must acknowledge the complaint within 48 hours and address the concern within a period of one month.

Procedure to file an e-complaint using the Internet (INGRAM Portal)

The Department of Consumer Affairs has launched a portal known as the Integrated Grievance Redress Mechanism (INGRAM) for bringing all stakeholders onto a single platform. It is also meant to help in creating consumer awareness to protect their rights and inform them of their responsibilities. Consumers can register their grievances online through this portal.

Step-by-step instructions are given below:

Step-1: Check if you are a consumer under the law

The complainant should be a consumer under the law, meaning someone who is a consumer of a product or an association of consumers.

Step-2: Register on the INGRAM Portal

The complainant must register themselves as a consumer on the INGRAM portal. The complainant must fill in the required details and documents to register their complaint, such as their name and address of the complainant and the seller, the facts of the dispute, and the relief that the complainant seeks. A one-time registration is required for lodging a grievance. For registration, go to the web portal http://consumerhelpline.gov.in and click on the login link. Sign up and give the details required, and verify through your email. The user id and password are created. Using this user id and password, enter the portal and fill in the required details of the grievance, attaching necessary documents (if available).

Step-3: Pay the Fee

The complainant must pay the fee (if applicable) for the complaint registration through digital payment mode, or apps like BHIM App, UMANG App to the respective Consumer Commissions in accordance with the value of the goods.

Step-4: Track your Application

Every grievance is registered and a Unique Grievance ID is issued. The grievance is forwarded to the concerned company, regulator, or authority for action. The action taken by them is updated against each grievance. The grievances filed can be tracked through the INGRAM portal.

Consumer Courts/Forums

Through the INGRAM portal, efforts are made to ensure that the grievance is redressed by taking up with the authorities concerned, which may be a company, ombudsman, etc. However, if the issue is still pending, a consumer has a choice to approach the appropriate consumer court or forums with the help of a lawyer. Only complaints that are filed within 2 years since the dispute arose will be admitted for a hearing at the Consumer Dispute Redressal Commissions.

Every complaint filed under the consumer protection law must be accompanied by a nominal fee that is payable in the form of a demand draft of a nationalized bank, through postal order, or in electronic form. The fee structure based on the value of goods or services is given below:

An important thing to note is that the fees collected go to the Consumer Welfare Fund, at the State level or the National level, as the case may be. Where such a Fund does not exist, it is directed to the State Government. The fee is utilized towards the continuation of consumer welfare projec

Fee for making complaints

Every complaint filed under the consumer protection law must be accompanied by a nominal fee that is payable in the form of a demand draft of a nationalized bank, through postal order, or in electronic form.

An important thing to note is that the fees collected go to the Consumer Welfare Fund, at the State or National level, as the case may be. Where such a Fund does not exist, it is directed to the State Government. The fee is utilized towards the continuation of consumer welfare projects.

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