When referring to “The Book,” most Christians are talking about the Bible. For Jews, it’s the Talmud. Muslims generally assume it’s the Qur’an. Those who belong to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints reference the Book of Mormon.
But here in Portugal, whether mentioned with reverence or threatened as restitution, the holy “Book” of judgment is the Livro de Reclamações (Complaints Book), “a legally enshrined instrument of citizenship,” according to its website.
Not only is the Book accessible for use online (www.livroreclamacoes.pt), but, by law, it must be available upon request by any consumer in every Portuguese shop and business.
The closest those in the USA come to this instrument of justice is the BBB (Better Business Bureau); to the best of my knowledge, however, there’s no real equivalent of Portugal’s Book or the USA’s consumer rights group in the UK. Yes, there is Trading Standards and Citizen’s Advice (which offer consumer advice). For businesses, the closest equivalent is probably a professional trade association or another membership body. There are also supplier directories such as MemberWise and great.gov.uk.
But none are as awesome and powerful as o Livro de Reclamações.
Every legitimate business must have one of these books.
If a shop refuses to give you the book, call the police (112). Seriously! Each business entity can be liable for fines from €3,500 to €30,000 for refusing to let a customer complain, because it is deemed “concealment of fraudulent practice.” The police actually have the power to close the establishment. If the police do intervene, there is a minimum fine of €15,000 euros. The threat of calling the police is often enough.
The book, itself, is A4 sized, and also available online.
Every business category has a designated Competent Authority which oversees and regulates its practice. If there is no singular government agency for it, the default regulator is the Ministry of Justice. The power of this book is that if you feel you have a valid reason for an official complaint, you are encouraged to write in the book.
Moreover, each business must also display the Complaints Book poster visibly — either in the shop window or at the payment counter – that displays the business entity’s legal name and identifies which authority governs its business practices.
Since July 2017, according to its website, some 357,684 suppliers of goods and registered service providers have been regulated by the Book; 625,084 claims have been made; 23,365 requests for information have been received; 3,801 entries of satisfaction and praise were contributed; 1,800 suggestions made; 35 regulatory entities and/or registered inspectors reviewed the complaints; and user satisfaction is rated as 3.2 out of four possible stars. In terms of activity, these are the top ten industries or services and their number of complaints in the book—online or in print:
1: Internet Providers/Electronic Communications Services (209,040)
2: Postal Network and Services (103,060)
3: Electricity (49,498)
4: Appliances, electrical and electronic equipment sales and assembly (25,358)
5: Financial Services (21,889)
6: Combined Utilities (Electricity + Natural Gas) (17,284)
7: Airplanes & Carriers (10,478)
8: Insurance Companies (9,671)
9: Informatics, Computers & Related Devices (9,507)
10: Department Stores, Large Retailers & Hypermarkets (9,374)
The Complaints Book is bilingual (Portuguese/English) but can be completed in whatever language you want. If it is not one of the major European languages (Portuguese, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German), you may need to indicate that fact somewhere on the form, so that authorities can find someone to translate it for them.
You will need to provide your personal details and contact details if you wish to receive notification on the progress of your complaint. You need not be a resident of Portugal to use the Complaints Book—with a valid reason, anyone can write in it. If you write in the book itself, a staff member must also sign the form to witness your claim.
There is space for a business to write whatever defense against the claim it may have. They can write whatever they want … the business Regulator will arbitrate the issue at hand.
Carbon paper is used to triplicate the sheet you write on. One copy is retained by you, one by the business establishment, and the final copy is sent to the Regulator within five working days. The Regulator then has ten 10 working days to uphold your complaint and compel the business to redress your issues.
Naturally, a business manager will plead to resolve the issue before or while you write in the Book. If you do find yourself in a situation where s/he has resolved the matter with you, you will need to cross off your complaint (two diagonal lines across the page) and write “complaint cancelled” or “reclamação anulada.”
Personally, I have used the Livro de Reclamações twice in the four-going-on-five years that we’ve lived here:
● I purchased a barbecue grill at a major retailer “superstore.” Nowhere – not in the window, by the cashier’s line, on the sales slip, or even near the lavatories — was the store’s return policy shown. When I tried to return the grill – box unopened, receipt in hand – two days later, the service attendant and then the manager offered to let me buy other stuff in the store and credit the amount of my earlier purchase to the bill then and there. Or, I could be issued a credit voucher for that amount … good for 30 days. Trouble is, we were just visiting friends in the area and had no plans to return anytime that soon. My issue wasn’t that the story wouldn’t give me a refund or credit my debit card; my primary complaint was that nowhere in the store was its returns and refunds policy posted.
Within two weeks of filing my complaint, I heard back from the competent authorities. Bottom line: “The store, in good faith, attempted to resolve the refund (problem) according to its policies.” I, however, was unwilling to accept those policies without proof. Case closed.
● My second use of the Book happened just recently. We were planning to buy a new car, which were few and far between. Depending on the model, color, and equipment, it would take anywhere from four months to a year for the car to be delivered once ordered. After discussing our options with nearly a dozen dealerships across Portugal (and one in Spain), we were now negotiating with two different dealers in two different districts. Dealer one’s order sheet showed that it would have the car and color we wanted, hopefully, six months later. He emailed us a “propuesta” (proposal) showing the car’s description, its cost, Portugal’s 23% “sales” tax (IVA), road tax, dealer preparation, administrative costs, and transportation charges, as well as the amount they would give us in trade for our current car.
“If you want it, I advise you to send a deposit of €3,234.17 immediately,” he said. “You can come in anytime to complete the paperwork and sign the contract.” The next morning, however, we heard from the second dealer two, who had been trying to confirm a car on order with his manager—who wasn’t around (until after we sent more than three thousand euros to the first dealer). The second’s offer was much better: Though comparably equipped, his was a limited edition, the top model in the line. Plus, he offered us €250 more for our trade-in, while his administrative, dealer preparation, and transportation costs were €250 less. Our total cost savings would be $500—for a superior model that would be delivered a month earlier that the other. Confirming with our lawyer that we could back out (with a full refund) as we hadn’t signed a contract, we went to the dealership to explain the circumstances surrounding our change of mind. Obviously, the salesman wasn’t happy and tried to talk us out of our decision. But we were firm.
“When can we expect a refund of the €3,234.17 we sent you?” I asked.
“We have a girl who comes in once each month – on the 17th, I believe – to do the accounting and pay all our bills and obligations,” he replied.
“That’s three weeks from now,” I countered, “and you’ve already had our money for a week. I paid you immediately upon your request and expect our money refunded and in our bank account by the end of this business week,” I insisted.
He shrugged and suggested we go home and send him an email explaining why we weren’t going ahead with his offer, which he would show to his boss and see if payment could be expedited. Following two more weeks of waiting, we decided to use the Complaints Book. (It’s yet too early to tell how they’ll respond.)
My point here is simple: The Complaints Book is a very powerful instrument provided for your protection. It can be used in almost all measures of life with justification, though consumers must also play their part to not abuse the system.
As long as you remember that this is Portugal … and don’t become too impatient!
Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine, the country’s only full spectrum, English language magazine for those considering relocation, newcomers, and long-time residents. Read our current issue and order your free — no cost! — subscription via this link: https://portugallivingmagazine.com/our-current-issue/