Saturday, December 18, 2010

Chilean Government Consumer Rights Protection Agency's Blind Spot

Over three months ago, on September 5th, I published a blog post which revealed a flaw in the process used by the Chilean Government Consumer Rights Protection Agency ( to handle complaints received from consumers.

I made this information publicly available and have sent tweets to SERNAC, the Chilean Government, several ministers, congressmen, journalists, TV, radio and Internet news sites. However, it has not been published yet by any massive media.

The flaw defeats, in many cases, the purpose of SERNAC in helping consumers and businesses reaching an agreement to resolve complaints.

The description is as follows:

The chilean Consumer Rights Protection Law N°19.496 states one of SERNAC's functions is to receive consumer complaints and communicate these to corresponding businesess in an attempt for both parties to reach an agreement.

This same law states that businesses are NOT obliged to respond to SERNAC's communications. The origin of this legal disposition is beyond the scope of this article.

SERNAC designed a process to automate notifying businesses when consumer complaints are received, in order for them to respond.

The process requires businesses to register an e-mail address with SERNAC, and when SERNAC inputs the complaint within their web application, an automatic e-mail message is sent to aforementioned e-mail address.

Businesses are responsible to maintain a valid e-mail address registered in SERNAC.

SERNAC instructed businesses that replies to complaints must be input using the web application which is also available to businesses once registered. SERNAC warned businesses that they should NOT reply to notification e-mails, as the mailbox is NOT monitored.

Now, as we all now, it is common that people configure automatic replies for their e-mail when they're either sick, on holiday, on training or some other reason. These messages warn about the fact there will be some delay in responding, and may provide an alternate contact.

But, as SERNAC doesn't monitor the mailbox, these replies are not checked and SERNAC assumes the business did not reply to the complaint because they just did not want to.

When SERNAC doesn't receive a timely reply from the business, it sends a second message. However, this new message is sent to THE SAME ADDRESS the previous message was sent to (this is a process design weakness).

Now, what would happen if the e-mail address registered by the company corresponds to an individual who left the company, and whose mailbox was deleted? The e-mail system would automatically reply with an error message stating the address doesn't exist. But, again, as SERNAC doesn't monitor the mailbox, they don't become aware of this fact and continue to send complaint notifications to this defunct address.

How long do you think it would take for SERNAC or the business to notice this situation?

In my case, TWO AND A HALF YEARS had passed since the individual who registered his e-mail address in SERNAC, had left the company. And they wouldn't have noticed unless I hadn't taken the time to investigate the situation.

It still prevails that businesses are responsible for maintaining a valid e-mail address registered with SERNAC. However, how can it be that, after so much time with complaints being unanswered by the business, SERNAC hasn't considered the possibility that the reason could be something other than the business plain lack of interest?

You may think this situation is quite uncommon. However, according to SERNAC, by July 2010 ALMOST 50% OF CONSUMER COMPLAINTS HANDLED BY SERNAC WERE NOT RECEIVING A REPLY FROM BUSINESSES OVERALL.

I have provided just this brief summary in english. You can read the whole story in spanish at


  1. Government consumer rights protection act works for general people. Consumer advocates offer direct assistance to consumers. Once they register their complain, investigation start immediately and they get results within small durations. This site is very informative. Thanks...

    Consumer Rights

  2. Hi, ConsumerDaddy.

    Thanks for your comment.

    I would think probably Chile will develop more effective Consumer Advocates organizations in time.


  3. I have not lived in Chile since 1962 but what I tried to say on Twitter was that there has be legislation to regulate the handling of these complaints, ensuring reply and while not guaranteeing satisfaction, closing the matter of the complaint.
    Legislation will not change, as desired, the will to complain or resolve the complaint so there has to be provision in the Bill to satisfy the motivation(s) of all parties.

  4. I agree law should require companies to respond when consumers file complaints, but the issue I'm pointing out is that it was Sernac's defective mechanism which didn't ensure notification to businesses were effectively delivered, and Sernac just asumed that businesses didn't WANT to respond, whereas the problem was they had not RECEIVED Sernac's message informing them of the complaint.

    Hope you can take a look at

    1. What I tried to say, badly in Spanish, is that this is the 'mechanism' that needs to be legislated for. Such assumptions of receipt or desire can be ruled out as an excuse for all parties. They can be be compelled to behave as desired with the desired oversight and penalties.

  5. Michael,

    I still feel common sense was sufficient, no further regulation was required for the problem to be discovered and fixed (though I agree it should be compulsory for businesses to respond). If Sernac had just monitored complaint's response % by company, as I state in my investigation, an educated guess would have led them to discover the deffect in the mechanism. You can see details here

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