Consumers are increasingly having a fight on their hands for refunds in the Covid-19 crisis. Irish licensed travel agents and tour operators will now be able to offer a credit note for cancelled package holidays - rather than a cash refund - under proposals approved by Cabinet on Friday. Although it will be possible to exchange these notes for cash in the future, the move means that many of those who paid for package holidays that have fallen through will now face a wait for a cash refund.
Only last month, the Irish Government signed a letter - along with the governments of 11 other EU countries - which called on the European Commission to temporarily change the rules for cancelled flights so airlines can issue credit notes instead of refunds.
While the call was made to protect airlines, which some argue are facing their worst crisis ever, there are concerns that consumer rights will be watered down if the rules are changed.
Consumers could also lose out with credit notes if the company that issued them goes out of business - unless there is a guarantee that the note will still be valid in the event of insolvency.
"Making a consumer accept a credit voucher from an airline in these circumstances is like making a turkey vote for Christmas," said Dermott Jewell, policy adviser with the Consumers' Association of Ireland.
The struggle for refunds isn't limited to flights and holidays. The economic chaos which the Covid-19 crisis has triggered could see many businesses go to the wall in the coming months, with consumers who have handed over money to such companies likely to struggle to get refunds.
So where could you run into trouble getting a refund in the current climate - and how can you boost your odds of getting your money back?
Can I get refund if a store goes bust after I bought something online?
When ordering something online, you must usually pay for your item before it is delivered. Should the shop go bust before the item is delivered, you might never get what you have paid for - and you could also struggle to get your money back.
Other creditors will typically be given priority over you in the event of a liquidation, so taxes owed by the company, wages owed to employees, or money owed to a bank are more likely to be paid than refunds due to customers.
"If an administrator or examiner is appointed [to a shop that has gone bust], the average customer is way down the line of creditors," said Jewell. However, you may be able to get your money back through a chargeback, where your credit or debit card provider agrees to reverse the transaction - on the basis that the goods were not delivered.
You should complain to the shop first - or the liquidator if one has been appointed - and ask for a refund, but if you can't get your money back in this way or if the company can't arrange a quick delivery of the item, get in touch with your card provider immediately and request a chargeback. The sooner you do this, the better. If you have used a credit card to pay for the goods, for example, "your credit card provider may not have actually paid the company [that has gone bust] for the item yet", said Jewell. If this is the case, it could be very easy for your credit card company to stop the payment and for you to get your money back, he said.
You may still be able to get an item delivered if the shop you ordered it from has gone into liquidation - if an element of the business remains open. Debenhams, for example, which appointed liquidators for its Irish arm last month, is continuing to sell online and to deliver goods ordered online, though deliveries may take a bit longer than normal.
To protect yourself when buying online, always use a credit or debit card to pay for something and check with your card provider before you buy to see how easy (or not) it is to secure chargeback in the event of the non-delivery of goods. Also, avoid buying from shops which have been struggling financially in recent weeks or months, only pay a small deposit if you can, don't buy expensive items and don't pay in full for something if there is a long wait for delivery.
Can I get money back for gift voucher if the company that issued it goes bust?
Many of us received or bought gift vouchers for hotels, shops, hairdressing salons and so on before the Covid-19 crisis kicked off. The emergency has forced many of these companies to temporarily close and there are concerns that some may not reopen. If you hold an unused gift voucher with a business which has closed down, that voucher is likely to be worthless.
"If a business closes down, you will be treated as an 'unsecured creditor' and it is unlikely you will be able to get your money back [for a gift voucher or card]," said a spokeswoman for the consumer watchdog, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC). "So if you have a voucher, try to use it as quickly as possible, especially in the current climate."
Even if a company goes into liquidation, you may still have a small window of time to spend a gift voucher, particularly if the business has an online or international arm. Should you have no opportunity to spend your voucher, write to the liquidator in charge, provide proof of your voucher and request your money back. Bear in mind, though, it is very unlikely your voucher will be honoured once a company goes out of business. Even if new owners take over the business, they may not honour any gift vouchers issued by the previous owner. You may be able to get your money back through chargeback if the voucher was bought with a credit or debit card, so contact your card provider quickly and see if it can reverse the transaction.
Remember, for vouchers held with businesses that reopen after a temporary closure, you should be able to get your voucher validity date extended.
Can I get money back for a holiday home which I couldn't stay in?
Many Irish people who had booked holiday homes for the Easter holidays or May bank holiday weekend could not travel to them as a result of the Government's Covid-19 restrictions. This could be the case for the summer too, depending on how long the crisis and restrictions continue.
Getting money back for a holiday home booking which you have paid for, but which you weren't able to travel to as a result of the coronavirus emergency, could prove difficult. The terms and conditions of your booking will usually dictate whether or not you can get a refund. Holiday home contracts often have a force majeure clause which outlines where you stand on refunds should an unexpected emergency lead to a holiday home booking being cancelled.
Many holiday homes were closed during the lockdown so if you had paid for such a holiday home, you should at the very least be allowed to carry forward the money paid to a future holiday home booking - though you may have to take that postponed holiday within a certain time.
Some providers are more flexible than others and are offering refunds for holiday homes which were paid for in advance of the Covid-19 crisis - but which had to close, or could not be travelled to, as a result of the Government restrictions. Remember, some holiday home owners or providers may be willing to amend or waive the terms of their contract as a gesture of goodwill.
Should you feel the terms of your holiday home contract are unfair, you may have a basis to challenge the holiday home provider about the fairness of that contract.
"In general, where there is a written contract drafted by a trader in advance and a consumer does not have the opportunity to influence that contract, then that contract usually falls under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts regulations," said the CCPC spokeswoman.
"If a consumer feels the business is not acting within the terms and conditions of the contract, or if the consumer feels the terms and conditions are unfairly weighted against them, they can make a formal complaint to the business. Following this, if the issue is not resolved, the consumer may choose to take legal action. If the claim is for less than €2,000, they may consider using the small claims procedure to try to resolve the issue."
The Covid-19 crisis has taught us that we have taken a lot of things - including the right to a timely and straightforward refund -for granted. All the more important then to get up to speed on your rights and to get ready to fight for a refund in case you need to.
Sunday Indo Business