A man with slight learning disabilities has fallen victim to unscrupulous sales methods employed by a gym in Mong Kok and as a result spent HK$210,000 on gym lessons. Meanwhile, the Consumer Council says that complaints relating to the gym and fitness industry have risen compared to last year.

Mr Wong, who has a slight learning disability and suffers from schizophrenia, works as a cleaner and earns about HK$10,000 a month. In 2013, he received a phone call inviting him to join a free trial at a gym in Mong Kok. Between July 2014 and August 2015, he was persuaded by a coach to purchase over 200 lessons, amounting to a cost of HK$210,000.

Wong’s case was discussed at the press conference on Tuesday.

When Wong said that he could not afford the lessons, the coach took him to money lenders and financial intermediaries. Wong’s sister said they contacted the police after realising that Wong had borrowed HK$300,000 from five different companies over the course of three days, RTHK reported.

Tang Ka-piu, a lawmaker for the Labour constituency, said he suspected that gyms and financial intermediaries were conspiring together. He also said that the current laws do not give sufficient protection to the rights of consumers. Over the past year, Tang has received nine requests for help involving the same fitness chain in Mong Kok.

In another case, an 18-year-old signed a HK$1,400 contract after a salesman talked to her for over three hours, Apple Daily reported. When she made the payment using her EPS card, the staff used the excuse of her inputting the wrong password to charge her repeatedly, resulting in a bill of HK$18,000. She was later coerced into signing a HK$2,400 contract, the terms of which she had been prevented from reading.

The Consumer Council said that in the first 11 months of this year they received 519 complaints against the gym and fitness industry, most of them – around 390 cases – relating to sales methods. Both of these numbers are higher than those of last year.

Responding to Wong’s case, the Consumer Council said that if businesses disturb, threaten or pressure consumers in the process of promoting their products, it could constitute a violation of the Trade Descriptions Ordinance.

The Consumer Council said it supports the idea of setting up a cooling-off period for industries which involve pre-payments. During the period, consumers could choose to withdraw from the contract and get a refund.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.