Errant shops have come up with new tactics to mask their dubious reputations.
Their latest tricks include shrinking the shop's name to a small section of their main signboard, or simply removing it. Others even change the name. In more extreme cases, they register a new company, renovate or move to another mall.
The Consumers Association of Singapore (Case), which flagged this trend to The Straits Times, said these tactics are more common in Lucky Plaza, Sim Lim Square and People's Park Complex. A few shops at these places have a reputation of ripping customers off. But there are also isolated cases in other malls like Peninsula Plaza.
"Doing this helps errant companies wipe the slate clean," said Case executive director Seah Seng Choon, who said these new tactics are more common in Sim Lim Square because of a list the mall put up in February.
Sim Lim Square's building management started pasting the list of shops which received customer complaints in the last three months. The list was provided by Case.
Yesterday, The Straits Times checked 10 Sim Lim Square shops that had made the list between November last year and January this year.
Two have signboards with tiny shop names, two have no names, three have completely different names and two were closed. Only one stuck to its original name.
It is not illegal to change a signboard. It is also easy. Stores typically have to alert mall management and pay a small fee.
The law also does not require companies to display their registered company name on the outlet's signboard. However, documentation like invoices must reflect registered company names.
To change a registered name, companies apply to the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority and pay a fee of $20 to $35. If the new name is available, the change is often immediate.
Cyber Maestro in Sim Lim Square, which topped Case's complaints list more than once, changed its signboard about a year ago. When asked why the shop name was now so tiny, owner Max Bashir, 42, said: "There's nothing legally wrong. Why is it an issue?"
Singapore Polytechnic business school senior lecturer Sarah Lim said that strata-titled malls such as Sim Lim Square and Lucky Plaza typically spawn errant retailers. That is because stores are individually owned and generally leased out to whoever pays more rent.
Landlords often sit on mall management committees and are unlikely to support decisions which curb their ability to rent stores out. However, she urged them to think long-term.
"If malls have a bad reputation, sales will drop and rental will fall as well," she said.
She suggested that mall managements come up with a grading system for shops - much like the one now used in hawker centres to highlight cleanliness. These could be displayed prominently next to stores. "This way, the companies cannot get away with changing their signboards," she said, adding that malls can be more circumspect about whom the stores are rented to.
Mr Foong Lak Wah, who works in food catering, bought a mobile phone from People's Park Complex for $355 last October. The seller insisted that he had to apply for a new phone contract and download a map application. He ended up paying more than $2,000.
The 66-year-old later realised he did not need to apply for a new line. Said Mr Foong, who has not managed to get a refund: "There are so many loopholes in the system, I think that there should be more protection for consumers."