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Top Gear Philippines

Not sure if you know this, but for a publication like ours to hold a simple contest--say, an online guessing game in which we're giving away a not-so-expensive prize (a bicycle, for example)--we actually need to notify and secure a permit from the Department of Trade and Industry. They will then send over a representative--who, by the way, will charge an appearance fee--to meticulously go over the rules and regulations of our relatively inconsequential contest. And then the representative will come back to oversee the selection of the winner, demanding another appearance fee.

All this fussiness over a harmless game that doesn't even require our readers to purchase anything. This, they say, is to protect the rights of our readers as consumers--to ensure that our readers won't get hoodwinked by the promo, as though the whole thing were a matter of life or death.

Which naturally gives me the impression that if consumerism were this high on the priority list of the government, DTI would leave no stones unturned in safeguarding the interests of consumers particularly when the purchases involved had cost the latter's life savings or even retirement benefits. Like car purchases, for instance.

With the kind of money we have to pay these days for even a small and spartan hatchback, one would think that DTI representatives are all over the auto industry in making sure that no "deceptive, unfair and unconscionable sales acts or practices" are foisted upon car buyers. I mean, if DTI gets deeply concerned and so worked up whenever a magazine reader joins a free, no-purchase-necessary contest, surely the department spares nothing to guarantee fairness whenever somebody buys a P1-million vehicle, right?

I wish I could answer that with a concrete yes.

You see, I've spent the past several months receiving and reading customer complaints about a common industry scam. One said: "I fell in line for the hottest sports car in town and waited patiently for months. When the unit finally arrived, I was informed by the salesperson that I had to purchase the expensive bodykit if I wanted to take the unit. They knew all along that I had ordered the standard variant. I didn't want the bodykit, but what choice did I really have?"

Another e-mail narrated: "I was excited to get my midsize SUV after being on the waiting list for a long time. But when I went to the dealer to finalize the transaction, I was told that the unit came with a 'required' DVD package costing an extra P85,000. It became a choice between getting the unit or losing it to a willing buyer."

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These instances are clearly a case of dealers taking advantage of customers who are desperate to get their hands on a hot-selling vehicle. "Get these extras and we will move you up the waiting list." Now, this is an old gimmick, for sure, but it becomes extremely fantastic once you realize that it's still being done in this age of social media--a time when even the faintest of utterances can be amplified and posted on Facebook for all the world to hear and lampoon.

Even more fantastic is the suggestion that dealer principals and the brands' head offices know nothing about these tricks of the trade. Of course they do, especially since many top-level officers in a car company were once salespeople themselves. To say that sales agents are able to pull this scheme off right under their boss's nose without the boss being aware of the racket, is to insist that Lois Lane can't tell Clark Kent from Superman. There's a wide-ass abyss that separates reality from comic-book fantasy.

Another ruse? A salesperson will force a buyer to avail of bank financing even if the buyer is able and ready to pay in cash, just because the salesperson will earn more from the interest. A well-off friend of mine got the above-mentioned sports car but not before settling for a one-year deal (he wanted to buy cash). Sure, any buyer can refuse the offer, but then he will have to wait longer for the next available unit--which will arrive when the model is no longer as desirable.

Let's not even talk about all the other hocus-pocus involving payment computations designed to make the buyer believe he is getting a huge discount, when in fact he'll end up paying so much more than if he went for another deal.

All of this tells me that we have very poor measures against consumer abuse. There exists Republic Act No. 7394, otherwise known as "The Consumer Act of the Philippines," which states that an unfair sales act or practice takes place when:

(1) "The producer, manufacturer, distributor, supplier or seller takes advantage of the inability of the consumer to reasonably protect his interest because of his inability to understand the language of an agreement";

(2) "The price grossly exceeds the price at which similar products or services are readily obtainable in a similar transaction by like consumers";

(3) "The consumer is unable to receive a substantial benefit from the subject of the transaction"; and

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(4) "The seller or supplier induces the consumer to enter into an excessively one-sided transaction in favor of the seller or supplier."

But the penalty for this is chicken feed to begin with: "a fine of not less than P500 but not more than P10,000, or imprisonment of not less than five months but not more than one year, or both." And that's if the penalty gets to be meted out in the first place. I haven't heard of a car salesman receiving jail time for duping an OFW into wasting hard-earned money on stupid car accessories.

I have raised this issue with industry executives, but frankly, I am not so confident about their ability to put a complete stop to this commercial chicanery. The legal authorities should step in. If you ask me, the act of professionally conning someone out of his cold cash should be considered a serious crime. Car salesmen have a right to earn, but not to walk off with somebody's honest wages. Their need of a bigger take-home pay should be addressed by their companies.

A final thought: You know something is somberly wrong when frustrated customers would rather write to a car magazine to air their grievances than run to the actual consumer-protection branch of government. We'd like to help but those unscrupulous salesmen would probably just laugh at us. Because in our Republic of Eat Bulaga, almost everything has been reduced to a joke.

Vernon B. Sarne
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