Friday, 23 June 2017

Facebook. Get used to it.

Whether you like it or not, whether you’ve joined or not, whether you think it’s a good or a bad thing, Facebook is here to stay and you’d better get used to it.

I don’t know for sure, but the best estimate I’ve seen suggests that about half of us in Botswana are on Facebook. Given our population’s youthfulness that’s no surprise but us older-timers are also well represented. It’s also not just a toy for the affluent. The text-only versions of Facebook and the declining price of online data mean that anyone with a cellphone can be a Facebooker.

But still there are some people who are resistant. Some just have an aversion to technology while others seem to have a suspicion that Facebook brings with it threats to their way of life and that it offers nothing more than trivia, obscenity and offence.

I’ve got news for those people. That’s exactly what some people said about that internet in general. Before that people were saying it about the video recorder and television, before that about the telephone and the radio and going even further back in history, they said the same thing about newspapers and books.

And they were right. All of those things did indeed bring greater levels of risk but more importantly they all also brought even greater levels of education, openness, communication and understanding. All progress comes with an upside and a downside. However, almost always the benefits outweigh the risks and that’s particularly true of the internet and Facebook.

Facebook’s critics will say that the content is trivial, bizarre and offensive and again, that’s all true but isn’t that a bit like everyday life? Not every conversation we have with our friends, family and workmates is important. Most conversations are trivial, some are indeed bizarre and occasionally offensive.

But think of what Facebook offers us. Never before have half the entire population of our country been able to converse with one another so easily. Never before has it been so easy to chat to friends, relatives and workmates when they’re far from us. Never before has it been so easy to meet and grow to understand people different from us.

The problem with Facebook is that it’s a very good example of what the internet can be: largely out of control. You can understand Facebook best if you imagine it as being like a bar on a Friday night. A Friday night at the end of the month. Or, as someone suggested to me recently, a bar on a Friday night, at the end of the month and in a mining town. That’s what Facebook is like.

Normal people go to such a bar, or to Facebook, to have fun, hang out with their friends and meet new people but in doing so they become noisier, less diplomatic, less inhibited and a small proportion of them get aggressive and things can then turn nasty.

In the last two weeks I’ve removed eighty-eight posts from the Consumer Watchdog Facebook group. Over the last few years I’ve removed a grand total of 3,284 posts. Most of these were advertisements but a small number were the equivalent of drunken people shouting in that bar. A few have been racist, others bigoted in other directions, a few threatening and every so often, they’ve been defamatory. None of these things are permitted in our bar, sorry, I meant our Facebook group.

I do my best on these occasions to be polite and inform the person who posted the offending item why I’ve removed it and some while ago had an online conversation with a very unhappy Facebooker who didn’t like me removing his post which I thought had defamed someone. But what I said was true, he said. That doesn’t matter, I told him. And it doesn’t. Something that’s true can still be defamatory it it’s not “for the public benefit that it should be published”. The details of someone’s private life are very rarely something for the public interest, despite how inquisitive we might be.

One of the real strengths of Facebook, something that’s relevant to consumers, is how it’s transformed the way in which consumers and suppliers communicate. Yes, if you’re short-changed, let-down or insulted by a store you should probably go see the manager and express your outrage face to face but the landscape has changed. You can now use Facebook to express your complaint. I know this irritates people who insist we need to complain the old-fashioned way but that’s just too bad. Times have changed. Welcome to the modern era.

We’ve been contacted many times by companies who are terrified about this new way of interacting. Our consumers post nasty things about us on Facebook, they tell me. So what are you going to do about, I ask? We don’t know, they confess.

At least they’re asking. At least they realise that they need to do something. Other companies we’ve spoken to have a very different approach. They adopt the same approach my children did when they were little. If they covered their faces they thought they became invisible. Well, peekaboo, that doesn’t work. Stores have a stark choice these days. Either listen to what your customers are saying on Facebook or ignore them. Yes, if you engage with them they might not always react well but of you refuse to talk to them they will always react badly. Always.

So get with it. I don’t know if Facebook will still be with us in ten years time but I know this. Something like Facebook will be. There will be an online conversation forum where your customers will be talking about you, sometimes saying nice things but much more often saying nasty things. Your choice is whether you want to listen to them or not. And perhaps even fix some problems and make yourself look good. Get used to it.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

They excluded my kid!

Hello. I hope you are fine. I have arrears for my child's school fees but show commitment in offsetting the debt. I paid P3500 last month and P1500 month. I went to the school to inform them that I have applied for a short loan and I am still waiting for the loan to be processed, but the school suspended the kid. Is it appropriate for them to do so?

Yes, unfortunately the school is entitled to do this. I know it seems harsh but they’re a business, not a charity

You don’t say how much your arrears were, but while I respect you for doing your best to pay them off, if there is still an outstanding amount owing, they’re entitled to withdraw the service they’re offering you.

It would be exactly the same if you were in arrears with your rent at your house. Even if you were paying off the arrears the landlord would be entitled to take legal action against you and evict you. It would be the same again if you were in arrears with your cellphone contract, your insurance policy or your home loan. If you’re in arrears, your creditor is entitled to take action against you to suspend the service they’re offering and recover the money you owe them.

I have a lot of sympathy for schools in this situation. I’ve met the head teachers of many private schools and all of them are the sort of people who really dislike excluding a child because the parents are in arrears. It’s not why they went into the teaching profession but they are nevertheless running businesses that have bills to pay and while they often show some tolerance there must be limits to that. Let’s also no ignore that small proportion of parents who are really bad payers.

I suggest you keep the school regularly updated on the progress you’re making in catching up and maybe they’ll be a bit more tolerant.

Where’s my laptop?

I’m asking you what I can do. I pawned a laptop and it got stolen from that pawn shop. Now they’re saying that I pawned it at my own risk so they are not taking responsibility for it. What can I do?

You can ask NBFIRA, the Non Bank Financial Institutions Regulatory Authority for their support, that’s the first thing. NBFIRA regulate the pawn shop industry in Botswana and I’m sure they’ll be interested to hear that a pawn shop is operating so badly.

The first thing I’d say is that any business that either owns a lot of valuable equipment, or which stores property on other people’s behalf, that doesn’t have an insurance policy that covers them against this sort of situation is an incompetent company run by incompetent managers and owned by incompetent owners. It’s reckless and reckless people shouldn’t be running a business. If NBFIRA don’t already make possession of insurance a mandatory requirement for pawn shops then here’s a free suggestion. Change the regulations today.

Secondly, I think you need to check the receipt they gave you when you pawned your laptop. Did you sign anything saying that you “specifically consented” to the store not taking responsibility for a loss like this? If you didn’t then they’ve just broken Section 17 (1) (f) of the Consumer Protection Regulations which forbids them from “entering into a transaction in which the consumer waives or purports to waive a right, benefit or immunity provided by law, unless the waiver is clearly stated and the consumer has specifically consented to it”.

I would also go back to the store and see if they have “clearly stated” this rule, perhaps with a sign on the wall that nobody can miss. If not, I think you should escalate this to both NBFIRA and the Consumer Protection Unit.

You should also demand to be given a copy of the police report they filed when they discovered the theft. If they don’t have one then you’ve got a right to question whether the theft ever occurred and in that case you should go to the police yourself and report the theft.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The rights we deserve

For the last few weeks I’ve been describing the range of protections that we’re offered by the Consumer Protection Regulations. Given that these regulations were published and enacted sixteen years ago I think they’re doing well. They’re still largely relevant and there’s not a lot that needs to be changed.

But there are some gaps.

Here’s a big one. We don’t have much protection in Botswana against pyramid schemes and their equally rotten cousins, Ponzi schemes. Yes, the Bank of Botswana has the power to declare them illegal deposit-taking schemes but that requires a great deal of investigation and evidence. I think we need another weapon to use against them. A stronger one.

But is it really a big problem? Do we need to spend time and energy writing new laws to protect people against these schemes?

Oh yes.

Many of you will remember the Eurextrade scam that cost so many people in Botswana so much money in 2012 and 2013. This pretend investment scheme offered people the “opportunity” (which is always a warning word) to invest and earn “up to 2.9%” every day. Not 2.9% each year, 2.9% every day. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who were suckered into joining the scheme couldn’t do the maths because if they could they would have realized how extraordinary that figure is. The numbers are simple. If you invest P1,000 at 2.9% per day after a day you’ve earned P29, giving you a total of P1,029. Another 2.9% each day on top of the previous day’s balance gives you P1,187 after a week, P2,291 after a month, P13,103 after 3 months and after a whole year, the massive sum of P33 million.

Everyone knows that’s simply impossible, that it must be a scam but thanks to a number of very persuasive recruiters many people willingly handed over their money, giving into temptation, gullibility and greed. In fact Eurextrade wasn’t any sort of investment, it was a Ponzi scheme, where the “investments” each victim made were split between the people running the scam and the previous person who joined. If I joined on Monday and you joined on Tuesday part of the money you paid in went directly to me, and you got some of the money from the sucker who joins on Wednesday. It’s “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. It’s a scam. Most of the money went straight to the criminals running the scheme.

We don’t know how many people lost money when the scheme eventually collapsed (as all Ponzi schemes eventually do) or how much money the scammers got away with but I know for a fact it was at least tens of millions. We heard from victims and their friends who cashed in genuine investments, sold vehicles and property and even took bank loans to invest in the scheme. They all lost everything. Of course a small number at the top of the pyramid made a little but that was all at the expense of the victims.

We’ve seen the same again more recently with Helping Hands International, a donation or “gifting” scheme where people are encouraged to add money to a central pool and then withdraw larger amounts. Nobody involved in the running the scheme ever explains where the extra money comes from because if they did they’d give the game away. In fact, as a few people confessed to me, the growth in money just comes from new people joining, not from any interest or profits. Just new victims. That’s the definition of a Ponzi scheme.

But what could have been done to prevent people falling for it? Consumer Watchdog did its best to warn people as did NBFIRA, the regulator of financial services in Botswana but clearly that wasn’t enough.

That’s where I think an addition to the Consumer Protection Regulations might help. I think a new regulation should be added, saying that it would be “an unfair business practice” to “cause a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the origin, amount or likelihood of any income or profits from any business or investment mechanism”.

That would go some way to preventing the sort of lies and exaggerations that the recruiters for Eurextrade, Helping Hands International and all the other Ponzi schemes, pyramid schemes and Get Rich Quick schemes tell us to part us from our money.

It might also go some way to curbing the excesses of the Multi Level Marketing industry with their promises of a new “lifestyle” when all the figures that the companies are forced to disclose show that it’s incredibly unlikely that any new recruit will make anything at all.

Another change I’d recommend is to follow the approach adopted in many other countries about what happens when consumer buy something that goes wrong. Right now if we buy something that breaks down, Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection regulations applies because it clearly wasn’t “of merchantable quality”. We then have a right to one of the three Rs: a refund, repair or replacement. But here’s the problem. We don’t get to choose which of those three Rs we get. That’s up to the store who sold us the broken-down item. I think that should change. I’d like to see consumers have the right to demand a refund or replacement for an item that fails. Obviously there should be some limitations, I don’t think I should be able to demand a refund for a cellphone that fails after two years but maybe we should have that right for the first 14 days? Maybe 30 days? That would be reasonable and I think it would make life a lot simpler for those of us who buy faulty merchandise.

The only challenge would be enforcement but that’s where we consumers have a powerful weapon: the law. If we complain to them, the Consumer Protection Unit in the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry is required to investigate and establish whether the rules have been breached. I think these few new powers would help them become even more effective, don’t you?

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Why won’t they fix my bed?

I bought a bed from a store in Francistown in March and it was delivered to me through their Serowe branch. Unfortunately when it was delivered I realised one of the pedestals had some scratches and I made their delivery guy aware of this right away and he then promised to replace the following day because it was just about knockoff time. He didn't show up the following day as promised so I called the Serowe branch manager. She wanted me to pay for transport to bring my new pedestal but I declined because i had already paid P100 for transport. She then told me they will assist but cannot exchange with the pedestals they have in their store rather they have to wait for another stock from their suppliers. After 3 weeks I realised I was not gonna get help so I went to see the Francistown store manager who promised to help me within a week. After a week I contacted him and he said he will definitely deliver the following week. It has been 2 weeks now and he's not even replying my messages. I'm so frustrated now because I do not believe I should be incurring extra cost on phone calls and trips to Francistown on a bed that I fully paid for.

You certainly should NOT be incurring extra costs like this.

I often wonder how certain store managers sleep at night. Or do they perhaps care so little about their customers that they don’t recognize when they’re not only disrespecting a customer, they’re also abusing them?

The matter is actually very simple, simple enough for even these managers to understand. They sold you something that was not “of merchantable quality” as required by Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations. It’s simply not good enough that the item you spent you money on wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t second-hand, it wasn’t a former display model, was it? If not, you had a right to expect it to be perfect.

This business of wanting you to pay to transport the bed back to them was ridiculous, just like the rest of what they’ve said. All these excuses are completely unacceptable and I think you need to escalate the situation. I’ll contact the Managing Director of the chain of stores and see if their senior management team can take an interest. It’s about time that someone in authority did something useful to help you.

They lied about the phone!

I got a case my sister bought a phone from a store at Rail Park Mall to the value of P500. On their advertisements they said the phone has WhatsApp and Facebook but the moment I used it I found that it does not support any of those features. She tried taking it back to the store but they refused to take it back and refund her as it’s still new. They’re saying the lady who sold it to her was transferred to their Game City branch and my sister must go and look for her there.

We need your help please.

I think this store needs a lesson in the Consumer Protection Regulations. And perhaps some medication. They need to learn for instance that Section 13 (1) (a) says that an item must be “of merchantable quality”, meaning it’s “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”. The same section says that a product sold must “match any sample or description given” to a customer. So if the advertisement says it can run Facebook and WhatsApp then that’s what it must be capable of doing. And then Section 13 (1) (e) says that a supplier, like this store, “fails to meet minimum standards and specifications” if “the advertisement or representation of a commodity or service is made with the intent not to dispose of the commodity or service as advertised or represented”. Yet again, if the advertisement says it can do something, it must do that thing.

And this business about the person transferring to another store? Have they been smoking something illegal? What on Earth does that have to do with you? Are they saying that if she’d died they wouldn’t be liable? Are they insane? Haven’t they read Section 17 (1) (d) of the Regulations which forbids “causing a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”. Put simply that means they aren’t allowed to say silly things.

I suggest you go back to this crazy store and outline your understanding of the Consumer Protection Regulations. Be prepared for being the only sane person in the store.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Even more rights

Are you one of the nine out of ten people in Botswana who believe that consumers in Botswana are badly protected?

Is that even true? Is it true that we’re unprotected? I don’t believe so and that’s because I’ve read many of the laws and regulations that have been passed and issued over the years and they make good reading. In fact, we’re very well protected. In principle.

But maybe not in practice. The bad news is that I don’t think the bodies appointed by Parliament to enforce these excellent rules are always as aggressive as we need them to be. Perhaps worse, consumers like you and me haven’t been adequately taught what our rights are. How can we complain about something improper when we don’t know what’s proper?

One of the best set of rules we have is the Consumer Protection Regulations and perhaps the best bit is Section 13 (1) (a) Regulations which says that “any supplier who offers a commodity or service to a consumer fails to meet minimum standards and specifications” if “the commodity sold … is not of merchantable quality”. Merchantable quality is defined in the Regulations as “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”.

In other words, what you buy must actually do what you were told it would do or what you could reasonably think it would do. A pair of shoes that you treat with reasonable care mustn’t fall apart after only a day. A cellphone must be able to make and receive both phone calls and text messages. An insurance policy must offer the sort of cover that you were told it would offer and that a reasonable person would think it covers. No bizarre exceptions, no unexpected rules.

The big question is what happens next. If a store breaks Section 13 (1) (a) what can you demand they do to resolve the situation?

Our general rule is that when a company sells you something that isn’t of merchantable quality you are entitled to one of the three Rs: a replacement, repair or refund. No excuses or delays are permitted, you’re entitled to one of those things. However, what consumers often overlook is that it’s not up to them to decide which one they get. That’s up to the store. For instance, if your cellphone doesn’t work the store who sold it to you is entitled to do their best to repair it before offering you a replacement. That’s only fair, but there are limits. If it repeatedly fails then I think you’re entitled to assert yourself and demand a replacement or a refund

But it’s not just 13 (1) (a), there are several other protections that can help you. Some are very powerful.

One of the most powerful regulations is found in Section 17 (1) (d). This says that it’s an “unfair business practice” if a vendor causes “a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”.

Think that one through carefully. If anyone selling you a product does or says anything that is likely to confuse you about your rights or your obligations then they’ve broken the rules. If they do anything that might confuse you about what you can do if things go wrong then they’ve done it again. A salesperson that sells you something on credit who doesn’t make it perfectly clear what happens if you fall behind with your payments is being unfair. A micro-lender who says that the “in duplum” rule doesn’t apply to them is not only lying but breaking the Consumer Protection Regulations as well.

The next section, 17 (1) (e) is closely related. This forbids “disclaiming or limiting the implied warranty of merchantability and fitness for use”. Remember Section 13 (1) (a), that forbids selling something that isn’t “of merchantable quality”? This one says that a store can’t ever say that 13 (1) (a) doesn’t apply to them. The cellphone store that claims that the phones they sell only have a one-month warranty and won’t be repaired after that time, even though the manufacturer offers a one-year warranty, they’re breaking the rules. The second-hand car showroom that says that the car you bought an hour ago that broke down just a few meters down the road isn’t playing fair.

However, there’s an exception to this rule. A store IS permitted to disclaim the implied warranty if the “disclaimer is clearly and conspicuously disclosed”. That’s why you’ll sometimes see a sign in some stores that explains that they offer different conditions, such as the cellphone store that sells “grey imports” and consequently only offers a one-month warranty. But look again at what it says: “clearly and conspicuously”. So a sign in tiny letters that nobody can read isn’t good enough, it has to be so obvious that nobody can miss it.

Section 17 (1) (f) is similar. This one forbids a supplier from “entering into a transaction in which the consumer waives or purports to waive a right, benefit or immunity provided by law, unless the waiver is clearly stated and the consumer has specifically consented to it”. You can’t waive your rights under the Consumer Protection Regulations, contract law, the Food Control Act or any other set of laws or regulations unless you have specifically said you’re happy to do so. Which of course you should NEVER do. Never, ever agree to give up your rights. Not unless you want to be abused.

The general lesson here is that anyone who sells you something must be open and honest about the conditions of the sale. They can’t make up rules before, during or after the sale that disadvantage you unless you agreed to be disadvantaged. And that means in writing. It doesn’t say so specifically but that’s what these rules require. It must be in writing. How else are they going to prove that you gave up your rights unless they have written evidence to present in a court of law?

However, they all rely on one single thing. You, the consumer, the potential victim of abuse need to very carefully read and understand EVERYTHING you sign. If you haven’t read it, don’t sign it.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

When can I get my money back?

Kindly assist me. I instructed my bank to transfer P47,500 from my account to my other account at a different bank on the 6th April. I unfortunately wrote an incorrect account number by 1 digit and it was only discovered on the 21st April after making numerous follow ups and being told the money was credited into my account on the 10th. I was made to write a letter requesting the bank to correct the error. Even to date I have not been given a concrete answer. I was at one point told the account holder of the said account withdrew an undisclosed amount and the bank was still trying to locate him/her. Today I was told the account is dormant and had an overdraft so the bank has written for authority to South Africa to reverse the remaining balance and I will only be refunded the balance which is still undisclosed.

I feel aggrieved and don't know where to report the issue further as it involves two banks. Its been 4 weeks of torture for me. I made an error but I feel the bank also had the resources to verify the details provided as I gave them full names, account number and the branch code.

I can understand your frustration. However, we must start by accepting, as you do, that this wasn’t originally the bank’s fault, it was your mistake when you got the account number wrong. It’s also not the bank’s fault that the person who received the money is clearly an untrustworthy person whose overdraft swallowed your accidental payment.

However, I’ve also wondered why banks don’t seem to check the other details before completing a transfer. Don’t they check the account holder’s name and other details? I always assumed they did but it seems you and I were wrong about that. I wonder what the bank would say if you suggested to them that Section 15 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations requires organisations to deliver commodities and services (like banking) “with reasonable care and skill”. Surely basic checks like you mention count as “reasonable care”?

We’ll get in touch with the bank and see if they can’t go a little faster instead of using your money to pay off someone else’s debt.

My laptop doesn’t work!

I recently bought a laptop, only to find that​ it's defective. I went to the Police and they said it's a civil matter and there is nothing they can do. Kindly advise on how I can go about this.

The Police were right. It’s not a criminal matter, it is indeed a civil matter, an argument between two parties where no law has been broken. Let’s leave the cops to deal with crime.

However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have any rights. You certainly have a right to a laptop that works properly. Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations requires a supplier to sell things that are “of merchantable quality” which is defined as meaning “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”.

What that means is that your laptop computer must do what a laptop computer should do. It must compute. While on your lap.

You don’t describe in what way it’s defective but so long as it’s a manufacturing issue, or due to the failure of the seller to sell it properly, then you have a right to one of the four Rs: a repair, replacement or a refund. However it’s up to the store to decide which they’ll offer. A sensible store will offer to repair whatever the malfunction might be.

The only exceptions to this rule are if you caused the problem yourself by perhaps reconfiguring the device and therefore breaching the warranty, installing pirated and therefore risky software or you carelessly infected it with some sort of malware like the recent WannaCry attack.

I think you should go back to the store and assert your rights. Mention the Consumer Protection Regulations and see if that has any effect on them!

Saturday, 3 June 2017

More rights

Despite what 90% of the people in a recent poll we undertook think, consumers in Botswana are remarkably well protected.

The Consumer Protection Regulations, enacted sixteen years ago are incredibly useful tools that we consumers can use to protect ourselves and they give us rights that many other places in the world don’t offer. We even have an agency, the Consumer Protection Unit within the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry with the power to enforce them, whether suppliers and stores like that or not.

Last week we covered some of the rights but there’s a whole lot more of them that you and I should really understand.

Did you know, for instance, that suppliers must offer commodities and services “with reasonable care and skill”? Section 15 (1) (a) says that the guy repairing your cellphone or laptop is required to possess and demonstrate the sort of skills you would reasonably expect him to have. Obviously, you can’t expect miracles, so the ancient phone you inherited from one of your kids that you just dropped in the bath is probably dead. Sooner or later your ancient Blackberry will be beyond repair. However, you still have a right to expect anyone who does a job for you to do it in a reasonably careful and skilful manner.

Section 15 (1) (e) says that if any transaction is cancelled “in accordance with the terms of an agreement, advertisement, representation, or provision of law” then the supplier must “promptly restore to the consumer entitled to it a deposit, down payment, or other payment”. How is that relevant to you and me? It means that if a supplier fails to deliver your goods and you’ve given them an ample opportunity to fix the problem you’re entitled to cancel the deal and get back whatever money you paid them. It doesn’t matter if it’s the wedding photographer who didn’t take pictures, the car dealership that took your deposit and then increased the price of the car or the store that delivered second-hand goods instead of new ones. Whatever the circumstances, if you legitimately cancel a deal you must be given your money back. It’s that simple.

Then there are two sections that work together very well.

Section 13 (1) (b) says that any “supplier who offers a commodity or service to a consumer fails to meet minimum standards and specifications if” “the commodity or service causes a probability of confusion or misunderstanding as to its source, sponsorship, approval, or certification”.

A little later, Section 13 (1) (d) forbids a company from claiming that an item “is of a particular standard, quality, or grade” or that it’s “of a particular style or model” if their claims “cannot be substantiated”.

This means that someone who sells you something must be extremely careful about how they describe it. If they say that it’s a particular model, then that must be true. If they say it’s of a particular quality then that also must be true. If they say the items are from a particular country then that must be true as well.

Most importantly if they say that their item has been approved by a particular company or regulator then they can’t be lying or exaggerating. For instance, you’ll occasionally see that a piece of technology has been approved for use with devices from a certain manufacturer. That isn’t always true. In China there were cases of fake iPhone charger cables that exploded, injuring their users. Some years ago here in Botswana a reader showed us the jeans he’d been wearing when the battery in his Nokia cellphone spontaneously caught fire. The problem was that it wasn’t actually a Nokia battery, it was a replacement he’d bought having been assured it was suitable for his phone. It wasn’t. He was lucky only to have his jeans catch fire.

A supplier will also be in deep trouble if they falsely claim that an item has been certified by a particular regulator. We’ve seen cheap electrical irons that appear to have an approval mark but which turns out to be fake. They weren’t approved by anyone at all, they were fakes, extremely dangerous fakes. Luckily electrical irons are covered by one of the Bureau of Standards’ compulsory standards and can be seized and trashed if they’re not safe to use.

We all love a bargain, don’t we? I certainly do and when I see that something has been reduced in price that’s always a good thing. But is it a genuine reduction?

Section 17 (1) (a) of the Regulations forbids suppliers from “making false or misleading statements of fact concerning the reasons for, existence of, or amounts of price reductions”. So if the supplier says there’s 10% off the prices today then that must be the truth. If they deliberately increased the prices yesterday so they could reduce them the next day, claiming that the goods were now discounted, they’d be in trouble as well. Price reductions must be exactly what they claim to be, real reductions in price.

The next section is a very good one, it’s just a shame that so few people know about it. It says that it’s “an unfair business practice” if someone claims that “a part, replacement or repair is needed when it is not”. What could be simpler than that? If your car mechanic, cellphone or laptop repairman or your electrician tells you that something needs to be fixed then he must be telling the truth. But how confident are you that this doesn’t happen? Are you really sure that the people who fix things for you are always telling the truth? I’m certainly not. We’ve heard many times from consumers who’ve been asked to pay for expensive repairs that turn out to have been unnecessary, just very profitable for the repairer. The problem is that very few of us are qualified to argue with the person we believe is an expert.

With all these protections and the ones mentioned last week, I think that consumers in Botswana are very well protected. The only problem is that people haven’t been taught what protections they have and if you don’t know something’s illegal, how can you be expected to complain about it?

There’s no excuse now!

Friday, 2 June 2017

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Is the battery covered?

I bought a Huawei phone on the 28/12/2016. A month later I realized that the battery is swollen. The first week of using the phone the back cover cracked and broke. Now the battery is not working! The phone has less than 6 months! What rights do I have as a consumer?

I’m told the fact that the back cover is broken nullifies my warranty but what if the swollen battery caused the back cover to break in the first place? Do I have a case against the seller?

You most certainly do have a case against them in my view.

Certain components are often excluded from the warranty that a manufacture offers with a product, particularly electronic items such as phones and computers. Usually it’s things like the cables. However, there’s a big difference between cables that might fray because of misuse and a battery that’s swelling. That’s a sign of a battery that has a serious problem, possibly even a dangerous one.

The first thing you should do is to stop charging your phone. Don’t plug it in at all. Trying to charge a battery in this state is potentially dangerous.

Secondly you need to go back to the store where you bought the phone and explain to them that they sold you a phone that failed to meet the requirements of Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations 2001. That requires them to sell you an item that was “of merchantable quality” which means “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”. A phone battery that swells like this and potentially endangers you clearly fails this test. Their warranty exclusions aren’t relevant.

Let me know what they say.

Can I get my money back?

Can you please help me. I was contacted by a company called Hotel Express last year around November or December. I mistakenly gave them my account details but cancelled my deal with them as they wanted to take money straight from my account. They kept calling to ask if they can take the money but I refused. Then today I got an SMS that they have taken P1,700 from my account without my authorization. Can you please help me recover the money? I don't have their contact details. Please help me.

I’ve warned people about Hotel Express International many times in the past, going as far back as 2010 and it’s always been basically the same story. You get a call from someone who invites you to join their travel discount scheme, offering you discounts on hotels, car hires and flights. As part of the sales process they ask for your credit or debit card details either to check if you’re eligible to join or to establish if you’re entitled to some special level of membership. Many of the victims who’ve contacted us have claimed that they didn’t give explicit permission for money to be deducted from their accounts but that’s exactly what happened. Without explicit permission they’ve been enrolled and, like you, their account is charged and they have endless trouble getting their money back.

Given that the discounts offered by this company can be obtained elsewhere for free, you have to wonder what the point is. You don’t ever have to pay the full rate in a hotel. There are plenty of special offers and discounted rates available for you to choose from. A few months ago I stayed in a hotel in Johannesburg and do you think I paid the full rate? No, of course not. I saw a special offer online that gave me a luxury hotel room at about half of the normal rate. Did I need to pay to join a discount scheme to get this special rate? Again, no, of course not. I got the discount for free, just like I’ve done many times in the past. I even once got a discount of over 80% in a hotel in Cape Town, just by signing up for a newsletter from the hotel chain. For free.

So ask yourself this. Why would you pay to get a hotel discount when hotels give them away for free?

We’ll get in touch with Hotel Express International in South Africa on your behalf and see what can be done. Be prepared for a battle though!

For everyone else, please don’t waste your money joining Hotel Express International and whatever you do, if they call you, don’t give them your card details.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Your rights

How well do you know your rights as a consumer? In fact, did you even know that you had any rights? I think it’s time to remind ourselves of some of our rights, the rights that the laws of Botswana give us. Specifically, those given to us by the Consumer Protection Regulations.

Perhaps the most important comes from Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations. This says that “any supplier who offers a commodity or service to a consumer fails to meet minimum standards and specifications if … the commodity sold … is not of merchantable quality”. “Merchantable quality” is defined in the Regulations as “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”.

Put simply this means that what you buy must actually DO what you were told it would do or what you could reasonably think it would do. A cellphone must be able to make and receive both phone calls and text messages. If you were told that you’d be able to surf the web with it then that must be true. An iron must heat up and allow you to press your clothes. A vehicle must be capable of transporting you from A to B.

The same section forbids suppliers from offering items that don’t “match any sample or description given to the consumer” or that aren’t fit “for any particular purpose made known by the consumer”. In other words what the guy in the stores says about the item you buy must be true. If you request a particular function or capability from the store then that’s what you must be given. Otherwise they’re in trouble.

Section 13 (1) (c) is another powerful weapon. This says that a supplier has transgressed if “representation is made that the commodity is new when in fact it has deteriorated, or it has been altered, reconditioned, used or is second hand”. In other words, new means new. A store is simply prohibited from selling you something that isn’t new unless they make it very clear that this is the case. A sofa they repossessed from a customer yesterday can’t be sold as new. The same goes for a cellphone that was returned by another customer, even if they never actually used it. It someone else took it out of the box and touched it, it’s no longer new. It’s as simple as that.

One of my favourites is Section 13 (1) (e) which says that a supplier is in trouble if “the advertisement or representation of a commodity or service is made with the intent not to dispose of the commodity or service as advertised or represented”.

I think you can interpret that in a number of really useful ways. It means, for instance, that if an item is priced on the store’s shelf as P35.95 and when you get to the till they try and charge you P45.95 then they’re broken that rule. They’re not selling it as it was “advertised or represented”, are they? It also means that if something is advertised for sale in South African Rands then you should be able to pay for it in Rands. Most of us have seen this, sometimes with just a Rand sticker, other time with both a Rand price and a Pula price. I think this mean you can demand to pay using the Rands you have left over from your last trip south. In fact, you should try that next time you see something priced in Rands. The store will say No of course but it’s worth explaining to them that you know your rights and are prepared to stand up for them.

I also have a fondness for Section 15 (1) (b) which says that a supplier fails “to meet minimum standards of performance” if they quote “scientific or technical data in support of a claim unless the data can be readily substantiated”.

You know what that means? It means homeopathy, reflexology, acupuncture and all those silly electronic devices with names like QXCI, SCIO, and “Quantum Resonance Magnetic Analyzer” are all in breach of the law and that anyone peddling them and making ridiculous claims about their benefits are acting illegally.

In fact, the people who were doing their best last year to sell that last one, the absurdly named “Quantum Resonance Magnetic Analyzer” made some remarkable claims. They said that once you’re plugged into the device you’ll get “a complete body assessment” and that a “98 page report is generated reflecting various conditions of the body’s health systems producing 39 reports and 238 test results.”

They went on to claim that it can test you for 41 different areas, including “Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular”, “Brain Nerve”, “Blood Sugar”, “Immune System”, “Human Toxin”, “Heavy Metal” and “Basic Physical Quality”.

That’s nonsense. Nonsense that breaches the Consumer Protection Regulations.

Section 15 (1) (d) of the Regulations says that a supplier “shall fail to meet minimum standards of performance if” they advertise something “with intent not to supply reasonably expected public demand”. So a special offer or a discount that is advertised has to be backed up by sufficient quantities of the product to satisfy a normal level of interest. For instance a store can’t advertise fantastic reductions on the price of televisions if there’s only one discounted TV in stock.

The only exception to this rule is “unless the advertisement discloses a limitation of quantity”. So if the store only has a handful of items they want to discount and dispose of they have to be open and honest about that. All it takes is for them to say something like “but we only have 5 left, it’s first-come, first served!” Anything else is abuse.

Source: A poll conducted on May 2017 on Facebook.
Yes, Facebook, so you know it's meaningless, Ok?
These are just some of the protections that consumers in Botswana have. It’s just a shame that so few people know about them. In a recent survey we asked how well protected consumers felt they were and around 90% said that they felt we’re either badly or very badly protected and that’s a shame because the opposite is actually true. We just don’t know about it.

We do now.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Do I have a case?

I have an issue which I need advice on. A few years ago I borrowed four grand from a cash loan and whilst I had no job I went to the owner and informed him I don't work anymore then he said I should pay if I can so I started paying 500,100,1500. And that's 2013. While I was at some company for a little while some sheriff comes and instructs me to pay all the amount which I owe or else I will be put to jail. I ended up paying 13,000 but now my question is was it lawful for me to be charged so much? If I have a case who can I consult to assist me because I believe I wasn't charged accordingly. I asked him to find my file but he keeps giving me silly excuses.

Oh yes, you certainly have a case. And this cash loan company has a case to answer.

Here’s something this loan shark, sorry, I mean microlender, seems to have overlooked. The “in duplum” rule. This piece of common law says that when you settle a debt the interest charged cannot be greater than the outstanding capital amount you owe. So if you still owed P3,000 from the P4,000 you borrowed the lender can’t charge you more then P3,000 interest on top of the P3,000 you owe. In that example they can’t charge more than P6,000, plus of course any reasonable debt collection costs.

In your case the lender has clearly ignored this. You borrowed P4,000 and even if you never paid them back anything the settlement value can’t be more that P8,000 plus costs. Given that you paid back at least P2,000 these numbers simply don’t work out.

I suggest that you contact NBFIRA, the Non Bank Financial Institutions Regulatory Authority who oversee and regulate the micro-lending industry. Go and see them and ask them to investigate the lender to see if they can force him to start obeying the rules.

Is this a genuine job offer?

Please help me and tell me if this is a genuine job offer. Air Canada have offered me a job as a Meeting/Event Planner in Canada paying US$71,840 per annum.

No, this is certainly not a genuine job offer, there’s no doubt about it.

There are several clues in the letter they sent you. Firstly, why would a Canadian company offering someone a job in Canada offer a salary in US dollars? And why would they offer a job and then incur the expense of flying someone halfway round the planet when 6.5% of Canadians are currently unemployed?

Other clues are the terrible spelling in the letter (“this offer will laps if it is not accepted”), the fact that they’re using a free email address (not “”) and the extraordinary salary. They want to pay you P750,000 to plan hotel events? I think not.

I’m prepared to bet that you haven’t even been interviewed for this job, have you? I bet it was what they called an “online interview” which involved nothing more than completing a questionnaire and emailing it to them. I bet you haven’t even spoken to anyone either? Tis isn’t how real companies recruit news staff. Real companies interview people face-to-face. Always.

This is the beginning of an advance fee scam. What these people are seeking is a payment they’ll demand from you before you get the job they’re pretending to offer you. It’s usually a “visa fee” they say is necessary before you can travel. If you pay them all that will happen is that they’ll demand more and more money from you and that will only stop when you finally realize you’re being scammed or you run out of money. And remember that scammers don’t offer refunds, they’ll be too busy sending your money to their criminal overlords. And yes, I do mean that. Don’t imagine that these scams are perpetrated by some teenagers in a Lagos internet cafĂ©, this is organized crime.

Please just delete their email and don’t respond to any messages from them.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Protect your technology

What impact would it have if your computer stopped working? If every computer in your business stopped functioning, could you continue? Would your business survive?

Given how many companies rely on technology for their communications, accounts, personnel records and customer databases, I suspect that if they failed most companies would simply fold.

Yes, you’ll say, we have backups of everything but what if they were corrupted as well?

Last week the BBC reported that “200,000 victims in 150 countries” had been infected by a piece of malware called WannaCry. The malicious software had affected hospitals throughout the UK and the attack “left hospitals and doctors unable to access patient data, and led to the cancellation of operations and medical appointments.” The attack also affected systems in several European countries and victims in Russia were hit hard.

WannaCry is an example of “ransomware”, a particularly vicious descendant of the old-fashioned computer virus. Once it gets onto the victim’s computer it then encrypts the contents. All the documents on the computer are still there but you can’t open them any more. Instead the victim is presented with a message saying that if they want to access their documents they need to pay the criminals behind the scheme the equivalent of P3,000 but not by any conventional means. Like all criminals who kidnap for ransom, they want paying in an untraceable form, in this case using Bitcoin.

This particular example is focussed specifically on Windows computers and it seems that the people most likely to be infected are either those using older version of Windows, or those who haven’t been downloading the regular security updates that Microsoft releases. It also does its best to spread itself across any network it finds itself occupying so once one computer is infected, all the others on the network can be infected as well.

A danger with ransomware that encrypts your data is that it can even encrypt your backups so it’s not as if you can just delete everything and restore them from yesterday’s backup.

So what would happen to your business if all your files were suddenly inaccessible? Would you be able to continue? How would you sell anything? How many customers would you have left by the end of the week?

The solution is simple. Secure your computers. Keep your software up to date, switch on the firewall that comes with all computers these days, use the anti-virus and anti-malware protection mechanisms that are freely available and then be careful. Don’t download anything from web sites you don’t already trust, don’t allow your staff to download software at all, fire anyone who downloads pirated music or video files and ban people from sticking their sticks into your available slots.

Yes, it’s just like protecting yourself from any other type of infection. Don’t allow alien substances to penetrate your defences.

So is this a consumer issue? Yes, of course it is.

I don’t want to be in a relationship with a bank, insurance company, pension scheme or government department that doesn’t protect itself against security threats, either conventional one such as break-ins and armed robberies but also modern ones such as cyber-attacks.

Why? Because one of the things they have that criminals want to steal is my information. They want to steal my user id and password for my bank’s online banking scheme so they can sign on and steal my money.

I also don’t want to leave myself unprotected. I don’t want hackers infecting my computer and either holding me to ransom, stealing my personal details or hijacking my computer and using it to spread their malware further.

Ironically protecting yourself from cyber infection is about as easy and cheap as it is to protect yourself against any other form of infection. If you use a modern release of Windows, it comes with built-in protection mechanisms. You can buy software on top of that but you really don’t need to, despite what many retailers will tell you.

Most importantly you must keep your version of Windows up-to-date. If you’re still using Windows XP then are asking for serious trouble. That hasn’t been safely protected for several years and you need to move to a more modern version.

But what if you can’t afford to do that? What if Windows 10 is out of your price range? What if a computer powerful enough to run it is also too pricey?

Then be radical. Go for the entirely legal, safe and free option. Yes, I DO mean free. Install a version of Unix such as Ubuntu or Linux. You can download this for free and it comes with the equivalent of Word, Excel and Powerpoint and it’s really easy to use. And it even runs on the oldest, lowest power machines you can find. I’ve done it several times and I have computers at home and in the office running it right now. And did I mention it’s entirely free? And did I also mention that like its distant cousin, the Mac, a computer running Unix is almost immune from viruses and malware?

Price really is no excuse for most people these days.

I think the lesson is that technology is at the heart of almost everything we do in 2017 and we need to catch up in order to protect ourselves. We need to understand the technology we use better and for some of us that’s easy but for many others it’s a scary, alien environment. That’s one of the reasons we see the curse of modern technological life: missing airtime and data. Yes, our cellphone network providers have occasionally had technological problems and have lost our data but on the vast majority of occasions it really was us that used the data, we just didn’t know we’d done it. Nobody had taken the time to explain how much data the Facebook app uses, how much video files use and how the setting within these apps can exhaust your data in moments, particularly now we have 4G networks.

I suppose you could wait for companies to start educating us about these things but I think it’s too important to wait. Start educating yourself on how to use your technology safely.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Whose job is it to fix my fridge?

Hello. Please advise. On March I bought a Samsung fridge and they delivered it to my house. Immediately after I switched it on it gave a horrible sound. I reported it to the store and they sent their agent to my house to check it and he told me it is the compressor. I then went to Samsung and asked about it and they told me its not the compressor and the fridge might have a fault. Then I reported this back to the store and they sent the same guy to my house. He came and opened it and then he told me if the sound persist I should call him. It did and I called him and he told me they have to collect it from my house to fix the problem at their office.

Well I demanded a refund or exchange because they are going in circles. I told them I can’t expect a new fridge to be fixed. Now the manager is telling me that if they have to give me a new fridge they have to be given authority by their agent. Firstly I didn’t buy a fridge from their agent and I did buy from them. What can I do?

I’m sorry for your trouble. Unfortunately, we hear this story very often. You buy something brand new and then it goes wrong and the store start doing their best to confuse you about your rights. The most important thing to understand is that you bought the fridge from the store. Not from their agent, not from the manufacturer, you bought it from the store and it’s therefore the store’s job to fix any problems that occur.

Section 17 (1) (d) of the Consumer Protection Regulations says that an unfair business practice if a supplier causes “a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”. Telling you that you must speak to another company, that they need to involve someone else in their decision-making, that you have to run around and do their work for them is an unfair business practice, don’t you think?

Unfortunately, one weakness in the Consumer Protection Regulations, an area where we fall behind some other countries, is that when something like this happens you don’t have the right to demand a particular solution. The store has the right to decide which of the three Rs they offer you: a repair, replacement or a refund. You don’t get to make that choice. Meanwhile you deserve a working fridge.

We’ll get in touch with the store for you and see fi they can’t be a bit more helpful and give you what you deserve.

Where’s the two hundred grand?

I just want to find out if it's possible to help my dad on a banking issue. The bank over deducted close to P200 000 and they actually agree that they made a mistake in making him pay over and above the actual owed sum but instead of paying him back the money, they have been giving him the run around for over 6 months now.

What happened is that my dad took a loan some years back but even after completing the payment, they continued deducting for over 10 years and when my dad eventually figured out what was going on, they apologised but continued to deduct and only stopped after a while. What can he do?

I’m glad I was sitting down when I read your message.

That really is a staggering level of incompetence. I admit I’m not an expert on banking computer systems but surely the system knows to stop deducting when the outstanding balance reaches zero? Unless they entered the wrong details when they first set up the loan but either way they’ve let your father down badly.

Secondly, when an organisation realises that they’ve made a mistake, particularly one as massive as this, I think they should be doing their best to fix it now. Right now. Not after they’ve had a cup of tea, not next week, next month or just when they feel like doing so. It needs to be fixed the moment they’ve checked the facts and ensured they’re not being scammed. And then they need to apologize. And no, I don’t mean an apology from a low-level member of staff. For a mistake that cost P200,000 I would expect the CEO on the phone expressing their concern, regret, humble apologies and a promise that it will never happen again.

And don’t forget that your Dad could have been earning interest on that P200,000 so I’d expect them to pay him that as well.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Get it in writing!

We get a lot of people contacting us with complaints and we’re used to the emotions by now. We can cope with the anxiety, disappointment and confusion consumers are experiencing. We can deal with their anger and desire for retribution. What I sometimes find difficult to manage are my own emotions. In particular that sinking feeling in my stomach when a consumer tells me “No, it was a verbal agreement, we didn’t put anything in writing”.

Whenever I hear or read this I know life is going to be difficult. It almost always means that the consumer is completely out of luck.

We recently got the following enquiry from a member of our Facebook group.
“Hello, I was wondering if you could give me advice. I had a verbal agreement with someone early in December 2016 to sell him my car for P20 000 and he was supposed to pay the full amount by then end of December 2016. He has been telling us he is expecting money from somewhere to pay but of lately he is not picking my calls, he reads and ignores my messages including Whatsapp messages. And today I decided to call his girlfriend asking her to talk to him for me. I then received a call from him saying he is returning the car as it was giving him problems. So my worry is what if the car is no longer in a good condition?”
So you gave away your car to someone who didn’t pay you any money up front? You gave him your car without any record of any agreement between the two of you explaining who now owned it, how much he would pay and the conditions of the sale? And now he’s going to return it with mechanical problems?

Congratulations, you just lent someone your car for several months and he broke it.

And that’s the end of it.

The lack of a written agreement means there is no court that will help you. There is nothing to prove that you didn’t just lend him the vehicle. Even the least reputable attorney will probably suggest that you take back the car and live with the disappointment.

Another reader had a more complicated issue. She said:
“Hello Richard I have an issue with my ex landlord that I need advice on. She is refusing to repay my security deposit. I moved into the house in March 2015 and signed a lease agreement that stipulated that rents increases by 10% every year. Now during the signing of the lease the landlord verbally said that she won't increase rent after the first year. I moved out of the house in December after staying in the house for 1 year + 6 months. Now my landlord has gone back on her word and says I should back pay all the 10% increments from March 2016 which marks my one year stay in the house. So my question is do I really have to pay her all the 10% increments even though verbally she had said she won’t increase rent after the first year and in the past six months not once has she complained that I'm not paying the increased amount. It is only now that I have moved out of the house and I want my security back that she is bringing this up.”
Yes, I’m sorry, but you DO have to pay her the increments because that’s what you agreed to do. In writing. The so-called verbal agreement you had with the landlord doesn’t exist. It’s only a memory from two years ago. The only record is in your head and that doesn’t qualify as evidence that a court would listen to, particularly when there’s a written agreement that says something different. In fact, a court isn’t even allowed to consider your verbal agreement. The “parol rule” of evidence says that “when a transaction has been reduced into writing, the writing is regarded as the exclusive memorial of the transaction and no evidence may be given to contradict, alter, add or vary its terms”.

A verbal agreement that contradicts a written agreement doesn’t exist. It’s not an agreement at all. Forget it, it effectively didn’t happen.

Here’s a final example.

A consumer came to our office a couple of years ago and asked for our help in reclaiming some money she’d lent to a guy. He’d been a regular customer in her store and she’d grown to know him fairly well. But only as a customer, nothing more that I know of.

One time he’d asked her if she could lend him some money. Yes, I know, your alarm bells are ringing, aren’t they? Would you hand over money to someone like this? I know I wouldn’t.

Anyway, she said yes and they went to the bank to transfer the money he wanted from her account directly into his.

And that was the last she saw of her money. It was more than a year later that she came to us and he had now gone quiet on her. What could she do, she wanted to know?

I put my metaphorical amateur detective hat on and started asking some questions. When, who, where and above all, how much? How much had she lent him?

“One point five”, she told me.

Ok, I thought to myself, that’s hardly the end of the world, is it? It’s not a sum that’s going to ruin her, I thought.

But then I realised. She didn’t mean one point five thousand Pula. She meant one point five million. One and a half million Pula. To a guy she barely knew. And with no written agreement.

I think she must have realised from my face (I’m not that good an actor) that I was stunned. Rendered speechless. I promise you I did NOT use the phrase “Why does your mother allow you out alone?”

Please, I beg you to learn this very simple lesson. It won’t always solve every problem but it will go a very long way to help you if you get every financial transaction in writing. Everything. When you lend someone money, sell your car, even when you sell an old phone to an acquaintance, put the agreement in writing. You’ll thank me, I promise.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Is my phone broken?

Hi Richard! I bought a cellphone on 8 April 2017 and returned it back on 11 April after I experienced some faults on it. I used the phone only 2 days. Up to date they didn't help me. Today the shop manager told me that it will be couriered back to me since the manufacturer didn't see any fault on the phone and they insist I take the phone. The only option they have is that they can only refund me if they too found the fault I was talking about. Is it fair Richard?

Well, yes, it probably is. Up to a point.

Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations says that a store must sell goods and services that are “of merchantable quality”. The Regulations define that as “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”. Put simply it means that a cellphone should do what a cellphone is meant to do. Obviously some cellphones do more than others but that’s where the “relevant circumstances” are important.

You didn’t say what exactly the faults were on your phone that prompted you to take it back but I assume they were fairly serious?

The general rule in these circumstances is that the store has three choices, the three Rs. They can offer you a replacement, a repair or a refund if it can be shown that there’s something wrong with the phone. Obviously they don’t have to do anything if there’s evidence that either you damaged the phone or there’s nothing actually wrong with it.

I suggest that you go to the store and examine the phone together and see if the faults you noticed are still there. If the faults are still there then you should firmly reject the suggestion that you take it back. You then tell them that you want one of the three Rs and ask them which they choose. On the other hand if the manufacturer is right and there’s nothing actually wrong with it then it’s time to take it home.

Once or twice?

Good day Mr. Harriman. Kindly assist me with an issue I have here. I received an SMS from the hospital saying I have an outstanding bill. On enquiry I was told that my medical aid short paid my claim.

How it happened was that my husband went to the hospital on the 14th February but was there until after midnight. Therefore the bill was only prepared on the 15th February. He had to go back on the 15th (around 7am) because the pain was back. He got another bill for that.

The medical aid say they cannot pay twice for same consultation. Who do we fight here sir: the hospital for billing him twice for a continuation; or the medical aid for refusing to pay because he had to go back as he got sick again?

Are you serious? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen all day and I’ve seen a lot of deeply silly things today.

I think you should go back to your medical aid and demand that they speak to the hospital and look at the admission times and the details of what actually happened with your husband. With luck their systems will show that he was there on two different occasions having slightly different treatment, probably even by different staff members.

I’m very often surprised by quite how ridiculous some organisations can be. We all understand that they need to have rules but when they are misinterpreted like this they seem to forget that it’s us, the customers who are inconvenienced when it’s their job to take the inconvenience on our behalf. Isn’t that why we pay them such large amounts of money?

If they don’t give you any joy let me know and we’ll get in touch with them and suggest they need to visit the hospital in person. The Psychiatry Department.

Friday, 5 May 2017

The power of cash

I like cash.

I don’t mean that I like money, which actually I do, but I mean I still like having notes in my wallet. I also like online banking, cellphone banking, eWallet and all the other modern ways of moving money from A to B. But I still like cash.

I like it because it makes life easier in filling stations (I have an irrational fear of filling up and then finding that their point of sale devices aren’t working), coffee shops (where I spend much of my life) and, most importantly, any place where I want to leave a tip.

Someone contacted us recently about the issue of tipping. She asked:
“Please advise. I had a conversation with a waiter who told me that if a client pays with a card and the tip is included in the bill they are charged for the POS transaction, i.e. the waiter pays for the POS transaction. I found that very weird. So what the restaurant has done is they have passed on the 3% that they get charged to the waiter. Another scenario is that if a customer walks in has meal and for whatever reason the customer doesn't pay, and comes back they following day to pay they get a P200 fine. These kids don't earn much and all of this isn't fair according to the way I see it.”
If this is true then I share her outrage. It’s immoral, indecent and just plain wrong to punish the waiter because a customer decided to pay with their card. Yes, we probably all know that the bank charge a small fee to a store that uses a point of sale device, but that’s the cost of doing business, something the business should accept. Passing on that cost to the waiter is disgraceful.

Maybe there’s a very good reason for always carrying some cash to tip the waiters in that restaurant. In fact let’s just do that in every restaurant until we can make sure that no restaurant is behaving so badly.

Cash is also good in another sense. This time I don’t mean notes and coins but I mean money that’s yours, not someone else’s.

People sometimes accuse me of being obsessed by certain subjects and it’s possible I do repeat myself about them but that’s because I believe they’re important. I won’t stop talking about scams, Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes, multi-level marketing schemes and so-called “alternative” health products because I sincerely believe (and I’m right) that they threaten our well-being.

But a more direct threat to the average guy is something more ordinary, more mundane.

Hire purchase.

I know I’ve written this before but I make no apology for doing so again. And again and again. Hire purchase is the worst possible way of buying something. It really is.

To begin with there’s something that stores don’t explain fully and is often hidden deep in the hire purchase contract you sign. The goods you buy don’t belong to you until you pay the final instalment. Until that moment, the stove, fridge, TV or laptop you think belongs to you in fact still belongs to the store. That’s why it’s called “hire” purchase. For the two years you’re struggling to make the monthly payments, you’re just hiring the item. That’s why, if you default, the store is entitled to come and repossess it without going to court. All they’re doing is taking possession of something they own, not you.

Another thing they often don’t make perfectly clear is that if they repossess the goods, the debt doesn’t disappear. You’ll still owe either close to the outstanding balance or perhaps even more.

Let’s do the maths. Let’s say you take a liking to a TV that is on sale in a store for cash for P3,000. If you buy it on hire purchase you’ll probably spend twice the cash price, let’s assume a total of P6,000.

I’m not making this up. Already you’re paying 100% more than the cash price, just for the convenience of hiring a TV that, once you finally own it, will be two years old and that would have cost you P3,000 more than if you’d bought it for cash.

But’s only if you’re lucky not to lose your job, have your business collapse or suddenly have a disaster that meant you can’t make the payments.

If any of these things happened, maybe after a year, halfway through the hire purchase period, the store can just come round to your house and take it back. No court order, no deputy sheriff, no procedure, just a guy in a truck taking your TV away. And you still owe them half the total cost, still P3,000.

What they then do is sell the TV to recover some of the money you still owe them. But remember that the TV is now a year old, second hand and probably not in perfect condition. If you’re lucky they’ll get P500 for it. That leaves you still owing P2,500.

What often now happens is that the consumer thinks it’s all over. The TV has been repossessed so they think the debt has gone with it. Wrong. What happens is that the debt actually increases as the store adds on interest, penalties, debt collection costs and the fees charged by the law firm they’ll eventually engage. At the very least the charges will exceed the money they got from selling the TV, leaving you owing exactly what you would have owed if you still had the TV, probably a lot more. But you don’t still have the TV. You’re paying for an empty space in your sitting room.

The solution is simple. Don’t buy things on hire purchase. If you possibly can, save the same amount of money you’d spend on hire purchase for a year and you can then buy the thing for cash. If you can’t wait that long then buy something second-hand. Whatever you do, don’t sign a hire purchase agreement. It’ll cost you an enormous amount of cash you could be spending on something much better. Like living a financially stable lifestyle.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Where’s his money?

My friend moved his account to another bank last week because they offered us in my company a special loan scheme. The problem is that we have is that we are always paid on the 26th of each and every month but it’s been 3 days and his salary haven’t reported in his new bank account.

We checked with our payroll manager to see if the account number was correct and even went to the bank. The bank realised that the problem is with their system and they promised that they will fix it. Instead of contacting him he is the one who is always contacting them and they will always have some excuse to take his calls. Yesterday he went to the bank and he was told the money will report in the evening but nothing has appeared yet. He contacted the person who is dealing with his account but she gave an excuse saying they are in a meeting. These friend of mine have stop orders and things to pay but the bank seems like it doesn’t care enough, please help him.

Yes, I think you’re right. The bank doesn’t seem to care at all.

It’s the mark of a sensible, mature and ultimately successful company that when they make a mistake, as this bank appears to have done, they do their very best to fix it as quickly as possible. It’s the mark of a useless, uncaring, doomed-to-fail organisation that they fail to respond adequately, go into childish denial, or as in this case, just stop talking to their customers.

I suggest that you escalate this situation. Clearly the person you’ve been dealing with hasn’t given your friend’s situation sufficient attention. Your friend should call the branch and politely ask to speak to the manager. He should explain that their bank is causing him great inconvenience and disturbance and is wasting his time. If he isn’t able to speak to the branch manager then he should escalate further and call the Managing Directors office at Head Office. If that doesn’t work, then contact us again and we’ll see what we can do.

I’ve been blacklisted

I purchased a television on credit. Unfortunately due to ill health I could not pay the instalment as per our agreement. This led to the store handing over my name to the credit bureau. Four months back I managed to settle my outstanding balances. My expectation was that after settling my balance the store will update my payment profile at ITC. Up to now they have not done that. My major problem is that I can not be assisted on credit by any company because the store has not updated my payment profile. I have talked to them on a number of occasions but my efforts did not bear any fruit, hence I am now seeking assistance from your office.

For everyone’s benefit I should explain how credit bureaux work. Despite what many people think, they don’t just “blacklist” people. In fact, they hold a vast amount of information on all of us, both bad information such as when you defaulted on a loan, but also good information like the fact that you completed a loan successfully. That allows a prospective lender to get a full picture of you before they make a decision on whether to lend you money.

The other thing they do is hold complete history, or at least they try to. If you default on your instalments they’ll record that this happened. They should also record that some while later you caught up with your arrears and the debt was settled. That way a potential lender will see that you had a problem but also that you fixed it which might make them look on you more favourably.

The problem is that we hear quite often of stories just like yours. Once you’ve cleared your debt the store fails to update the information held by the credit bureaux. The MD of one of the bureaux once told me that it can take up to 28 days to make the update but in your case it’s taken a lot longer than it should have done. I suggest that you escalate this to the Managing Director or Regional Manager of the chain and see if a little pressure can be applied. Yes, you failed by not honouring your agreement but not you’ve caught up it’s time to allow you to move on.

If that doesn’t work, let me know and we’ll make some calls.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Doing something right?

I once saw an interview with the head of an international human rights organisation and he said that he knew he was doing something right when on the same day a fascist dictator called him a communist and a communist dictator called him a fascist.

Sometimes we get that feeling as well. We just know we’re doing something right.

The first piece of good news was about Xango, a juice marketed using a multi level marketing scheme. We reported and broadcast about Xango in February and March, warning people to avoid it. If you believed what its salespeople were saying, Xango really is miraculous. Its proponents say it can “combat” cancer, diabetes, leukemia, Alzheimers and dementia and can even “improve HIV” although I don’t think they’ve thought that last claim through properly. It can “improve HIV”? I’m not sure that’s what they really mean. However, whatever they think it can do, it obviously can’t do any of these things. If it could, someone would have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine by now and probably the Nobel Prize for Peace as well. They would deserve both. And for P350 for each bottle I’d expect something wonderful to happen with every sip.

Products like Xango are dangerous and the people selling them should be ashamed of the things they’re doing but the good news is that they’ll soon stop. In March the Xango head office sent out an urgent message down through their pyramid instructing them “to remove all health claims about Xango ASAP”. Clearly they realised that such claims were dangerous. Or maybe just likely to threaten their profits.

Just last week things went even further. A press release from the Ministry of Health and Wellness pointed out that Xango juice was being “sold across the country without the approval of the Ministry of Health as a medicinal product”. It went on to say that the public “should be aware that the product is just fruit juice blend and does not have proven medicinal properties and therefore cannot be marketed and sold as such.” They ended by asking people to report anyone making these preposterous claims about Xango juice to the Drugs Regulatory Unit, the Food Control Unit and the Police.

The silly thing is that if they’d just sold it as a fruit juice that’s full of vitamins and nutrients and that tastes really good nobody would have had a problem, certainly not me. It was those dangerous claims that outlawed the product.

So a pat on the back goes to the Ministry of Health and Wellness for taking action to protect us all.

Another sign we’re doing something right was the opposite experience. We got attacked.

Earlier this month we commented on an award scheme called the “International Quality Summit Award”, run by a company in Spain called “Business Initiative Directions”. Various people had received surprise emails from BID, announcing that they’d won an award and inviting them to collect it at a gala dinner in New York. It was never entirely clear how they’d won, what criteria had been used to decide the winners and what qualified the company to award anything.

In Mmegi a few weeks ago I mentioned this and also reported the extraordinary cost of receiving the award.

The attachments in the award email explained how award winners would get to attend the two-day event in New York. They would start by paying the company “participation costs of 4,200 euros” to attend. That’s about P45,000 and for that they’ll get “Two invitations for the IQS Gala Dinner Ceremony”, a trophy, a certificate, a manual of graphics they can use to market their award, a press release, some photos of the winners getting the award, “two gold-plated lapel pins”, an opportunity to speak at the ceremony and two nights in the Marriot Marquis Hotel where the ceremony will take place.

The small print then explained that the hotel accommodation “will be provided in one double occupancy room”. So, in summary, for P45,000 the winners get dinner for two people, two nights in a hotel room that they must share with a colleague, a trophy, two lapel pins, some photos and a whole lot of paper. And then there’s the travel costs. In total, I reckoned the total cost of receiving the award would be about P75,000.

But maybe that’s what it costs BID to run the event? I don’t think so. I checked the hotel and the costs of the room would be about P6,000 and even when you add on the hire of the conference rooms and all the trinkets winners receive, I suspect that BID make a profit of at least P30,000 for every award they give away to the companies fool enough to part with that sort of cash for the privilege of attending.

So that’s the background. Then came their response. On their Facebook group they posted a long, rather incoherent message about us.
“The so called Consumer Watchdog Botswana is part of BES a company that provides consultancy and marketing oriented services for companies. They are NOT an NGO and what they really are is the enforcer of sorts for BES. A communication bully that denounces companies and organizations and forces them to buy BES services to be release from their constant online attacks.”
They go on to suggest that what we do is to use “the fake NGO Consumer Watchdog Botswana to denounce a company, claiming that they have low quality, that their are a scam or any other absurd claim. Then they use BES to offer services in marketing and training ‘to improve’ the company.”

They end by saying that we “are not evil per se, but it is shameful that they have to blackmail companies into it.”

Obviously none of this is true but do you get the impression they’re angry? I’m not surprised. Not only did we call into question the merits and values of their awards schemes but I imagine they’re unhappy about something you find on Google. If you search for “Business Initiative Directions” the first hit is their web site and the second is a warning about them from us in 2010.

You know you’re doing something right when the bad guys get angry and attempt to get their revenge.