Saturday, 25 February 2017

Bright ideas

I recently asked the members of the Consumer Watchdog Facebook group for ideas. I asked what entirely new services would they like to be offered in Botswana, perhaps things they’d seen in other countries or things they’d thought of themselves. The suggestions were varied and impressive.

One of the most popular was for online shopping services. Many people who’ve lived overseas will have used services like Amazon, Apple online, eBay and if they’ve lived in South Africa they’ll know about bidorbuy. All these services allow you to buy online and have goods delivered to your doorstep. More importantly perhaps, many supermarket chains in Europe and the USA now deliver, following online orders and that’s transformed the way many people live their lives. No longer are they forced to go to the shops when the shops will now come to them. In fact there is one store in Gaborone that does now offer online ordering so there’s been some progress. More would be better though.

Also on the electronic front people said they wanted something like Uber, the cellphone-based taxi-ordering service that operates in many European and American cities, now even in Johannesburg and Cape Town. It was news to me when someone pointed out that a local taxi company already does this, having developed an app for your phone that allows you to order a taxi and then to track its progress towards you. The only difference between that and Uber is that you still have to pay your Gaborone taxi driver with cash, unlike Uber where the payment is done online. But again, it’s a very good beginning.

Some suggestions were slightly more ambitious and perhaps therefore less achievable. A total overhaul of the public transport system in Botswana might be a challenge. New rail systems to the airport and throughout Gaborone might take more effort than we can muster.

Other suggestions were much simpler. Pressure gauges on gas cylinders seems like a good idea to me. I’ve lost count of the number of consumer who’ve complained to us about the gas cylinder they recently purchased running out within weeks, sometimes even days after they bought it. How can we really know that the cylinder just delivered is full or not? A pressure gauge might be the answer. Maybe not a permanent one, but perhaps the delivery companies should have one to show their customer that it’s full when they deliver the cylinder?

Another popular one was for breastfeeding facilities in shopping malls and this is something we feel very strongly about. Despite it being 2017 and everyone knowing that breastfeeding is the best option for mothers and their babies, obstacles are still put in between babies and what’s best for them. I don’t just mean the pharmaceutical companies that consistently break the law and market infant formula contrary to the laws of Botswana but I mean the everyday practical hurdles mothers are forced to leap in order to feed their children. The most obvious is the attitudes of the few dinosaurs that still think it’s somehow unseemly for a woman to breastfeed her baby in public.

A couple of years ago a member of our Facebook group asked whether it was acceptable for a woman to breastfeed in public. Almost everyone said “Of course it is” but a very small number, four to be exact, said it wasn’t. They said it was revolting, impolite, inappropriate, or, in one case, “not African” to breastfeed in public.

Actually, I’m glad these four strange people said these things. At least we know where the clinically stupid can be found if want to entertain our children at the weekend.

The suggestion made was that shopping centers should provide comfortable facilities for mothers to feed their children and I think that’s a very good idea. I have just one plea for any shopping center considering the idea. Don’t place the feeding rooms in the toilets. I’ve heard of women being asked to stop feeding their children in a restaurant and being asked to do it in the toilet instead and frankly that’s revolting. If you can’t see the difference between a baby being fed nutrition, immunity and love by its mother and the normal purpose to which toilets are used then you have issues.

Perhaps the most important suggestion that people made was that financial literacy education needs to be part of our national curriculum, not just in secondary school but across the educational spectrum. A basic understanding of money is necessary, not just for grown-ups like you and me but also for kids from the earliest age.

Another suggestion we endorse is that vehicle insurance should be compulsory, just like in many other countries. It needn’t be full, comprehensive insurance but at least third-party cover would make life a lot better for anyone involved in a car accident. Like the consumer who contacted us a while ago who’d caused an accident on the road and who had been faced with a demand from the other driver’s insurance company for P20,000 towards fixing the damage he’d caused to the other guy’s hugely expensive car. If he’d had third-party insurance his bill would have been a lot lower. My concern was the size of the bill he would have faced if the other vehicle had been completely destroyed. It could easily have been over a million, enough to ruin any of us. Again, with third-party insurance he would have faced no more than a few thousand. Compulsory vehicle insurance would save us all a lot of money.

Finally, a personal suggestion. In a country where we have so much free sunshine why aren’t we investing more in solar power? In New York a few years ago I saw free solar-powered cellphone charging stations dotted around the city, each sponsored by a network provider. While you drink a coffee you can give your cellphone a quick boost, all courtesy of the sponsor and the sun. Why can’t we do the same?

While we have the intelligence and education to transform our country ourselves that doesn’t mean we can’t learn lessons from other countries. So what’s stopping us?

Friday, 24 February 2017

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Is Xango a scam?

Is Xango juice yet another scam like Noni, Aloe, etc? It's already doing rounds in the city with exorbitant price tag. I've done my little research and I'm sceptical. I believe that there's no magical fruit that cures all diseases. 


Thank you so much for being sceptical. If only more people were sceptical then we wouldn’t have so many people in desperate trouble. We wouldn’t have people falling for pyramid and Ponzi schemes and also for their cousins, the Multi-Level Marketing schemes. Despite what their recruiters say, even the legitimate ones like Amway and Herbalife won’t offer you the financial freedom and lifestyle opportunities they suggest. Their own figures even prove this, showing that almost everyone who joins a MLM scheme either makes no money or makes a loss.

Xango is another MLM scheme based on the sale of a drink that appears to be miraculous. A post in the Xango Juice Botswana group on Facebook suggests it has an enormous range of benefits. They say that it “fights bacterial infection” and that it can “help with anxiety and depression, help reduce allergy symptoms, improve gum health and eye health, reduce nerve pain, lower fever, lower cholesterol, stimulate red blood cell growth”. Apparently it can also help combat viral infections, cancer, diabetes, leukemia, Alzheimers and dementia and can help improve sexual performance, asthma and HIV. Best of all perhaps, their juice can “slow aging”.

Let’s be perfectly plain. This is nonsense. This is a lie. There is no magical juice that can do all these things and all the other things they claim. If there was someone would have already won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Funnily enough, they haven’t.

I’m not suggesting that Xango juice is harmful, it’s just not possible that it can do all or even any of these things. It’s just a fruit extract drink that sells for P350 per bottle. You would be better to go to your local supermarket and stock up on some fresh fruit and vegetables. Then cook yourself a healthy meal, drink lots of water and get some sleep. And take a little bit of exercise as well. That’s the only way you can live a healthier life. The only thing that Xango juice will do for you is to help you lose weight. The weight of your wallet.

Can they say no?

I need your help ASAP.

Late December I bought a phone at a store in Rail Park and within a day of using my phone it could not read my sim card. I waited for the holidays to pass and after 5 days of purchase I returned the phone. They took it for testing and told me that their policy says it takes 21 days to fix their phone and they do not provide me with a phone i can use for the mean time.

After 21 days the phone was not fixed and it came 43 days later still not fixed and they told me that its my fault, I damaged the phone.

How can I advance my matter forward, I feel like I’ve been robbed day light. Please help.


I know this doesn’t help but at least you now know where you shouldn’t buy a cellphone in future. Clearly they don’t deserve your money if they take so long just to give you an excuse why they won’t fix your phone. I don’t see why it should even take three weeks to identify what’s wrong with it. Taking two months is unacceptable.

Section 15 (1) (b) of the Consumer Protection Regulations says that a supplier has failed “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”. Just saying that it’s your fault and that you must have damaged it isn’t good enough, even if it’s true. They are required to substantiate that claim and I think that means they need to give you a technical report explaining exactly what’s wrong with the phone and why they concluded it was your fault.

I suggest you go back to the store and explain that the law says they need to substantiate their claim. Tell them you need a written report from an expert and that until you get that you’re going to keep on pestering them about this and your rights.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Where’s your loyalty?

I was in a workshop with a client recently when one of my colleagues suggested something to the participants that it took them a moment to comprehend. Your employer, he told them, doesn’t love you. No, they really don’t.

And nor should they. Employment is no different to the sale of any service. Money goes one way in the relationship and a service goes in the other direction. When I take my car to a mechanic he delivers a service and I give him money in return. It’s a relationship of mutual benefit. The same goes for the network that connects my cellphone to the rest of the world, my internet service provider and the companies that provide me with electricity, water and TV. They offer me services because, and only because I give them some money.

I’m stating the obvious but they’re not doing it because of their good nature. That’s the nature of a free market. Adam Smith wrote in 1776 in his book “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” about this. He wrote:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.”
Things are no different 241 years later. The supermarket, bank and insurance company you select aren’t offering you services because they like you and care about your interests, they’re offering services because they want to make money. The smaller stores, like my local hardware store, sell things because it feeds the owner’s children and secures a comfortable retirement for them, the larger companies are feeding the children of their shareholders.

It’s even true when you look at the things they do that might appear kind and generous. The loyalty card that your supermarket wants you to carry and display every time you buy things isn’t anything to do with loyalty, it’s about monitoring your spending patterns. They want to record and analyse what you’re buying so they can target advertising in your direction. There’s nothing wrong or even immoral about that, it’s self-interested, intelligent business.

It’s not because they love us, it’s because they love the contents of our wallets and purses.

I sometimes describe myself as “loyal” to a very small number of brands it’s not really loyalty, it’s just about a preference based on experience. I don’t think I owe any loyalty to any company because I don’t think loyalty is valid when you’re paying for something. I’m not really loyal to Apple because I’m paying them for the products they sell me. I’m not loyal to Air Botswana or Virgin Atlantic because I pay them for my tickets. In fact, they should be the ones being loyal to me. I give them my money.

It’s exactly the same with employment. You have no obligation to be “loyal” to your employer. You don’t owe a thing to the company that pays your salary. I’m obviously not suggesting that you don’t owe them confidentiality, adherence to working hours and deadlines but loyalty is something very special. Loyalty needs to be earned and I don’t think an employer often goes far enough to deserve that. Assuming you work the hours that are set, fulfil the tasks given to you and act in a professional fashion, I think your obligations are complete.

In fact, whether it’s when you’re shopping or going to work the main loyalty you owe is to yourself.

My colleague ended his recent talk to our customers by suggesting what he thought your primary focus should be when you’re at work.

Learning.

The only thing that has a chance of making our lives better, other than blind luck, is learning new things. Whether it’s at your workplace, place of education, on the bus, sitting at home or in front of the TV, you really should spend some of your day learning things.

Some of them might be academic so qualifications (genuine ones of course), workshops and training sessions are all worthwhile but experiences are even more important. When you go for an interview with a smart, exciting new employer they’ll be far more interested in the fascinating, transformative, educational experiences you’ve had, not some pointless lecture series you attended a decade ago at university. They’ll want to know what projects you worked on and what you learned from them. They’ll want to hear that you’re the type of person who always says yes to new opportunities.

Or it can even be something totally different. Years ago I interviewed a guy for a vacancy and I noticed that there was an eighteen month gap in his CV (a hint, HR people look for that sort of thing) so I asked what he’d been doing. I was unemployed, he said. How did you occupy that time, I asked? Well, he told us, apart from looking for a job, he’d learned to play the trumpet.

We offered him the job, largely based on that comment.

As consumers we also need to learn new things. We need to lean about the new technologies that will affect the food we eat and the products we use. We need to learn about genetically modified foods, modern communications technology and security issues. Perhaps more importantly we need to learn where we should place our loyalty. And where we shouldn’t.

So forget about any loyalty you might think you have to your bank, your cellphone network provider and your local supermarket, in fact any company that has your business. Instead, ask yourself what they’ve done recently to earn that loyalty. If you can’t think of anything then you need to demonstrate your lack of loyalty. Contact your bank, your network provider, your ISP, anyone who offers you a service and ask them what they’re prepared to do to earn it.

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Can I get the money back?

I need your help. I borrowed someone some money last year, about P300 with an interest rate of 30℅ a month. The person promised to pay it in a month and I haven't received it to this day.

Please suggest a course of action for me because I have lost hope I will get the money back.


I hope you and the other person signed a written agreement about this loan because if you didn’t it might be difficult to prove that the loan ever happened. You might find that text messages will be good enough for a court but a signed, dated and witnessed agreement would be best. If you want to proceed against the other person you should consider writing them a letter giving them fourteen days to repay you the P300 they owe you. If they don’t pay you within that time you can then go directly to the Small Claims Court and seek an order against them.

Notice that I said P300, not P300 plus interest. The bad news is that you’re not entitled to that interest unless you were a micro-lender registered with NBFIRA, the Non Bank Financial Institutions Regulatory Authority when you made the loan. Were you? The worse news is that you might end up in trouble for even making the loan with interest.

Maybe you should ask yourself whether the chance of getting your P300 back is worth the bother of NBFIRA becoming interested in you?

Must I pay the debt collector?

I had borrowed money from a friend with a written agreement. I have the records that I have paid P3,200 and my balance was just P600. The person I owe engaged deputy sheriffs to get the outstanding balance and I paid through court. As we speak the money is there at the court for him to collect but he is now telling me to pay the deputy sheriff after I paid the money. Do I have to pay them or he is the one who is suppose to pay cause he is the one who consulted them? Your help will be appreciated.


Unfortunately, this might be a situation where you regret signing that agreement because it gave your friend all the evidence he needed in a court to get an order against you to recover the arrears you owed. I assume that the friend took you to court because you were in serious arrears? It was only P600 but I imagine you had owed it for a long time if he had to go that far to get his money back.

Regarding the payment to the debt collector, yes, I suspect you will have to pay their fees. Your friend clearly wasn’t getting the money you owed him back so he had to escalate things to court and then to a debt collector once he got an order against you. It wasn’t really his choice to incur those costs, it was your failure to repay the debt that forced him to do so. I don’t think it’s fair for him to be further disadvantaged in that way, do you?

I suggest you pay the costs as soon as possible before they escalate even further.

The lesson here is about lending money to friends. I suggest that whenever you lend money to a friend you either need to forget about the friendship or instead to treat the loan as a gift. Expect not to see either the money or the friendship again.

Today’s lesson

Both of these questions have something in common: getting things in writing. One did, the other didn’t. The lesson is simple. If you want commitment, get something in writing because then you’ll have evidence you can use to enforce the commitment. On the other hand, if you can’t commit, don’t sign anything because the commitment will come back and bite you.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

The small print

The big print might attract your attention but it’s the small print that will screw you.

We heard recently from someone who had, like many of us, resolved at the beginning of the year to work harder to stay healthy. One decision she took was to join a local gym. So far so good.

The gym she selected is a decent, high end place and there was nothing wrong with the service they offered. The problem was in the small print. She signed up for a 12-month membership which she was meant to pay monthly. The problem emerged when she changed her mind and asked to cancel the membership after just a month.

I should start by saying that despite what some might think, consumers don’t have a right to change their minds after they agree to a deal. Once both sides to an agreement have signed a contract that’s it. The contract can only then be changed or terminated if either both parties agree or if the contract says one party can terminate or change it. The only other time a contract can be terminated is if there was some form of deception or a breach of the terms of the contract. Otherwise both parties are committed.

Luckily for this woman, the contract with the gym allowed her to cancel. Referring to the 12-month period she had agreed to, the Terms and Conditions asked “Can I end my membership before the end of my Commitment Perlod?”.

The answer was very simple.
“Yes - if you pay your monthly membership fees by direct debt order and you wish to cancel your membership before the expiry of your Commitment Period, then you must give us 20 business days written notice of termination and pay a reasonable cancellation fee plus any arrears.”
I think that’s perfectly reasonable. It’s going to cause the gym some inconvenience and maybe even some minor costs to cancel her membership so it’s reasonable for them to recover those costs. It’s also reasonable to have a notice period. That’s what happens when you cancel a tenancy agreement, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that a gym membership should work the same way.

However, the problem is with three particular words. “Reasonable cancellation fee”.

What would you say is a reasonable cancellation fee? P50? P100?

In fact the gym’s cancellation fee is 40% of her remaining membership fees. Given that it costs P150 to join, that it then costs P550 each month to remain a member and that she changed her mind after just one month, she’s facing a “reasonable cancellation fee” of P2,420.

Are they trying to punish her?

Like I said, I don’t have a problem with a “reasonable cancellation fee” but I do have a problem with an unreasonable one. I also don’t think that it’s reasonable to hide these charges. I’m not even sure it can be enforced if the customer didn’t actually agree to it. A clause in an agreement that says one party can do whatever they feel like without explaining it to the other party seems distinctly unreasonable to me. If I included a clause in a contract between us saying that if you wanted to cancel the contract then I can charge you a penalty of “anything I feel like” that would be almost as bad as the “pound of flesh” in an infamous Shakespearean contract.

There are other things in the Terms and Conditions that I dislike almost as much. One clause says, referring to the contract, that you agree that “you fully understand it.”

How can you fully understand something that hasn’t been recorded in the agreement? How can you fully understand that they’ll demand 40% of your remaining balance (or a pound of flesh) if you change your mind if you didn’t know that?

I also object profoundly to the very last thing the T&Cs says. “The laws of South Africa apply to this contract.”

I like South Africa, I honestly do, and I enjoy spending time there. I also like some of their laws, some of which are better than ours although others aren’t quite as good. But the laws of South Africa belong in South Africa. In Botswana we should expect our laws to apply, not those of a foreign country, no matter how close it might be to us. I believe that a contract signed in Botswana between a person in Botswana with a company that is registered in Botswana, that operates in Botswana and that offers services solely in Botswana should accord with the laws of guess where? Yes, Botswana.

But I’ve seen worse. People have told us of the time they went to a furniture store and bought something on hire purchase who were told they can only see the agreement when the goods are delivered. Others have reported that the contract they signed was incomplete, missing an Appendix that’s “kept at Head Office”. Others were given contracts that had been copied so many times they weren’t even legible. You might think that these are exaggerations or even lies told by people experiencing “buyer’s remorse” but that’s not true. When we’ve sent mystery shoppers into such stores wearing hidden cameras they’ve seen the same thing. The videos don’t lie.

I’m not suggesting that any of these companies have done anything illegal but I do think they’re being slightly abusive. No, it’s not the crime if the century but I think it’s something we shouldn’t accept. Luckily there are alternatives.

You can save rather than buy on hire purchase. You can go to a “prepaid” gym. My son goes to a gym where he pays by the month. He can pay to go in January and then not pay for February. He can start again in March. He’s free to pay as he goes. It’s like buying airtime. You pay for what you use and for many people that’s much better than a contractual commitment, certainly better than a contract that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know.

Our theme in 2017 is health. Not just physical health but also your legal health and contractual small print is like a virus. It can hurt you and very few of us have immunity.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

How can it be so much?

In June/July 2016, I got a P20,000 loan with my union and they charged me a stunning P14,000 interest! In November 2016, I cleared the loan and to my surprise I was further charged a settlement interest amounting to P3,644.99! The whole set up is confusing, how can I be charged twice? When I asked the reason why I was told because I was breaching contract by repaying! How weird is that? Is it really possible to penalize an early payer? It's the weirdest thing I have heard by far! All I know with lenders, is late payers, defaulters are the ones penalized rather than pre-payers! Please help me understand all these!

Thank you very much for your assistance in advance.


This depends on what the agreement you signed says. Very often loan agreements will describe how things work if you choose to settle the loan earlier than originally agreed. The only piece of law I know that relate to the amount they can charge is the “in duplum” rule which says that when a debt is settled the interest charged cannot exceed the capital amount that is outstanding but that rule hasn’t been broken in your case.

I assume that the loan was over a period of several years because that’s the only way I can see that the interest would have been so much. That’s the sort of amount a lender would charge for a loan period of 10 years or more.

You have to remember that lenders don’t offer loans because they’re kind and charitable, they do it because they make lots and lots of money from the deal. They were looking forward to a steady income over ten years or more and you’ve disappointed them by settling early. That’s why there’s a penalty, to persuade you not to leave them without steady income. I suggest you get a full statement from the union or the lender they used to give you the money. You should also ask them whether there’s any refund due to any insurance policy that might have been included in the loan.

Forgive me for saying this but don’t you think it’s ironic that this is a union is doing this to you. Aren’t they meant to stand up for worker’s rights rather than impoverish them?

Where’s the laptop?

I bought a laptop on high purchase and it got stolen from my house as it was broken into while we were away attending a relative's funeral. However I reported the issue to the shop and was asked to submit all the necessary documents from the police as proof of theft. An officer from the store also called in at my house to do assessment for further verification of theft.

I was then asked to wait while the necessary procedures are done hence be given a replacement thereafter; that was in June 2015. Up to now I haven't received any response but rather I recently received a phone call from a debt collector's office that I am owing the shop money and that I am requested to pay such monies or I will face some repossession.

My account was not in arrears when the laptop got stolen I only stopped paying when they took long to refund me as was the promise.

I'm asking for your help with regard to this.


I can imagine how frustrating this experience must be for you. Clearly the store has catastrophically let you down. There’s no possible reason why it should take one and a half years to process an insurance claim and replace a laptop. They’re not that expensive and they’re not that difficult to find.

I don’t think you should have waited for more than a few weeks at most for the store to process the paperwork. If you‘d come to us earlier I’m sure we could have helped encourage the store to speed things up a little bit. Unfortunately, your biggest mistake was to stop paying your instalments. That’s always the worst possible thing you can do, even though it seems reasonable at the time. Despite what you said, you are now in arrears and if you look at the small print in the hire purchase agreement you signed it will say clearly that the store isn’t required to do anything to help you while you’re in arrears.

I suggest that you contact the store again and ask for a full statement of your account and then see what you can do to settle the debt. Meanwhile we’ll contact them and see what they say about the insurance claim.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Spot the clues

Very often the clues are there. The investment scheme that someone sold you, the business plan they said would make you rich, the “rotating donation” scheme they said would just magically generate money, in each of them there were clues that should have made you suspicious. Trust me, the clues always there.

Some of them are obvious. I know a lot of people will disagree with me about this (and some certainly did when I said this in our Facebook group recently) but I think you are entitled to judge a company by the phone number is uses.

There’s nothing wrong with cellphones. We all have them. Some of us have more than one. I even met someone recently who uses five different SIM cards. She knew what every network provider charged at every time of every day and carried several cellphones that were constantly having their SIM cards changed to save a little money. There’s also nothing wrong with free email addresses from Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo. Almost all of us have one of them that we use for personal email or for when our business addresses are misbehaving. Nothing wrong with them at all.

There’s also nothing wrong with operating your start-up business from your bedroom, your Mum’s spare room or from an office you borrow from someone else. That’s how most start-ups operate particularly in industries like IT. We wouldn’t be using Microsoft or Apple tools right now today if they hadn’t started up in spare rooms and parent’s garages.

So these things are all fine for certain people. The future IT guru, the start-up web designer and the app developer who’ll one day be a millionaire, they’re all permitted to operate from a cell number, a Gmail address and a spare room.

But not someone who says they’ll lend you money.

Someone who clearly didn’t understand the largely unwritten rules of our Facebook group recently posted a message saying:
“Affordable loans now available from P1000-P500000.. New loans for investments, building, studies, buying a car, etc. Top ups.. consolidation / loan settlements”.
It went on saying that this was just for government, council and academic officers but the thing that concerned me was that if you were interested you could contact the lender either on her cellphone number or by Whatsapp.

As I said I have nothing against cellphones and WhatsApp is fantastic but I really don’t think it’s appropriate when you’re offering to lend someone half a million Pula. Do you?

In fact, I don’t think it’s right for any financial service. Whether it’s a loan, an insurance policy or an investment, I think there are certain bare minimum standards you need to demand before you sign on the dotted line.

Firstly, you need to know that the person selling it operates from an office, not a chicken restaurant, the back seat of a car or a street corner. And no, I’m not just making those up. We’ve seen people selling financial products from each of those places. Do they really want to seem like drug dealers? The first clue that they have an office is the phone number they give you. Yes, they can give you their cell number but if they don’t also give you a landline number you need to ask yourself why they didn’t do so.

You then need to visit their office. And yes you ARE entitled to judge a book by its cover when it comes to the office of someone who wants to make money from you. The test is this. Is it the sort of place you would want your teenage daughter, sister or cousin to spend an hour alone? If not, then politely leave and don’t go back.

A legitimate company will have a pleasant office. They’ll have landlines that are ringing as you arrive. They’ll be clean, well organized, tidy and you’ll be kept at a comfortable temperature. They’ll have a receptionist who welcomes you to their offices and who knows which company you want to see.

They’ll also have a registered web domain. They’ll send you emails from something.com or something.bw. There’s no excuse for anything less than that. A domain costs very little these days and not having one will make you look shady.

However, and this is important, that’s not enough. Cast your mind back a few years and consider the example of Stock Market Direct. They claimed to offer training and advice on trading on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and they passed most of the tests. They had offices, landlines, nice desks and lots of busy staff. I know because I went to visit them several times so I could meet Tony Samuels, the guy behind the operation. The warning bells sounded when he failed to be there for every appointment we’d agreed.
This wasn’t actually a surprise because there’d been plenty of other clues. The main ones were the fact that they lied about so many things. For instance their web site stated that they had been “operating for several years with offices in Johannesburg, Mbabane, Maseru, Windhoek, and now Gaborone."


That was the big lie, the “alternate truth”. There were no offices for Stock Market Direct in any of these places other than Gaborone and there was no evidence they were even registered in any of those countries. You’ll recall that Stock Market Direct ended badly, mainly for its customers, or should I say victims. Tony Samuels was last seen heading for the border with several million Pula he’d taken from the company’s more gullible victims and despite reappearing occasionally, he is still at large.

So nice offices aren’t themselves an indicator of legitimacy but they are a good start. Then you need to start asking questions of other investors, experts in the field, industry regulators and even us if you think we might be able to help. You also need to be sceptical. Any company that offers you things that seem too good to be true are certainly trying to deceive you.

But the starting point is the little things like a phone line and a registered domain. Then you just need to be a skeptical detective. That’s the hard part.