QuienPagaManda.com publishes information related to customer service and consumer rights in Costa Rica.
Quien Paga Manda
Posted by Claudio Ruiz on Jan 18, 2011
QuienPagaManda.com is a website that publishes information related to customer service and consumer rights in Costa Rica, particularly consumers’ experiences that put in evidence legal gaps and bad commercial practices detrimental to the public interest.
The website assumes that visibility can oftentimes be more effective than legal processes to counteract such practices and it intends to help consumers learn from the mistakes and experiences experienced by others, so they can be more proactive in defending their own interests and making their rights effective.
Among other tools, the website includes a blog, a rating system and a section to submit questions to experts. In some cases, the website connects consumers with government agencies, businesses or lawyers who can help them solve a specific problem. Some companies provide responses after seeing a complaint published or solve the issue when contacted. The website has had a few media mentions.
Hazel Feigenblatt, creator and manager of the website, explains.
Disclaimer: Hazel Feigenblatt is also the Editorial Advisor for the Technology for Transparency Network.
I’m a journalist and I worked for the main newspaper in Costa Rica (La Nación) for over 10 years, a few of those doing investigative journalism. Frustrated with the low standards of consumer rights in both public and private services in Costa Rica, especially compared to the United States and Europe, I created a blog to call attention to those issues. Consumer affairs were rarely part of the news offering in the country and I convinced the newspaper to host it. It was called Derecho al Berreo, which could be translated as the “right to complain” about a situation even if the situation is not illegal under the country’s law.
The readers’ reaction was very good and, when I moved to Washington, D.C. in 2009, I decided to start an independent blog. That’s QuienPagaManda.com, which can be translated as “you pay, you rule” and intends to motivate consumers to be more proactive in looking out for themselves and be more demanding. As soon as the website went live, it started receiving lots of e-mails from consumers sharing their experiences or asking questions about their rights.
Consumers can search for a business and share their experience with it and, if the business they’re looking for is not there, they can create it. When I see cases that seem to be gross violations of consumer’s rights — for example, credit card companies that refuse to shut down a credit card after the client requested it several times, among many others — I try to connect the person with lawyers or people who can help them. In other cases, I contact the companies directly, normally with very good results. Increasingly, the companies respond on their own when they see that complaints about their service have been published.
However, my objective is not to turn this into a complaint-processing website, but to make it more of a bridge to help companies and consumers better communicate, as well as to help people understand that they are able to demand solutions and to protect themselves, rather than waiting for the consumer protection agency or the media to do something.
I also have a more journalistic objective that I hope I can accomplish at some point, and that’s to take clues from people’s experiences to identify and pursue stories that should be in the news and must be told. For example, in 2007 and 2008, there were several stories in the media about hundreds of victims of online banking fraud (criminal organizations accessed their accounts and stole their money). The banks refused to refund the money, saying it was the consumers’ fault (in some cases suggesting they might have been part of the criminal schemes) and asserting that their online security standards were top of the line compared to international standards. But carefully listening to people’s experiences made me suspect the banks didn’t even meet international standards, so I started investigating a little and proved that that was the case. After the story was published, the banks changed their systems and authorities became more demanding in that area. The story was also awarded the national journalism award in the area of economic reporting. Watchdog journalism in Central America tends to focus on public institutions, but there are also many services of great public interest that are provided by private companies that need to be scrutinized.
Ideally, I would turn the blog into a formal media outlet focused on both reporting and doing some investigations on public and private services. A lot of these stories are of great public interest, but having worked in newsrooms I know many journalists are not interested because it’s more prestigious or more fun to work on political stories and other areas. Also — to be realistic — consumer issues are understandably a lower priority when it comes to news such as political campaigns, Congress decisions, natural disasters, etc., so an outlet focused just on consumer news is necessary. I don’t have a business model to do that yet, though, and to do it seriously takes a lot more resources than an informal blog managed in my free time (as it is right now).
Actually, that’s exactly the point of the website, to do more than just talk. I moderate the comments to make sure they are credible so that people who can make decisions (businesses, authorities) feel they can take them seriously. There have been several cases in which the publication of a case in the blog has led to its solution.
For example, consumers who have complained of problems with guarantees of articles they purchased or who were charged undue bank fees have been contacted by the companies and received a solution within 24-48 hours. In other cases, companies have informed the website of changes to their protocols or of actions taken to discipline employees, undertaken after reports made on the blog. When answering online to a client’s comment or suggestion, the companies usually receive positive comments from other readers who want to congratulate them for taking clients’ concerns seriously, so this is also good for businesses.
Having said that, many complaints don’t receive an answer, but I like to think that just publishing them and making them visible is useful because it becomes part of the public agenda, and generates collective knowledge that help individuals avoid making the same mistakes others have made.
I need to define a model to turn the site into a media outlet with more content and more resources to do journalistic reporting on these issues. Once the model is there, I need to get the resources (whether capital investments or grants) and then make it work. Right now I do this on my free time because I have a full-time job in Washington, D.C.
I’d say making these issues visible in the public agenda and reinforcing the perception that these are serious issues that deserve attention. The website facilitates the communication between different actors, from the national consumer protection agency (and related independent units within public institutions) to businesses and consumers, and brings these discussions to the public sphere where they can be visible and be perceived as perfectly legitimate concerns that deserve attention. The current models of communication (public institutions and businesses’ hotlines, websites, suggestions boxes, etc.) are not very effective, and there is something about what my website is doing that seems to speed things up when all the parts are interested. All these actors have participated in the website in different moments and the result has been very encouraging.
Not that I know, but I’m aware that there are quite a few types of consumer-oriented websites around the world. This website has received comments from people in other countries, for instance from other Central American countries, which suggests there’s a lot of potential there.
I don’t have any particular alliances, but because of my work as a reporter for the newspaper I have contact with people in the consumer protection agency, consumer associations, regulatory agencies, ministries, etc. as well as some businesses, which may facilitate the process of obtaining information when needed.
What role do social networks play in your project?
Social networks are hugely important for my website. The blog’s fanpage on Facebook has over 8,000 fans and the Twitter account over 4,000 followers. A lot of the traffic to the website comes from there, and many people read a post and comment on it on Facebook or Twitter, not on the website. Also, instead of publishing their case in the website, they do it on the fanpage or through a tweet that mentions @quienpagamanda. I also have about 2,000 e-mail subscribers.
Is the success you’ve experienced between complaints and responses related to your journalism job?
I think being a journalist provides insights to identify issues of public interest and helps to clearly explain the information. The contacts I have as a reporter and the experience in finding relevant data are also very useful. Simultaneously, I write a blog for the financial newspaper El Financiero in Costa Rica about how the government and companies can use the Web and mobile tools to connect with the citizens and consumers. However, I’d like to make it clear again that at this point QuienPagaManda.com is more of an informal blog, not a journalistic publication.