The smart Israeli consumer

Educate yourself to be a successful and proactive consumer in this country.

Israeli Supermarket (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israeli Supermarket
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Readers have been asking for articles I promised on senior residences, small claims court, neighbor issues and so on, but there are many consumer issues to deal with. I hope these will appear next month.
Here are some tips of general interest to help you be a successful and proactive consumer.
1. Reaching a company service representative
Many Israelis, especially older people, find it difficult to get through to a company that asks you to press number after number, give your ID number, the last four digits of your bank account, etc.
Subscribers to the non-profit Melabev organization can get help with such calls. It costs nothing to become a member and Melabev offers wonderful services. Call 1700-700-109, subscribe, and ask for someone help you make your calls.
I have my own way of handling this – similar to yelling “agent please” repeatedly when calling a company in the US. Here in Israel, the company you are trying to reach will ask you to press keys with information, and then press the sulamit (pound key) or the star. Without giving information, I just press the pound or star key – whichever they ask for. Each time, the recording notes that my “information is not correct.” After pressing the key five or six times, I am connected with a service representative.
Even if I get music, eventually, a representative says “hello!” This has never failed me yet.
Attorney Ofra Feldbau suggests a law that requires companies to forgo all initial requests for information and offer a key to press if you are over 70. She would also like to have service representatives who answer be patient and polite. She prepared a petition and hopes to move forward with it once she has enough signatures.
You can add your name at this link: www.atzuma.co.il/1button, by clicking on the green button. If that proves difficult, write to Ofra at ofeldbau@gmail.com. Hopefully a Knesset member will take on this challenge.

2. Hiring someone to fix an appliance, paint your house, etc.
On the Legal Issues program (Channel 2), problem solver Gideon Reicher told of an elderly couple in assisted housing who – like other parents – didn’t like “bothering” their children when they had a technical problem. One day the husband found a magnetic card in his mailbox from a company offering to fix just about anything. There was only a cellphone number, no office phone or address. He hired the person to fix his washing machine and was scammed out of NIS 2,500. Never take on technicians/laborers you don’t know personally, or who haven’t been recommended by someone you trust.
Important: Companies listing handymen, technicians, gardeners, etc. on their websites and brochures appear to be recommending them. The workers themselves will write “recommended by” the listing company.
Actually, the companies are paid to list these workers; that is not the same as a recommendation.
Get your own recommendations (we didn’t do this on one occasion and have been sorry ever since.) If you hire someone, clarify everything in advance, especially the total cost and when to pay. Never try to save money by paying in cash with no receipt.

3. Ordering a product
What happens when a product delivered to your door is not what you ordered or doesn’t appear on the date agreed upon? The supplier may already have taken at least one payment, or cashed one of your checks.
Can you get your money back? Can you cancel future payments? Israeli credit-card law does not provide for the return of money that has already been paid out unless a purchase was made unlawfully on your credit card (it was stolen, lost, or someone else used it to buy something without your permission).
One solution, at least for Internet purchases, is the use of PayPal instead of your credit card, especially if you are ordering from a new or unknown company.
We find PayPal to be a trustworthy and secure site that keeps your credit card information (so that you never give it out on the Internet). Best of all, you can often get back money you have already paid if the situation calls for it.
When you are not buying online or there is no PayPal option, try using post-dated checks. If there is a problem, you can cancel them with ease by informing your bank that you are doing so. This is a smoother process than canceling Visa payments. (Of course, in a dispute, the seller may want to sue you for the money, which shouldn’t worry you if you canceled in good faith.)

4. Canceling an ongoing transaction (like a cellphone or Internet company)
A 2008 law directs companies to stop taking money from your credit card after you inform them that you are discontinuing their services. It does not apply to gas companies. It does hold for communications companies, emergency medical services, subscriptions – for example to a health club or newspaper. It also applies to ongoing transactions with a final date and to contracts signed before the law went into effect. In this case, note this fact in your notice of cancellation.
If you have an ongoing membership or subscription and want to cancel before a year has passed, you may have to pay a cancellation fee. Check your contract before the service begins, both to learn exactly how much you will be paying out every month and to be aware of the cancellation policy in advance. If the fee is exorbitant, it can often be lowered in court.
If you hired a service verbally, and have no written contract, contact the company and ask them to send a document with clear cancellation information – something it is legally required to do.
Cancel in person, on the phone, in a registered letter, in a fax or by email. Give your name, ID number and consumer number, and, if relevant, the client number noted on your bill. No matter how you cancel, provide whatever is necessary so that the company can identify you as its customer.
If you noted the date that you wish the service to end, the company must stop charging you from that date. From that time it can no longer charge you for anything, including continued use of your cable TV or Internet. It is responsible for cutting you off.
If you did not note a date, and posted a registered letter, the service must stop within six days after it was posted.
If you used another method, the company must stop charging no more than three days after your notification of cancellation.
A new law that goes into effect soon is meant to help consumers who quit a company in the middle of a month. It requires cellphone companies to charge only for the days that you were connected.
Tips from the Israel Consumer Council: If you terminate an ongoing transaction verbally, follow it up with a fax or email so that you will have proof of the cancellation.
The Council adds that this law has “teeth” and if a company continues to charge you, in addition to full recovery of your money, you may sue for as much as NIS 10,000 under a punitive compensation clause.
Thus, when canceling, write in your letter or inform the representative that should the company continue to charge you, you will sue them for compensation.

5. Water companies
The Consumer Advice Bureau has received a number of queries about water bills for a period when a consumer has moved out of a unit that he rented or sold. In one case, the building in which a young man rented an apartment was torn down a few months after he moved – but the water meter was still attached, and the consumer was charged for over a year of connection.
The water company can have no way of knowing that you no longer live in a property, or that you are spending months or years abroad. So when you move for good or for a long period, it is imperative that you notify the water company of your status.
To terminate your contract with a water company, ask for the proper form, then sign it and, if relevant, ask your landlord to sign it as well. Return the form and follow up to make sure you are no longer being charged.

6. Faulty products
Consumers who contact the Citizens’ Advice Bureau wonder what to do about a purchase that arrives with a flaw, or turns out to be faulty. Among the subjects they have brought up are furniture deliveries, shoes that fall apart, cellphones that don’t work and clothing that shrinks when it shouldn’t.
Allen Zysblat, a Jerusalem law professor who helped write much of our consumer legislation, explains that there are two types of flaws: latent and patent. A patent flaw is something you see immediately, for instance, if a sofa is delivered to your home in the wrong color.
This is a gross breach of contact with the seller and you can tell him to take it back, and to return your money.
If the patent flaw is minor, the seller might want to repair it. You can let him try, if you want, but if he doesn’t succeed within a short time he must give you your money back.
A latent flaw is something that you see only much later, for instance, if you buy a heater and only connect it up when winter comes. Or if you wash an item of clothing after several weeks and it shrinks badly although you followed the laundering instructions.
In such cases, you can return the item and get your money back. There is no time limit, says Zysblat, but you must do so as soon as you discover the flaw.
And remember – you always deal only with the seller.
If he is unresponsive, won’t take your calls, doesn’t answer your letters – take him to court.

7. When to pay for a product
Last month I met a woman who complained that she had been waiting two months for a new gate. She had paid in advance, and therefore shouldn’t have been surprised that it hadn’t yet been installed.
When ordering something in Israel, pay the smallest advance possible. Then stretch out the payments or post-dated checks (as long as you don’t end up paying interest).

8. Registering for a class
A few years ago I registered for a summer Arabic class based on what the “school” told me it would be like. I was not allowed to watch a class first and I paid in advance. Please learn from this stupid mistake.

9. Saved by an MK
Companies these days want you to pick up your monthly/bi-monthly bills on their websites, something that is often tricky and time consuming – and impossible for someone with no computer! The Communications Ministry was planning to make this the default process – that is, unless you contacted the company and said you do not want to get your bill online from its website, you would have no choice.
MK Itzik Shmuli of the Zionist Union lodged a very detailed objection, explaining why this was harmful to consumers. The regulation was halted.
A reader asked me to repeat the central number for SHIL – the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. Here it is again: 1-800-50-60-60.
Please write to me at: Consumerjpost@gmail.com.