Consumer Affairs Consultations: More Staff Needed to Prevent Harm from Fraudulent Sales

There is no end to cases of fraudulent sales. In recent years, there have been many problems involving online shopping. To prevent harm, it is essential to recruit and train consumer affairs consultants.

Based on the Consumer Safety Law, prefectures and municipalities have established consultation sections for consumer problems. Staff members with national qualifications as consumer affairs consultants provide services for free, and the number of consultations reached about 900,000 in fiscal 2022.

Consultations from each area of the country are compiled by the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan and used as basic data for warning consumers and for the government’s consideration of new policy measures.

In the past fiscal year, 40% of all consultations were related to mail-order sales, including online shopping.

Problems such as “products ordered through a website based overseas have not arrived” have become notable. There are also concerns that new fraudulent sales methods may emerge with the advancement of digital technology.

Consultation services must be maintained so as to quickly ascertain the situation and trends in damage inflicted, and to prevent consumers from giving in to fraudulent sales.

However, this system of offering consultation services is weakening. According to a government survey, the number of consultants in their 40s or younger accounts for only about 15% of the approximately 3,000 consultants nationwide, and the overall population of consumer affairs consultants is aging. Many of them are part-time employees. They are also not paid well, even if they are qualified by the state.

These circumstances may prevent people from wanting to become consumer affairs consultants. Local governments need to actively hire people with a wealth of knowledge and experience to full-time positions and change the current situation of relying on nonregular employees.

It would also be a good idea to set up specialized courses in consumer affairs at universities and vocational schools, to create an environment in which students can easily obtain the state qualification.

Training programs must also be enhanced to foster the ability to respond to new sales methods in the internet era.

Smaller local governments, which suffer from a shortage of people who can serve as consultants, are increasingly cooperating with each other to set up consultation services. The central and prefectural governments should encourage and support such efforts.

Even if the number of consultants can be increased, their capacity to handle consultations will be limited if the service is mainly available over the counter or on the phone. In municipalities with many consultations, the phone lines are often busy.

The central government plans to start email consultations and advance reservations for telephone consultations, in line with the upgrading of the national center’s computer system in fiscal 2026. A new website will also be launched to help provide solutions by referring to past consultation cases.

Both of these approaches are commonly used by private companies to provide customer service. Measures that can be implemented without the need to upgrade the system should be introduced immediately.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 19, 2023)