ACM reviews ‘corona voucher schemes’
Over the last few weeks, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has reviewed approximately 180 voucher schemes in five different sectors. ACM conducted these reviews following indications submitted to ACM’s consumer information portal, ACM ConsuWijzer, among other reasons. ACM found that not every reviewed voucher scheme complied with the basic principles that had been drawn up by ACM. Communication with consumers about solutions in the event of cancellations must be improved as well. ACM has instructed the first group of businesses to make improvements to their voucher schemes. Over the next several weeks, ACM will continue with these reviews, including a review of the voucher scheme in the travel industry.
Edwin van Houten, Director of ACM’s Consumer Department, explains: “Consumers are entitled to a refund if a business does not deliver a product or service. However, if all businesses needed to refund all of their customers at once, many businesses could go bankrupt. In that case, consumers are left with nothing to claim at all. That is why vouchers can be a reasonable alternative under the current circumstances. However, such vouchers need to be full replacements, and consumers must know exactly what they are choosing. It is in the interest of consumers and businesses that this process goes well. We will continue to keep a close watch on voucher schemes.”
What seems to go wrong with these voucher schemes?
ACM has reviewed the voucher schemes in the following sectors: recreation, cultural events, sporting events, gyms, and education/workshops. ACM already indicated that it sympathizes with businesses that offer vouchers, as long as they comply with several important basic principles. Over the past few weeks, ACM has reviewed 180 businesses, and checked whether they correctly applied these basic principles as drawn up by ACM. ACM selected these businesses on the basis of indications submitted to ACM’s consumer information portal, ACM ConsuWijzer, among other factors.
In its review, ACM has come across businesses offering satisfactory solutions, but has also found several shortcomings in these voucher schemes:
- Vouchers that wrongfully fail to cover all the costs incurred by consumers. For example, reservation fees and administrative fees are not always refunded. Also, the residual amounts of the vouchers are not always refunded to consumers when the vouchers expire. ACM has also come across situations where consumers who do not want a voucher do not get any information about how to get a refund, whereas they should receive such information.
- ACM has come across businesses that refuse to give consumers their money back or to offer them any alternatives. These businesses often invoke force majeure, referring to the relevant clause in their general terms and conditions. This is not allowed. Consumer rights cannot be curtailed in general terms and conditions.
- Some businesses were found lacking when it comes to refunds. Consumers, for example, are given very short deadlines for requesting refunds. At the same time, ACM has seen that it can take a very long time before consumers are refunded. In some cases, it takes more than a year. What a reasonable period for refunding is, may vary under the current circumstances. Before the measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19 were implemented, several weeks seemed to be a reasonable deadline, but today, a couple of months may be considered reasonable.
ACM’s oversight over voucher schemes will continue
The first group of businesses is already adjusting their voucher schemes’ terms and conditions that were unreasonable or unclear, having been instructed by ACM to do so. ACM will continue to keep a close watch on these voucher schemes over the next couple of months, and will continue to remind businesses of the basic principles. It is important that the rights of consumers who accept vouchers are not curtailed.
ACM has previously drawn up the following basic principles regarding voucher schemes:
- The consumers’ right to refunds remains intact
- Vouchers must represent a full replacement for the undelivered product or service
- The period of validity of the vouchers must be reasonable
- Businesses must pay out any residual amounts (the amount of the voucher that has not been spent)
- The vouchers must also cover reservation fees, administrative fees or any other fees
- ACM finds it important that vouchers are either covered by a guarantee fund, or that they are transferable.
Voucher schemes that do not comply with these basic principles in general are not reasonable alternatives to refunds. ACM can impose fines on businesses that do not comply with consumer protection rules, and force them to comply by imposing an order subject to periodic penalty payments. In addition, consumers have the opportunity to go to a civil-law court, either individually or collectively, and file a claim against those businesses.