Company holding Aussies ‘to ransom’
Welcome to Sisters In Law, news.com.au's weekly column solving all of your legal problems. This week, our resident lawyers and real-life sisters Alison and Jillian Barrett from Maurice Blackburn tackle your legal rights when it comes to coronavirus rip-offs.
QUESTION: I was supposed to go on a family holiday to Europe in April - but the coronavirus pandemic put a stop to that. We've been refunded the full cost of flights from one agency for the return flights, but we booked with a different agency for the first leg of the trip - and they're holding us to ransom. In fact, we're being charged a $400 fee after requesting a refund for our Sydney to Lisbon flights, even though the airline itself cancelled the second leg from Qatar to Lisbon, and is waiving fees. We feel this is cruel and unfair given the situation was totally beyond our control. What are our rights when it comes to COVID-19 rip-offs? - Jude, NSW
ANSWER: Unfortunately, you're not alone in trying to get money back for a much-anticipated holiday that didn't happen.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) have been inundated with complaints about travel providers denying requests for refunds and travel insurance agencies refusing to cover COVID-19 claims.
Many travel agencies have cancellation fees hidden in the fine print of their contracts. You should review the initial contract and see whether the contract permits the charge.
If it doesn't, you can lodge a complaint with the ACCC.
Some businesses have even changed the fine print terms of the original agreement, without notice to the customer, and are attempting to rely on these new terms to deny claims. The ACCC is investigating this.
If the original fine print does permit the charge, or if there are other payments you're struggling to get back, then here are some other options.
If you have travel insurance, try to make a claim. Some policies will exclude cover for pandemics, or where the government has prohibited travel.
It may also depend on when you bought cover and whether the insurer had changed the terms of their policy to exclude pandemic claims.
If your claim is rejected, you can lodge a complaint or request an internal review.
If your claim remains rejected, then you can lodge a complaint with the AFCA.
REQUEST A 'CHARGEBACK'
If you used a credit card to purchase the flights, contact your credit card provider and request a "chargeback" for "services not rendered".
The provider will investigate and run the dispute for you.
ACCEPT A TRAVEL CREDIT
Some agencies are waiving the cancellation fee/charges when you agree to accept a travel credit and rebook with them at a later date.
BRING IN THE UMPIRES
You are entitled to make a complaint to the ACCC or the AFCA (for travel insurance). Usually you will be required to show you've attempted to remedy the situation yourself by approaching the provider directly.
Sometimes this process may take longer than dealing with the providers directly as you will be required to provide all of the evidence about your complaint, including attempts you've made to remedy the situation.
The ACCC has published guidelines stating that travel restrictions due to COVID-19 may result in a "frustration of contract".
A frustrated contract may happen when an event outside the control of the parties to the contract has occurred. This means the contractual obligations cannot be met and you could be entitled to a refund or travel credit, less the provider's "reasonable expenses" incurred before the cancellation.
If the agency attempting to charge $400 does allow a charge in their fine print, they will need to show the charge is reasonable and that you were provided with the fine print on engaging them.
You can further investigate your rights by contacting the consumer agency in your state.
For further, more specific information, you should seek legal advice.
This legal information is general in nature and should not be regarded as specific legal advice or relied upon. Persons requiring particular legal advice should consult a solicitor.
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Originally published as Company holding Aussies 'to ransom'