Saturday, 9 December 2017

Progress?

It’s sometimes difficult to see progress. Often things change so slowly that we don’t see the change happening. Like biological evolution, the changes we see in business and customer service are most often very gradual and hardly noticeable from day to day, they only happen over much longer periods. It’s often surprising, if you look back in time at how much things have actually changed.

Many of us will remember those days in the past when things were very different. If you’re old enough, cast your mind back fifteen or twenty years and think of the number of loan sharks that were operating in Botswana. Do you remember how they were charging up to 30% interest per month? Do you remember how they were completely ignoring the “in duplum” rule, the rule that says that when a debt is settled the interest charged cannot exceed the remaining capital amount? Do you remember how they were routinely taking people’s ATM cards and sometimes even their Omang cards as insurance that they would repay their loans? Do you remember how there were loan sharks operating from car parks, fried chicken restaurants and in one case I personally witnessed, from a government office?

Today these offences are rare. That’s because the micro-lending industry is now regulated by NBFIRA, a regulator that actually seems to enjoy getting its hands a bit dirty and exercising the powers they’ve been given. These days hearing about a micro-lender misbehaving is a much rarer event. Not unheard of, but rare. It was a surprise when a few weeks ago we got a message from a consumer who asked:
“Are these cash loans allowed to keep our bank cards and keep on paying themselves every month? I’m shocked right now that my mother who is 70 years a pensioner has been without her bank card It's like it stay there for ever.”
We sent that consumer straight to NBFIRA who no doubt explained to the lender that their conduct was unacceptable and confined them in their dungeons.

Also in the past we had hire purchase. Yes, I know we still have it but we did have one minor success in making the cost of hire purchase easier to understand. You might remember that when items were advertised on “credit”, the stores just advertised how much the deposit would be, the number of instalments you needed to make and how much each one would cost you. The stores were ignoring the legal requirement, as expressed in the Control of Goods (Marking of Goods) Regulations 1974 which says that when “goods are offered for sale on hire-purchase terms or by way of credit-sale or on any other terms as to deferred payment” then the details shown must include “the total amount to be paid by way of deposit and instalments”.

When we first discovered this rule we wrote to the Managing Directors of all the stores that sell things on credit or hire purchase and asked them if they knew about this. To their credit, they almost all came back to us apologetically, saying they weren’t aware of it and would change their advertising as soon as possible. One of them was a little bit less cooperative. It doesn’t matter, they said, we abide by South African law. That’s lovely, we told them, then go back to South Africa. In Botswana the laws of Botswana apply, not the laws of another country that you prefer. They eventually complied with the laws of the country that had welcomed them and allowed them to exploit its people.

Another thing that has changed, although not completely is the number of people with fake degrees. A number of highly publicised cases involving senior managers and academics who were exposed as having purchased degrees from unaccredited so-called “universities” has made us all a lot more aware of how skeptical we need to be about people’s qualifications. Over the last eight years we’ve warned readers about forty-five different establishments that claim to offer qualifications but none of which actually require their “students” to do any coursework, sit any exams, deliver any dissertations or do any actual work. All they’ve ever required is a credit card number and then, as if by magic (or Mrs Mugabe) a degree certificate is in the post.

Not all of these crooks have been pleased to be exposed. Several of them have threatened us with all sorts of consequences once they realised their scam was likely to dry up.

One of them, calling itself “Headway University” even created a web site for a fake law firm calling itself "Joyce & Nielsen" who sent us an email demanding that we retract the accusation that Head way was bogus. They accused us of spreading “defamatory, harmful and malicious content in violation of state, federal and international law … with the intent to harm, defame and cause financial damages to our client, Headway University”.

I wasn’t sure at the time how it is possible to defame a fake university that sells fake degrees to fake graduates. Defamation rests on the assumption that the victim has a reputation to protect. Peddlers of bogus qualifications are criminals. They had no reputation to lose.

It didn’t take too much detective work to discover that the law firm didn’t actually exist. The crooks behind the fake university had created an entirely fake web site to pretend that the law firm existed, even stealing the text on the web site from other, genuine law firms.

Unfortunately, despite the crooks behind almost all of those bogus establishments being shut down they seem to be reappearing. Just a couple of weeks ago I chatted online to an “advisor” from “Martinville University” who told me that for $500 I could get a degree in Nursing without sitting any exams. For $500 on top I could get a Masters degree as well and he said he would backdate the Bachelors degree to the pair of degrees looked more convincing to a potential employer.

So maybe things haven’t changed that much after all?

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

He owns my car!

Afternoon! I need some advice. Lets say I sell my car to someone and he gives me deposit of P3,000 then I give him the car and change the blue book. Then after some weeks he comes back asking me to refund him so that he can give back the car.

The problem is that the windscreen is broken and the other door does not close properly. I told him that I wont refund him until he repairs every damage. I tried calling the police but they said they can’t help.

What can I do?


Firstly, I think you know that signing over ownership of your vehicle before you received full payment was a mistake, don’t you? You should never hand over the vehicle registration documents (the so-called “blue book”) until you’ve received all the money you’re owed. If that’s cash it’s easy (but make sure you count and check every banknote) and if it’s a cheque or bank transfer make sure you ask your bank to confirm when the money has been credited to your account irreversibly. I’ve heard of items being handed over but at the last minute a crook reverses the transaction leaving the victim without either the goods they bought or their money.

In your case I think you should change the demand you made to him. Tell the guy that he has two choices. Either he pays you everything he agreed to pay or he simply returns the blue book to you and you keep the P3,000. You can then use the P3,000 to repair the damage I assume he caused. If he fails to do either then you should tell him you’re going to the Police to lay a charge of “obtaining by false pretence” against him and that you’re also going to the Small Claims Court to seek an order against him for the outstanding amount he owes you.

You did both sign a written sale agreement, didn’t you? Please tell me you did…

Can’t they clear me?

I had a debt with a store last year and they took my name to ICT. I cleared with them last year December. To my surprise yesterday I applied for a loan but I couldn't get it because the store has not got my name off the ICT list. I need the money by Friday but the loan cannot be processed until they give me a letter which takes about 3 days. Can you help me please?


I’m sorry but that’s how things work. TransUnion (formerly known as ITC) keeps records of customer activity that are sent to them by the companies who pay their fees. So long as the facts they supply are truthful, there’s nothing you can do about that. It’s true, isn’t it, that you had a debt with the store and also that you failed to pay your instalments? The store is therefore within its rights to tell TransUnion that and it’s the right of stores and potential lenders to examine your history and see that you had problems repaying your debt. That way they can make a rational decision about the level of risk you might pose if they lend you their money. In fact, let me correct myself. It’s not THEIR money they’re lending you, it’s the money deposited by their other customers. I suspect they would want the lender to take every precaution before risking their money.

As I understand it, it’s the normal rule for TransUnion to hold such records for two years before removing them so you might be out of luck with the loan you are currently seeking. In the meantime I suggest you visit your nearest main Post Office where you can check your TransUnion record for a small fee just to ensure that the data they hold on you is correct. This is something that we should all do occasionally, just to make sure that the information potential lenders can see about us is as correct and up-to-date as possible. It’s in our interests to do that.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

The psychology of groups

Nobody really understands Facebook. I don’t even believe that Mark Zuckerberg and his colleagues who run Facebook understand it fully. Despite them owning and controlling and the technology underpinning it, they can’t accurately predict what direction Facebook will take next. That’s because all they produce is the vehicle, it’s Facebook users like you and me who drive it.

On a very small scale that’s the case with the Consumer Watchdog Facebook group. Even though I’m one of the moderators of the group, we have no control over what’s posted. Yes, we can remove posts (and we frequently do) that are irrelevant, advertising a product or just hateful, but the direction the conversations go is entirely up to the members of the group, not us.

That’s one of the reasons it’s so wonderful. It’s unpredictable, some might even say chaotic or anarchic and that’s exciting. Even more exciting is that it’s “social” media. It’s not just about you or me posting something, it’s about the conversation that almost inevitably results from each post. A better term might even be “community media” because it’s not just about a two-person conversation, it’s an enormous group of people who can join in the conversation. It’s one of the reasons I describe Facebook as being like a bar on a Friday night. Everyone there is a little noisier than normal, a little bit less inhibited about expressing their thoughts and feelings and a lot more likely to tell someone else what they think of them. Also like a bar, it often happens that people who are normally very kind, charitable and forgiving can suddenly become out of control. Some even become monsters. The Facebook “atmosphere” is intoxicating, just like alcohol.

Another similarity with a bar is how conversations flow on Facebook. In the bar the conversation within a group will jump from sport to politics, from the latest gossip on those unlucky enough to be absent from the bar to former boyfriends and then back to sport, all within moments. The timetable on Facebook is a little longer but you see exactly the same effect.

Just a few weeks ago the most popular topic on the group was the misdemeanours happening at a local water park where it was alleged that some men were apparently molesting young girls, taking their photographs and acting very inappropriately. For a few days it seemed that this was the only subject worthy of discussion. But almost overnight the community moved forward, seemingly having exhausted their justifiable anger. I suspect some people have already completely forgotten their rage. So much for #IShallNotForget.

On another occasion, it was the fair-use policy that a local cellular network provider had adopted that limits the amount of data a user can download in a day. For a few days I wondered whether the company would survive the criticism they received. But they did because something else emerged to divert people’s attention.

More recently it was the turn of a bank to be the focus of everyone’s attention. This was the KYC fiasco. For those who don’t know about this, and I can’t imagine there’s many of us that don’t, the various authorities that have an interest in banking, most notably Bank of Botswana, are forcing all the banks and those companies that provide pseudo-banking products such as insurance companies and the cellular network providers to confirm that they know who their customers are. Hence the “Know Your Customer” exercises that all banks have undertaken. The problem is that this hasn’t always gone well. Despite having provided documentary proof of the three things the banks wanted, proof of identity, residence and source of income, lots of people had their accounts frozen. While this was a massive inconvenience to many of those people, it was a lot more troubling for a minority. People were stranded in filling stations, only discovering that their accounts were frozen after they’d filled their cars, other were trapped in hotels unable to pay their bills, we even heard from one who discovered her account was on hold as she tried to admit herself to hospital an
d was unable to pay her 10% of the treatment cost. Luckily her sister was with her and she was able to pay with cash instead.

The most recent “trending” issue was the ridiculous Black Friday we had last week. This entirely American invention, a day of discounts offered the day after their Thanksgiving holiday has now spread around the world and it hit us in Botswana very hard last week.

In particular it hit hard at Game in Gaborone where the store announced that it would open its doors at one minute after midnight. The results were, if the pictures and videos I’ve seen were to be believed, mayhem. Doors broken down, property stolen and queues that lasted hours, all just to get some discounts. My suspicion is that nobody at Game had any idea what was likely to happen when they combined the prospect of discounts with large crowds, tiredness and mob psychology. The danger is that in these situations, the moment a crowd becomes excited, reasonable individuals like you and me disappear and are replaced by “a singular mind”. As one theorist put it, an “individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.” It doesn’t matter whether it’s a crowd waiting for a bargain, bystanders administering “mob justice” to a thief or a peaceful demonstration that becomes violent, these are all predictable results of the group psychology of homo sapiens.

That’s where my observation comes full circle. Facebook is a bit like that crowd at Game. It’s wonderfully democratic in that anyone can be part of the excitement. These days someone with even the cheapest of phones can join the conversation and express their feelings. They too can join the crowd at the social media bar and either have a good time or go crazy. The real challenge is preventing that craziness turning nasty.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Is this how they should behave?

I need your assistance. I got money from a cash loan but failed to pay them for the first two months. I got a summons last month and I requested to pay half of the money I owed at month end of November as I had no money but before the agreed month end they came to me saying they needed to attach my property and if I fail to pay then they will have to take it. The first man who came had some documents that said my car was security. Later during the day another man came saying they came to collect my car until I pay the full amount I owe. He sent me bank details to deposit the money before end of that day or else in the morning they come for the car. The tricky part is the gentleman who came to collect the did not know about the one who came first but he had all my documents even the registration number for the car.

I owed the cash loan P3,500 but now it’s P7,000 plus P4,800 for legal fees and P2,200 for the sheriff, total around P14,000. I already paid them P6,000 but they still want to take car even though I offered to pay them P1,000 per month.

May I kindly request if this is the procedure if I have been summoned by a cash loan?


I suspect that this very much IS the procedure that a cash loan will follow in this situation. I also suspect that there’s very little you can do about this because you almost certainly agreed to all of this when you signed the loan agreement. A company is also entitled to go to court if someone owes them and to apply for an order to attach property to recover their money.

The starting point is that you do indeed owe them money. You borrowed P3,500 from them and agreed to their terms. This is all governed by the “in duplum” rule which says that the interest charged when a debt like yours is settled cannot exceed the capital amount that remains outstanding. For once this lender is obeying that rule, only demanding P7,000, twice the capital amount you borrowed. Unfortunately, the other costs of recovering the debt such as the attorney and debt collector fees are probably reasonable in the circumstances.

From what you say, it seems that the lender already went to court and was given a court order allowing them to instruct a deputy sheriff to seize your car and then, I assume, to sell it to get their money back. The good news is that any money left over from the sale of the car should be returned to you. However, so long as they get the money they’re owed I suspect they won’t care greatly how much money they sell it for. It’s possible you won’t get very much back from them so I really urge you to contact them one last time to see if you can agree a repayment plan.

Can they behave like this?


Hi Rich. Please help me out. Are these cash loans allowed to keep our bank cards and keep on paying themselves every month? I’m shocked right now that my mother who is 70 years a pensioner has been without her bank card It's like it stay there for ever.

And again if I want to report them where can I go and report.? Thank you.


No, they are certainly NOT allowed to do this. They never have been and they aren’t now either. Those of us who remember the days before the micro-lending industry was regulated can recall the tricks they got up to. They charged enormous levels of interest, took people’s ATM cards regularly and behaved like a bunch of crooks. Things are a lot better now that NBFIRA started to regulate the industry but clearly there are still some crooks out there.

One of the first things NBFIRA did with micro-lenders was to make it clear that it was illegal for them to take and hold someone’s ATM card so I suggest that you contact NBFIRA as soon as possible and register a complaint with them about this obviously very suspicious company. If they’ve taken your mother’s card I suspect they’ve taken other people’s cards as well and they need to be stopped. We need to stop this loan shark from doing this!