Eva Oczkus was in a race against time when she went to a UPS store in January, anxious to get what she hoped would be a life-saving package to her family in Mexico.
Her relatives were going through a terrible time — many of them sick with COVID-19, her grandma near death. Medical care and supplies were scarce in the area.
“It was awful,” the Calgary woman told Go Public, “There were resellers, selling oxygen tanks for four or five times the price. So people who don’t have the money, they would die because they didn’t have that option.”
Oczkus took matters into her own hands and bought a $2,400 oxygen concentrator for her family — a device that removes nitrogen from ambient air and turns it into a purer form of oxygen.
To make sure the package got to them as quickly as possible with no trouble for her family, she worked out the details for more than an hour with the franchise owner of a Calgary UPS store.
But despite that, and paying $1,263 for quick shipping and insurance, the package got tied up in Mexico over a missing permit needed for medical equipment — a permit UPS later admitted it should have told her about.
But the departments involved refused to take responsibility, she says.
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It was a time-consuming bureaucratic bungle at a critical moment. Oczkus’s grandmother died the day the package was shipped. Still, she kept trying to get it released for her other sick family members — even hiring customs brokers — but nothing worked.
The brokers told her getting the Mexican permit could take months, if she got one at all. Oczkus says if UPS had told her that, she would have sent money instead.
“It’s been many sleepless nights,” Oczkus said. “My grandma passed. Everybody was sick. A stressful time. [Meanwhile] UPS was not answering me and not being accountable. It was a very difficult situation.”
She expected to have been told about something as important as the permit — for good reason.
Oczkus says the store’s owner assured her everything was covered. After things went wrong, two UPS customer service agents told her it was the store’s responsibility to inform her of any shipping requirements. And the UPS Store’s website, at the time, assured customers its “shipping experts … will inform you at the time of transaction of any restrictions that may cause problems.”
LISTEN | Oczkus and her husband speak with UPS:
Customers often rely on the information they get from service agents or what’s in the marketing material on company websites, believing that’s what they can expect — not realizing that the formal agreements can say something very different, according to consumer lawyer Scott Stanley.
“So whatever the person says to you at the point of sale is probably not going to form part of the contract [since] contracts are highly engineered to benefit the company, not the consumer,” said Stanley.
“I don’t think it’s fair. It leaves the consumer very much confused.”
He points to the single paragraph in the 53-page terms and conditions of UPS Air Freight Services, which says clearing customs is the responsibility of the customer and/or recipient.
UPS Canada’s 18-page terms and conditions of service also say the contract is the final word, and anything customers are told verbally doesn’t change that.
Insult to injury
By the time Oczkus was told the oxygen concentrator might never make it to her family, she was out more than $3,600 — $2,400 for the device, and more than $1,200 in shipping and insurance charges. Plus another $417 when she asked UPS to ship it back, so she could return it to the medical supply store.
Adding insult to injury, when it came back, the box and the protective material inside were damaged.
It’s not clear if the device itself was damaged. But Oczkus says when she asked to be reimbursed, she was told by UPS she only had insurance for loss, not damage. Her UPS receipts show she paid for both.
After hearing from Go Public, UPS Stores Canada resolved things with Oczkus. The company won’t reveal the details and Oczkus can’t.
UPS Stores Canada (which oversees the franchise locations) and UPS Canada (which deals with the logistics of shipping) operate independently.
Both refused to answer Go Public’s specific questions about Oczkus’s signed contract, UPS’s online marketing material, or the companies’ terms and conditions in relation to the situation.
Consumers on losing end of disputes
It’s when things go wrong that consumers often find themselves on the losing end of the dispute, says Stanley, the lawyer.
“The problem is in cases like this and in this particular case, is the written agreements expressly exclude any verbal communications. So really, you’re [only] left with written contract,” he said.
There are cases where verbal agreements can be binding — but Stanley says few customers will be in a position to take companies to court to prove it.
He says the language in the formal agreement is often buried and hard to understand, so he is among those calling for governments to require companies to put the most important information high up in contracts, in easily readable print and plain language instead of legalese.
WATCH | Shipping bungle keeps oxygen device from family sick with COVID-19:
“The actual marketing material is written in what we would call plain language, where folks can easily understand that. But that’s not really the deal. The real deal is the contract and the contract is not plain language.”
The marketing section of The UPS Store’s website that originally said shipping experts “will” inform customers of any restrictions that may cause problems changed after Go Public asked about it.
That section now says “can” instead of “will.”
Stanley says he believes the change is an effort by the company to limit its responsibilities.
Oczkus believes UPS would never have looked into her situation if she hadn’t contacted Go Public. She says there needs to be a better way to help consumers dealing with shipping problems.
She says she’s relieved to have this ordeal behind her, and also relieved the rest of her family members have recovered from COVID and are now getting vaccinated.
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