AG’s office helping consumers dealing with COVID-19 cancellations

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The COVID-19 pandemic continues to force cancellations across the board, leaving consumers wondering if they’ll be able to get refunds on everything from airline tickets to canceled events.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha said the best way for people to voice their concerns is to call his office’s Consumer Protection Unit at (401) 274-4400.

The unit is made up of several investigators working to help local consumers in any way they can.

“We’re not taking walk-ins as we used to, but you can reach out by telephone and then by follow-up with scanning in documents,” Neronha said.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the unit was getting about 700 calls a month, according to Neronha. He said they’ve recently taken complaints regarding gym memberships, airline issues and venue tickets, and when it comes to refunds, it depends on the service.

“A lot of what governs that situation is — what was the policy in place at the time the tickets were bought?” he explained. “The first thing to do is understand what the relationship was legally or contractually with the person who bought the ticket or the vendor.”

Neronha had a warning for businesses looking to change their policy after consumers have already paid for a service.

“It is unfair, and it would be looked on very negatively by my office if a company were to change its policy after the fact,” he said. “I think that is something that would seriously cause concern on my part.”

The law that protects Rhode Islanders under the Consumer Protection Statute is called the Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

“It prevents folks from engaging in an unfair, deceptive practice which negatively impacts consumers,” Neronha explained. “What it doesn’t do, is it doesn’t protect consumers from what is called ‘regulated industries.'”

Neronha said his office has been trying to change the law because it doesn’t go far enough to protect consumers.

“That’s why we have put in legislation to change that the last two years,” he said.

Those bills have failed in the General Assembly so far. Some of the proposed changes include restoring “the legislatively-intended scope of the Attorney General’s authority to reach unfair and deceptive practices impacting consumers,” and to “enable the Attorney General to seek injunctive relief and civil penalties for initial violations of the DTPA.”

According to Neronha, Rhode Island is the only state that does not permit civil penalties for the first violation of its consumer protection laws.

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