Top Hong Kong fitness chain accused of scamming autistic man
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on March 28, 2016.
California Fitness, one of Hong Kong’s biggest fitness chains, allegedly forced a mentally challenged man to pay for fitness courses and take out loans totalling HK$90,000, according to his father.
An 18-year-old autistic man, with the family name Lam, signed up to become a member of the centre after he was approached by a California Fitness staff member in Tai Koo Shing last June. But after paying HK$60,000 for a fitness package, he was asked to stand in a corner for two hours during a class, his father said.
Lam, who has Asperger’s syndrome and has difficulty communicating, was allegedly conned out of an additional HK$30,000 after a fitness coach who claimed to be helping him enter a Thai boxing competition drove him to a finance company to borrow money for a so-called application fee.
“He really wanted to learn, but these people tricked him. Till now I haven’t received an application form,” his father said. “My son can’t communicate.”
Lam was later reimbursed HK$45,000.
The case was revealed by Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Bill Tang Ka-piu, who said the case had been referred to the police.
Tang said he had received 15 complaints of a similar nature since last year involving at least HK$1 million. He said most involved California Fitness.
The customs department said it had received about 200 complaints over sales and unfair trade practices from 2013 to February this year and about 55 were being criminally investigated, Tang said.
The cases mainly involved California Fitness and Physical – two major chains that came in for scrutiny last year following similar controversies – and young adults or people with mental disabilities, he added.
“They will try to focus on the one who suffers from a mental problem, or young men, and will prompt the client to enter into debt,” Tang said. “We urge the customs department and the police to make an in-depth investigation to prosecute the company or the staff.”
Tang said that the cases revealed a lack of protection for customers,
He urged the government to implement a “cooling off” period of seven days allowing consumers to amend terms and counter aggressive practices, particularly for contracts involving prepaid packages. Such legislation already exists in places like Britain, Taiwan and Singapore, as well as in other Hong Kong sectors like electronics.
Tang added that the government should establish a system to help consumers who are mentally impaired, for instance by allowing them to cancel contracts unconditionally.
In another case, a mentally disabled woman in her 30s was forced to sign a membership contract worth HK$26,000 at a California Fitness centre in September 2012 after staff members barred her from leaving the premises.
For four hours, the woman – with the family name Ng – was surrounded by four staff members who tried to sell her membership packages, taking her Hong Kong identity card and ignoring her requests to leave or reject the offers.
Ng asked for a refund after the incident, but the centre initially refused. It later reimbursed her HK$12,000.
“They said they could help her lose weight ... but they didn’t teach her anything. Every individual thing needed additional costs,” said Ng’s mother.
California Fitness and Physical did not respond to Post inquiries.
Additional reporting by Naomi Ng