Ever since the amended Law on the Protection of Consumer Rights and Interests took effect to mark World Consumer Rights Day on March 15 last year, there has been a surge in professional fraud fighting. According to statistics from courts at various levels, at least 90 percent of all consumer rights cases are lawsuits from professional fraud fighters.
However, these consumer advocates have seen their own legitimacy called into question, with some arguing that making money represents their final goal. These fighters deliberately buy counterfeit goods, even if they have no need of them, and then demand compensation from sellers. If the case cannot be settled, it is then brought to court.
Consumer rights have doubtlessly been safeguarded owing to the intervention of these campaigners, particularly when high costs and convoluted legal procedures often discourage ordinary consumers from employing legal means to protect their legitimate rights.
A necessary evil
He Yonghai (www.gmw.cn): Upon discovering they have bought counterfeit or shoddily made products, what the majority of consumers can do is ask for a refund, given the exorbitant costs of going to court. Professional fraud fighters, however, present a more formidable foe to businesses making or selling fake products.
These fighters have continued to be a thorn in the side of those peddling illegitimate products. Many sellers will continue to cheat consumers if they are not severely punished, so it's great to see professional fighters take them on. Although these fighters deliberately buy fake products for compensation and make a living from the same, their final objective is to clean up the market, which benefits society at large.
There are frequent reports on the unenviable set of circumstances experienced by consumers when seeking justice--either they can't provide hard evidence, or they have to give up altogether owing to complex and slow-moving legal procedures. Occasionally, one or two consumers may emerge successful, but they often find that theirs is a pyrrhic victory, given the lengths they have been forced to go to. Therefore, the choice to fight for one's legitimate rights is simply too potentially costly. Ordinary consumers are often left with no choice but to put up with the unfair treatment they encounter in their consumption activity.
The new regulations announced last year stipulate that in cases of accusations of impropriety, sellers or producers must furnish authorities with evidence proving otherwise, or risk facing the appropriate penalties. The intention of this was to unburden consumers of the requirement to collect sufficient evidence and the time and effort consequently expended. However, this measure has yet to achieve the desired effect. Another dissuasive factor for consumers is the vague definition of the discrete functions of various supervisory authorities. When dealing with disputes, consumers often find it difficult to physically locate the relevant department. All of this has barred the way for consumers seeking redress.
Yu Wenjun (www.cnhubei.com): Is professional fraud fighting a sound practice? Absolutely. Compared with the average man on the street, these fighters are equipped with a greater understanding of consumer laws and how to seek remedy. If anything, we have too little professional fraud fighting activity. An uptick in cases would greatly reduce the selling of counterfeit products. Suppressing the sale of fake products, however, is first and foremost the government's duty. The fake products boom can be attributed to the inaction of relevant authorities. If government departments were to fulfill their duties to the letter, we would have no need for professional fraud fighters.
The problem with these fighters is that their primary motivations are allegedly only monetary gain and even fame. However, as no laws forbid professional fraud fighting, this practice is for the time being permissible.
The game is up
Tangjiweide (Meizhou Daily): Fraud fighting purely for the pursuit of profit is, to some extent, analogous to deliberately producing and selling fake products. Bit by bit, I predict professional fraud fighters will lose public support.
Despite the profit he has garnered from helping promote the fight against fake goods, the original professional fraud fighter, Wang Hai, has found his activities frustrating in a number of ways and he faces indifference and even retaliation to his crusade.
Today, many consumers hope for professional fraud fighters to play an even larger role. In the fight against fakes, these warriors must know that apart from trying to make money for themselves, they must work for the interests of ordinary consumers.
Zhu Changjun (West China Metropolis Daily): Professional fraud fighters succeed so well in their pursuits because they cling strictly to the Law on the Protection of Consumer Rights and Interests, making full use of the rights and privileges it confers.
Within the present legal framework, professional fraud fighting is not an unreasonable practice, and it makes the production and sale of fake goods more expensive and risky. However, it would be improper to exaggerate the scale of its impact on protecting the rights and interests of consumers. Since the primary goal of these consumer warriors is attaining relatively meager compensatory sums, the deterrence they pose to the guilty parties is actually quite limited.
In a mature market environment, the safeguarding of consumer rights can only be founded upon universal legal guarantees. The popularity of professional fraud fighting groups proves that the current system is sorely in need of adjustment. The majority of wronged consumers are isolated individuals fighting against manufacturers or sellers that are usually collective entities. This is an asymmetric battle; therefore, the priority must be to level the playing field somewhat. Professional fraud fighting is the product of an imbalanced consumer environment, and though it is an acceptable practice, we cannot rely upon it alone.
Zhu Yonghua (www.chinadaily.com.cn): Although professional fraud fighters do help curb the rampant sale of substandard products, most are interested only in making money. Some even take advantage of the laws protecting consumers' legitimate rights to extort money from the manufacturers and sellers of illegitimate goods, so the latter can avoid further penalization by government watchdogs. Such people cannot be called fraud fighters in any meaningful way. It could be that the accused party might bribe these fighters to protect their reputation and ability to stay in business.
Most fighters, having made money in one city, often tend to move onto the next, making theirs a predatory undertaking. If manufacturers and sellers continue to engage in illegal activity, these fighters do not generally continue to pursue them. It could even be said that professional fighters have formed an alliance of sorts with their quarry and are dependent on them.
Professional fraud fighters are not consumers in the strictest sense of the word. They buy products not for the purpose of usage, but to extract compensation from sellers. The laws are still not clear on how to deal with such behavior, but in most cases, when these professional fighters go to court as ordinary consumers, they receive legal support. As the laws do not explicitly recognize this profession or make exceptions for it, these fighters are acting within the boundaries of the law.
It is arguable that the behavior of professional fraud fighters goes against the mores of mainstream Chinese society. They buy fake products in the full knowledge they are not the genuine articles, and then present themselves as victims. Indeed, irrespective of their legality, the actions of these "fake consumers" may be just as morally questionable as those who produce and sell false goods.
Some praise professional fraud fighting as complementary to the government's efforts to discourage the sale of fake goods. However, there exists one essential difference between professional fraud fighters and quality watchdogs. The final goal of the former is to make money, and instead of helping strengthen the government's market supervision, the fraud fighters are likely to weaken its authority in this area.
At present, professional fraud fighting is not banned in China, but this does not necessarily mean that the government endorses this behavior. Strict supervision along with the public's active participation in the fight for their rights will ultimately be the most effective way to deal with counterfeit products.
Copyedited by Eric Daly