One of the upsides of three South African airlines going bust in the past four years is that theres increased awareness about a previously little-known consumer protection called chargeback. File photo by Leon Nicholas.

Happy new year! I hope it’s a good one for consumers. Or at least an improvement on last year. The year 2012 saw not one but two budget airlines crashing without warning, leaving thousands of people holding useless pre-paid tickets.

Those who had paid by credit card, and knew about a consumer protection called a charge-back, managed to get their money refunded via their banks. But many who’d paid by cash or EFT simply lost out, their festive season plans left in tatters.

And the National Consumer Commission – the body mandated to enforce our relatively new, potentially very powerful Consumer Protection Act – made the news not for championing consumer rights, but for lacking the means to deal with the deluge of CPA-related complaints, and legal wrangles over the commis- sioner’s departure from office.

Let’s hope that body gets its house in order this year, and does justice to a wonderful piece of legislation.

On the upside, 2012 saw the long-awaited regulations pertaining to the marketing and labelling of foods finally come into force, requiring manufacturers to reveal all sorts of things on the label for the first time, including something as basic as a date stamp. If you pick up a pack of muffins called “blueberry” in a supermarket, check to see how much of the acclaimed superfood is in there.

All in all, our food labels are now a whole lot more revealing for those who bother to take a peek at them. Or they should be – recent revelations about the content of certain processed meat products indicate that compliance is slow in the case of some manufacturers.

Expect more foodie revelations this year.

The CPA section which continues to drive the most complaints to my inbox is that which governs returns, and I’m not expecting that to change much in 2013. In short, if something a consumer has bought breaks or becomes defective in some way within six months of purchase, the consumer has the right to return it for their choice of a refund, repair or replacement.

That’s unless the consumer has caused the problem by misusing the product, of course. And companies have the right to send the allegedly defective product away for assessment, in order to rule out such consumer abuse.

But if goods aren’t faulty, you don’t have a legal right to return them.

If the store offers you a credit voucher or exchange, don’t be angry and insist on your “right” to a refund.

If something you’ve bought does develop a fault, don’t let the retailer fob you off to the manufacturer. Your contract is with the retailer, not the manufacturer or supplier. And don’t let the manufacturer confuse you with their own returns policies.

A few days ago, I received an e-mail from Maggie Richter of Pretoria who bought a washing machine from a major national retailer on December 1.

On the 18th, it developed a fault.

She called the only number she’d been given for the manufacturer, in search of technical help, but her calls were not returned.

She has since spoken to a number of manufacturer representatives, but still hasn’t received a call back.

“I fear that they are avoiding honouring their promise… the 30-day period is almost up.”

And then she typed out the manufacturer’s promise she was referring to: “We’re so confident that you’ll love your washing machine that we’re giving you a money-back guarantee. If you are not completely satisfied within 30 days, you will be eligible for a refund.”

Well, as I’ve just explained to Richter, that’s not quite the full story, given that the CPA supersedes any company’s returns policies for the first six months.

So I advised her to forget about the 30-day deadline and insist that the retailer take responsibility for the defective washing machine by liaising with the manufacturer on her behalf.

But I have a feeling this one’s going to need my intervention.

To be continued…

Bottom line – if you don’t know your consumer rights, you’ll be deprived of them.

Here’s hoping this year, more consumers feel compelled to get clued up – before they get caught.

The Star