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Tuesday, January 5, 2016, 10:39

Unscrupulous fitness and beauty operators should be punished

By Fung Keung

The Hong Kong government should intensify its efforts in cracking down on fitness and beauty centers which use questionable tactics to coerce customers into departing with their money.

Unscrupulous fitness and beauty operators should be punished Currently, the Customs and Excise Department is charged with investigating complaints from customers who lose large sums of money to the fitness and beauty centers. Officials from the department investigate the unscrupulous centers’ unfair trade practices under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance. It is well-advised that the police’s fraud division should also be involved in investigations if the cases warrant it.

On Dec 29, an intellectually impaired man was coerced to take up training sessions in a well-known fitness center in Hong Kong. He eventually signed up for hundreds of sessions at a cost of HK$300,000. When he could not afford the fees, an unscrupulous trainer of the fitness center took him to borrow money from banks and loan sharks.

His case was one of nine complaints made to Tang Ka-piu, a member of the Legislative Council, against the same fitness center, mostly involving young adults who were forced to part with their money. Tang said the complaint cases underscored the lack of protection for consumers from unscrupulous sales tactics employed by companies selling services including fitness programs and beauty sessions. Tang is only one of many lawmakers who have received similar complaints from citizens.

Tang urged the government to enact legislation to call for a seven-day cooling-off period, which would allow consumers to amend terms and counter aggressive practices. He has seen many cases where people would make complaints or ask for help just a day (or less than a day) after buying a service package.

In early December 2015, 11 employees of a fitness center in Kowloon’s Mong Kok district were arrested over allegations that two customers were offered free trial workouts before being tricked into paying HK$25,500 in total. The three managers and eight frontline staff of the fitness center were accused of exerting undue influence in selling fitness club memberships. All 11 have been released on bail.

The scam was simple. The fitness center’s employees handed out flyers on busy streets, offering free fitness sessions. Once unsuspecting potential customers completed the session, center employees would coerce them into signing expensive contracts. If people refused, they would charge them HK$1,500 for the so-called “free” session.

In the first 11 months of 2015, the Consumer Council received 1,272 complaints relating to beauty services. They ranged from claims of poor service quality to closures of beauty centers. The council saw a rise in particular in the number of complaints from consumers triggered by either the closure of beauty shops or their being taken over by another company.

In one case, a woman paid HK$10,000 for beauty treatment coupons from company A. When the company was later taken over by company B, the woman still had 30 unused treatments. Company B would not offer her treatments unless she paid more. A Consumer Council official said people looking for beauty sessions should look into the financial health of the beauty centers. It seems, however, too much to ask consumers to investigate beauty centers’ financial stability. Instead, the police should investigate whether the beauty centers use tricks to defraud consumers.

To protect citizens’ rights and Hong Kong’s clean image — and to discourage other firms from defrauding consumers — the government should punish unscrupulous fitness and beauty center owners without hesitation.

The author is a veteran journalist and an adjunct professor at Shue Yan University.

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