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Man weeps in plea for refund from Sim Lim Square shop

Meet Mr Jover Chew.

He made two women go down on their knees and he made a grown man cry.

And all they wanted was to buy the latest iPhones from his shop, Mobile Air, in Sim Lim Square.

Just when they thought the deal was sealed, they got a nasty surprise. To get the iPhones they had just paid for, they had to stump out a hefty four-figure sum for the warranties.

Refuse and leave empty-handed, with their initial payment forfeited.

The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) says that such unfair practices are a breach of the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act.

Yet, Mobile Air and other errant retailers have been getting away with it despite being "blacklisted" by Case.

Ms Zhou, a Chinese national studying in Singapore, was forced to pay $1,400 for the warranty on top of the $1,600 she had paid for an iPhone 6 Plus.

She took her case to the Small Claims Tribunal, which ordered Mobile Air to refund her $1,010.

When Ms Zhou and her aunt went to collect the refund on Oct 28, Mr Chew's staff gave her the money in coins.

She said they threw the bag of coins on the floor and forced the two women to kneel down to count the coins while taunting them.

Then, on Monday, a Vietnamese tourist who wanted to buy an iPhone 6 for his girlfriend as a gift fell prey to Mobile Air's illegal sales tactics.

After paying $950 for the phone, Mr Pham Van Thoai, 30, was told to pay another $1,500 for the warranty.

Mr Pham, a factory worker who earns the equivalent of $200 a month, asked for a refund. When the staff refused, he burst into tears and went down on his knees to plead with them, but to no avail.

Mr Pham and his girlfriend, who arrived in Singapore for a holiday last Sunday, were looking high and low for the iPhone 6, which is not available in Vietnam, reported Lianhe Zaobao.

They ended up at Sim Lim Square after being turned away by three retailers who had no stock.

Mr Pham claimed to know nothing about the warranty and wanted a full refund of the money he had saved for months.

But after the police and Case intervened, Mr Pham accepted a $400 refund as he wanted to settle the matter before returning home.

This is just the latest in a series of incidents that has tarred the name of Sim Lim Square, which is often touted as the go-to place for bargain electronics and gadgets.

On Monday, the Singapore Tourism Board announced that a permanent injunction has been granted by the High Court of Singapore against electronics wholesale company Cyber Maestro.

The shop no longer operates at Sim Lim Square, according to the current tenant, who wanted to be known only as Alex.

When asked about Mr Pham's case, Mobile Air's Mr Chew declined to comment, saying that he was not in the shop at the time.

"I'm not going to say any more because I don't want to sully this incident any more," he told The New Paper over the phone.

But netizens have started exacting their own brand of justice on Mr Chew, with many comments on Facebook criticising him and Mobile Air over its treatment of Mr Pham.

A post on the SMRT Ltd (Feedback) Facebook page also revealed his personal details. By 9.50pm, the post had 1,337 likes, 108 shares and 151 comments.

Case received 14 complaints about Mobile Air between July and September this year.

Mobile Air is not the only mobile phone shop to come under scrutiny. Other shops on the first two levels, such as Gadget Terminal and Mobile 22, have been accused of similar trading practices.

Case received nine complaints from customers about Mobile 22 between July and September.

But shop staff were reticent about the way they operate.

At Mobile 22, an employee would say only that business has dipped drastically in recent days after the bad press.

When asked about allegations of overcharging and other dishonest practices, he said quietly: "This is our rice bowl, after all."

Even shops on the higher floors of the mall are feeling the heat.

Weekend crowds have stopped streaming into the complex since last year, said Mr Gary Ong, the managing director of computer shop Fuwell International.

"Luckily, we have a regular customer base and some corporate customers. This is why we can still survive. If we didn't have them, we would be in deep trouble."

Infinity Computer's sales manager, Mr Chen Wenxie, agreed, but said there were other factors for the significantly smaller crowds.

"There are so many smart devices in the market today, like iPhones and iPads. All the electronics shops here are affected," he said.

Despite the drop in business, both men say they have no plans to leave.

"Those who know their stuff will still come back here to buy what they need. The complaints are mostly about the mobile phone shops on the first two levels," said Mr Chen.

If the total cost of the item is not disclosed before the consumer signs the sales agreement, it is a breach of the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act.

- Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) executive director Seah Seng Choon

HARD TO TAKE ACTION WITHOUT PROOF

Mobile phone shop Mobile Air was asked by the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) to sign a Voluntary Compliance Agreement (VCA) because of the large number of local complaints received.

Under this agreement, the shop will have to admit that it has engaged in unfair practices, agree to stop such practices and compensate the complainants, said Case executive director Seah Seng Choon.

The High Court has also granted a permanent injunction against electronics company Cyber Maestro. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) had applied for the injunction because of the large number of tourist complaints.

An injunction means the company must not engage in any more unfair practices, or it will face the law under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act (CPFTA), said lawyer Chen Chee Yen.

Since March 2004, Case has taken up about 17 VCAs against businesses with unfair practices and five injunction proceedings against errant companies.

The management council of Sim Lim Square said on Monday that the problem of errant retailers persists despite its best efforts and cooperation with Case, STB and the police.

"Law enforcement officers can be sighted in Sim Lim Square almost every day. However, the errant retailers are completely undeterred as the authorities appear to lack 'teeth' to take them to task," it said in a press release.

Mr Chen said these agencies often require clear evidence before enforcement can take place.

He added that it is often a challenge for consumers to prove that the seller was intending to "trick" them.

"The evidence could come in the form of CCTV footage or recordings of conversations that could reveal a certain pattern of behaviour.

"But the customer is usually not in a good situation as the CCTV footage is in the hands of the shop owner."

SELLERS MUST REVEAL FULL PRICE IN ADVANCE: CASE

Errant retailers at Sim Lim Square often offer what seems like a good deal. But after the money is paid and a sales agreement is signed, the retailer will demand more money for "extras" such as warranty services.

If the consumer declines, they are forced to give up both the goods and their initial payment.

This practice runs afoul of consumer laws here, said Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) executive director Seah Seng Choon.

He said: "If the total cost of the item is not disclosed before the consumer signs the sales agreement, it is a breach of the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act (CPFTA)."

Mr Seah advises consumers to do research in advance.

"Consumers can consult local web forums to get feedback on the retailers, the average cost of the product, and other issues like after-sales service, warranty fees, common defects etc," he said.

Case also puts out a list of errant retailers online and at two shopping malls - People's Park Complex and Sim Lim Square.

Both Mobile Air and Cyber Maestro are on the consumer alert list for having the most number of complaints over the past three months.

The management council of Sim Lim Square revealed on Monday that consumers were often at the losing end when dealing with errant retailers.

"Frequently, it would be the retailer who calls the police and accuses the aggrieved customer of causing a scene at the shop," it said.

A spokesman for Sim Lim told The Straits Times earlier this week: "As Sim Lim Square is a strata title building, we are not the landlord; we are only the managing agent, so we are not able to kick the tenants out."

Consumers who cannot settle a dispute with retailers can approach Case, and tourists can contact the Singapore Tourism Board.

CASE SAYS...

MOBILE PHONES INDUSTRY

227

Number of complaints last year, broken down into:

  • Misrepresentation: 55
  • Sales tactics: 24
  • Overcharging: 23
  • Others (defective goods, unsatisfactory services, refunds etc): 125

244

Number of complaints so far this year (January to October), broken down into:

  • Misrepresentation: 102
  • Sales tactics: 29
  • Overcharging: 14
  • Others: 99

ELECTRICAL & ELECTRONICS INDUSTRY

261

Number of complaints last year, broken down into:

  • Misrepresentation: 42
  • Sales tactics: 19
  • Overcharging: 13
  • Others: 187

235

Number of complaints so far this year (January to October), broken down into:

  • Misrepresentation: 37
  • Sales tactics: 33
  • Overcharging: 4
  • Others: 161

SOURCE: CONSUMERS ASSOCIATION OF SINGAPORE

READERS SAY...

HAVE YOU BOUGHT SOMETHING FROM SIM LIM SQUARE BEFORE?

Yes: 239 (74%)

No: 83 (26%)

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR EXPERIENCE AT SIM LIM SQUARE?

Positive: 113 (39%)

Negative: 178 (61%)

WOULD YOU RECOMMEND SIM LIM SQUARE TO OTHERS?

Yes: 60 (18%)

No: 268 (82%)

SOURCE: ONLINE POLL BY THE NEW PAPER

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