Review of 1 year of legal assistance by ECC in Corona-related consumer cases
The Covid 19 pandemic has had a massive impact on both consumers and businesses and many business sectors have been fundamentally affected since then. Particularly big upheavals are in tourism and online business. Very often these are cross-border and entrepreneurs and their customers are not in the same country. Therefore, victims turn to the European Consumer Centre (ECC) Austria, part of the Association for Consumer Information (VKI). This year's World Consumer Day (15 March) was the occasion for a retrospective of our counselling activities in one year of Corona.
ECC more in demand than ever – Travelling and Corona
Because of the pandemic, there were more requests for help to the network than ever before. In the first half of 2020, 88585 complaints and requests were processed in the ECC-Net; at the peak of the Corona crisis in April 2020 alone, the number was around 17600. (Source:Anniversary Report)
In Austria, the ECC has dealt with more than 6200 Corona-related consumer enquiries since March 2020 and, despite Corona-related difficulties, intervened more than 1100 times to achieve an out-of-court solution. The first peak of the Corona crisis in 2020 coincided with the upcoming travel season and resulted in an unprecedented demand for information.
Therefore, the VKI set up an additional hotline on travel law issues financed by the Federal Ministry of Social Affairs, Health, Care and Consumer Protection, in which the ECC was involved with its expertise as a backup. A total of 51,800 callers thus received their advice on travel law in connection with Corona. Our legal experts also gave more than 100 interviews in media.
Crises encourage fraudsters
The unfamiliar, sometimes confusing situation in general and the willingness of consumers to try out online alternatives during closed shops and cancelled events despite their lack of experience unfortunately offered fraudsters particularly favourable conditions in the pandemic year. We provided information about scams such as streaming traps, fake products or various Corona scams on social media or about potential pitfalls in genuine online offers, which we frequently find in our case work.
The pandemic has brought to light many unresolved legal issues, and in practice there are very different legal opinions on this, as the cases first have to be resolved before the courts. The situation is further complicated by the fact that in many cross-border disputes involving Corona, the national law of another country with different Corona exemption laws applies. ECC-Net therefore created an internal knowledge database in order to be able to provide answers to questions about flights, accommodation, package tours or events, for example, which also take country-specific Corona regulations into account.
As an example, the so-called "voucher solutions" of 2020. Many countries had enacted similar laws , for example Austria issued such rules for event reimbursements, several Mediterranean countries for hotels, France and the Netherlands for the protection of national airlines or the Benelux countries for package tours. This list could be continued with regulations of almost every European country.
Most enquiries usually concern the travel sector in ECC-Net, even without the Corona pandemic. So far, 45% of all registered cases have been related to air passenger rights. In the last 15 years, 60% of all travel transactions recorded in the network were carried out online and 16% of them were paid via intermediary agencies or booking platforms. The trend to book indirectly is continuously increasing.
During the pandemic, there were many problems, especially with airlines and intermediaries, some of which have still not been resolved, much to the chagrin of passengers who were denied boarding. Airlines take the view that customers who have not booked a flight directly should turn to the intermediaries with all their questions. The intermediary platforms, on the other hand, are often overloaded and respond with delays, often not at all, or refer back to the airline.
Towards the end of the 2020 travel season and with the "second wave" travel restrictions, the majority of enquiries to ECC-Net changed noticeably. It was no longer predominantly about seeking advice on future travel. Instead, complaints now tended to concern retroactive claims. Prevented clients had been compensated with vouchers, usually valid for only one year.
Others began to lose patience when their refund claims for services not consumed continued to be ignored. As both foreign travel and events continued to be difficult, such vouchers would expire unused. This is where many affected people now ask what they can do. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this because, as mentioned above, different country regulations apply.