Mobility aids firms are using ‘unfair sales tactics’


Some companies that sell mobility aids are targeting disabled and older people with “unfair sales practices”, particularly when visiting them at home, according to a new report.

The market study into mobility aids by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) says some disabled and older people are paying too much for their mobility aids.

It accuses a “small minority” of firms of subjecting disabled and older people to unfair practices, such as high pressure and “misleading” sales practices.

Consumer Direct, the OFT’s advice service, has received more than 4,000 complaints about mobility aids sales in each of the last three years.

The OFT has launched investigations into two national mobility aids companies, one over unfair doorstep selling practices, and one over the company’s “terms and conditions” and the quality of its service.

It is also investigating other “similar behaviour” which it said could lead to further action, including the possible removal of credit licences from “a number” of companies.

But despite the concerns, the OFT has “provisionally” concluded that it is not necessary to refer the entire mobility aids market to the Competition Commission, although it is now seeking views on this decision, with responses needed by 20 October.

The new report says as many as half of consumers could be paying too much for their equipment because they are failing to “shop around” – often due to poor mobility, lack of access to the internet or time pressure – with the price of one mobility scooter varying by as much as £3,000.

About half of the websites and adverts the OFT checked failed to quote any prices.

The OFT has launched a “doorstep selling consumer awareness campaign”, which provides “practical tips” and advice on rights.

It is also supporting trading standards departments to target firms suspected of engaging in unfair sales practices.

And it has secured an agreement from the British Healthcare Trades Association (BHTA) to update its code of practice so all of its members display price information on their marketing material and websites.

Alan Norton, chief executive of Assist UK, which leads the national network of Disabled Living Centres – which provide free, impartial advice on independent living equipment – welcomed the measures proposed by the OFT.

Assist UK worked with the OFT on its investigation and passed on reports from its mystery shopping project, which has been carried out by disabled people over the last three years.

Norton said that assistive technology equipment “can be an essential tool in gaining independence and it is important that these products are available at a fair and reasonable price for all”.

He added: “We will be monitoring the developments and will report any trading irregularities to the OFT and the BHTA to take the appropriate action.”

Chris Shaw, chief executive of the Disabled Living Foundation, also welcomed the report.

She said: “What we are all after is people making informed choices and the right choices for them. We completely endorse the need for high quality and accurate information and for all suppliers to provide that as a matter of course to their consumers.”

Meanwhile, the OFT has published new guidance for businesses considering granting credit to disabled people who might not have the “mental capacity” to make “informed borrowing decisions”.

It sets out the steps consumer credit companies should take to identify such borrowers, help them understand credit agreements, and reduce the risk of them securing “unaffordable or clearly unsuitable credit”.

David Fisher, director of the OFT’s consumer credit group, said: “It is important to balance the right of a person to make a decision, with their right to safety and protection when they can’t make decisions to protect themselves.”

29 September 2011