Thursday, 18 September 2014

A message from FNB

From FNB, a message to their customers (and to those of other banks).

Consumer Alert - Update

Following our Consumer Alert yesterday conceding delayed transactions hitting people's bank accounts, we've have had a message from Barclays Bank Botswana that they'd like the customers to see.

As I mentioned yesterday, this problem didn't energy within Barclays, it was caused by problems with another bank that affected customers of all banks.

Barclays say:
"One of our competitors has had a challenge with their Point Of Sales (POS) systems, which has led to them submitting previously approved POS transactions weeks after approval. They will be issuing out a statement to this effect soon. In the meantime we would like to encourage our valued customers to use Barclays POS swiping machines where we have these at all times.

We sincerely apologise to all customers who have been affected and remain committed to improving your service experience with us."

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Consumer ALERT - check your bank accounts

Information is gradually emerging about a problem many bank customers are currently experiencing.

We've heard from many people already who find that large amounts of money have been withdrawn from their bank accounts. Some have been left with very little money or perhaps even none at all. A few have found themselves suddenly overdrawn with what seems no good reason. Some customers have been charged penalties for going over their limits.

It's not entirely clear yet but it seems that a large number of Point Of Sale (POS) transactions in stores throughout the country that were made between mid-August and mid-September weren't actually deducted from customer's accounts. Those transactions have now suddenly taken effect, often weeks after the purchases were made.

It's important to note that (as far as we can tell) nobody has had too much money deducted from their account. Every deduction relates to a real purchase that customers made. However they've only been made weeks after the original purchase was made.

Yes, of course, the banks will say, we DID spent the money and we all SHOULD have been checking our account every day to make sure than the money we spent had actually been deducted. But realistically, who does that? And should we really have to?

I think we have a right to expect that banks should operate efficiently. We certainly have a right to expect them to honour Section 15 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations which requires them to offer services "with reasonable care and skill".

Some of the banks have told us that they'll be communicating with us shortly via press releases but meanwhile we have to ask this. Who's going to pay the bills?

So what should you do? It's simple. Check your bank account right now. Don't make a cup of tea, don't chat to your family, friends or colleagues, stop working and check your bank account right now. Make sure you don't become a victim as well.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

The scam war

There really is a war between the forces of good and scammers. It’s a war that I suspect will never be won but that doesn’t mean we should surrender and it doesn’t mean we can’t win some battles.

Since we started Consumer Watchdog ten years ago we’ve seen the scam industry evolve. In the beginning it was dominated by the traditional “419” or “advance fee” scam with their emailed pleas from a very attractive orphaned young daughter of a millionaire to assist in transferring the proceeds of an inheritance from Nigeria to a more stable country. Inevitably before this fictitious inheritance could be sent there would be the “advance fee” the scammers would demand. It might be a legal fee, the cost of opening a bank account or even a bribe, but they’d demand a few hundred US dollars up front. That was what the entire scam was about. Of course there was no orphan, no deceased millionaire and certainly no inheritance. All that was true was the payment the victim made, inevitably using a non-traceable payment mechanism like Western Union.

Then, after people became a bit more skeptical, the scammers evolved. There were new scams, some involving lottery wins (you can’t win a lottery you didn’t enter), others involving mysteriously well-paid job offers on cruise ships or oil rigs. All involved the same up-front payment, the advance fee again.

However if you think that we’re all now skeptics and advance fee scams are a thing of the past then you’re unfortunately wrong.

We heard last week from a reader who found himself a real bargain on a second-hand car sales site. A 2008 Land Rover Defender 110 TDi for a mere R39,000. Given that the normal price for such a vehicle can be as high as R200,000 this seemed too good to be true.

Are you suspicious yet?

Unfortunately the reader wasn’t suspicious. Instead he was really interested and he contacted the guy in South Africa selling the car who was very keen to talk. Only 14th July he said:
“My name is Frank Koopman, I'm a programmer and since the past month I've worked on a big project which I Won, and got a job in a big company in London UK that is paid up to 10 times higher salary then here in SA.”

He went to describe the vehicle and how be planned to sell it:
“The car has no damage and runs great, the engine runs like a cat and nothing is wrong with it, tested! I'm also a Verified Member/Trader of eBay and whole procedure (delivery/payment) will go through eBay, as they will handle everything. eBay will send you an Invoice with all the info you will need to complete the transaction. Also a 10 days refund policy will be included so if you will not like the car you will receive your money back.”

Are you suspicious yet?

Anyone who knows anything about buying and selling things on the internet will be suspicious by now. This is simply NOT how eBay works. Yes, eBay do allow subscribers to sell vehicles but they don’t actually handle the transfer of money. On their web site eBay make this perfectly clear:
“It is important to remember, eBay does not “validate” listings, provide escrow services, or make payment arrangements on behalf of sellers.”
However our reader didn’t know this, or didn’t take the time to check. He also didn’t take the time to check the other warning that eBay give about vehicle sales:
“Never pay with MoneyGram or Western Union. Western Union and MoneyGram are prohibited as a payment method on eBay Motors. eBay will never recommend that you use either to pay for a vehicle.”
Yes, “Frank” wanted to be paid for his vehicle by a Western Union. Then things got a bit worse. Our reader didn’t actually have the money to buy the car so he went to his bank and applied for a loan to buy it. On 6th August his loan was, unluckily for him, approved. A week later and R39,000 was paid into Western Union and withdrawn by someone 5 days later.

Surely you’re suspicious by now?

Then the story got even more bizarre. “eBay” emailed the reader telling him:
“We have bad news for you, in this moment we were informed that the truck on which was your caravan loaded for delivery was involved in an accident and was overturned. The good news is that you paid a delivery insurance for these unexpected things covering the amount of R300,000.”

Now I know you’re suspicious.

They didn’t take the time to explain why this car that was supposedly worth only R39,000 was insured for R300,000 but that didn’t seem to matter. All our reader had to do to get his hands on the insurance payout was, yes, you’ve guessed, pay them even more money, this time R15,000. Or did he just want to buy a different vehicle, this time a 2012 V6 Toyota Fortuner for a mere R30,000 (normally worth about R400,000)?

By this time our reader was himself suspicious and he was clearly beginning to understand that something was very badly wrong. That’s when he came to us for help. Had he been scammed?

So, yet again, I had to break the bad news to him. No, he was never going to see the Land Rover, nor would he get a Fortuner and certainly not an insurance payout for a very simple reason. None of them exist, they’re all elements in a scam. And his money? Gone. Remember that scammers don’t offer refunds.

The lesson is very simple and I think we all know it already. If something seems too good to be true then it almost certainly is.

Please don’t fall for scams like this. All it takes is a little skepticism and common sense and you’ll be safe.

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer's Voice #1

I have unfortunately been gullible enough to believe I can order items of clothing off a Facebook page. I paid P1,400 to a lady called [name removed] in April. I did not receive the items ordered. I requested a refund a few months ago and I am still waiting. I get a different story every time I contact her. It's now been 5 months and I am still awaiting a refund.

I'm hoping I can get some help getting my money back and prevent others from ending up in the same situation.

Whether it's on Facebook or anywhere else the rules are quite simple. You have to deliver what you've agreed to deliver. Don't make excuses and keep your customer informed. I'm certain that if this lady had been open and honest about any problems she was experiencing you would have been tolerant and patient. It's what reasonable people do, isn't it?

However by making up stories all she's done is antagonize you and erode any trust you might have had in her.

I sent the lady a message a few days ago asking if she was ready to pay you your refund and she responded very positively, saying she'd call you and promised to repay P1,000 immediately and the remaining P400 within a few days. Let me know when you get all the money back from her?

Recruitment scam warning

We've heard from several readers in the last few weeks who have been offered jobs via email. On each occasions the jobs they've been offered have been very well paid and have come with astonishingly good packages. One recent job offer came after a reader applied for jobs on a cruise ship with a company called MS Cruise Line. Months later she received an email from a similarly named company, MS Construction offering her an entirely different job, this time as a “Customer Service Representative at MSC Construction UK with the salary amount of 7,500.00 GB Pounds per month”.

She wondered if this was legitimate.

Of course the answer is no, it's a scam. The first clue is simple. You can't get a job you didn't apply for. She applied for a job on a cruise ship and they offer her something totally different? Also the package is just way too good to be believable. They say they'll pay over P1 million a year to someone they've never actually met? Then there's all the other thing they offer: free accommodation, insurance, flight tickets, free medical expenses, two months a year paid vacation including flights back to her home country. It's way too good to be true.

Another reader received an email from a company calling itself Victech Drilling in Canada inviting him to send over his CV. In reply they sent him what they called an “e-interview” but which was nothing more than just a Word document containing some ridiculously easy questions. Within hours he received an offer letter that neglected to say what job they were actually offering him. His package included $5,700 (P45,000) per month after tax, a pension, stock options, free flights, free accommodation and “Payment of your initial six (6) months upfront salary”.

The catch in this last “offer” was that they needed him to pay them for an “Immigration Clearance Certificate”.

These payments are what this is all about. This is the “advance fee” that scammers want. Rest assured that as soon as you pay it, they'll demand payment for more and more things until you either realize you're being scammed or you run out of money.

Here are some simple tips about recruitment that everyone should know. Firstly, nobody gets a job without at least one face-to-face interview. Nobody.

Real companies who are trying to fill real vacancies don't ever use a Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo address to do so. Anyone who does can't be trusted. Real companies also always have a landline number, not just a cellphone number. They certainly don't EVER use a number that begins with +447 or +448. Those are UK-based cell numbers that can easily be redirected to anywhere else in the world.

Just remember. If it sounds too good to be true, it IS too good to be true.

Friday, 5 September 2014

It's not funny

A lot of what we see at Consumer Watchdog is amusing.

However that might just be a reaction to some of the more absurd things we encounter. Our natural response is often to laugh rather than shout and scream and wave our fists around.

A few days ago a crook, liar and abuser of women calling himself "Healer Nkunumbi” managed to sneak past our extensive Facebook group screening process and posted a message in the Consumer Watchdog group, selling his preposterous services.

His claims were certainly extraordinary. His post said this:
"lost lover, Marriage problems, stop your partner from cheating on you, Men and women who can’t have Babies. Breast, Hips, Bums, penis cream/. Business boost, Penis Enlargement and power in all sizes. Win court cases, promotion at work. Is your situation getting worse? Find us in Gaborone, Botswana Cell phone: +267 75988645"

The reaction from other members of our Facebook group was predictable. A mixture of outrage, surprise and sarcasm with comments like:
"This should be illegal"
"Move over you marriage counsellors, fertility specialists, plastic surgeons, business coaches/mentors, lawyers, etc., this Healer Nkunumbi fellow is all that and more."
"Lets see your penis then we'll know you mean business lol"
"u got to give it to him though, he got balls,of steel, advertising scam on a page that seeks to protect people from scammers, thats like selling weed in a court of law"
" how did he manage to join this group? should be arrested"
"This guy has solutions to some of people's biggest problems, he should be the world's richest person!"
"'Penis enlargement & power in all sizes' this 1 kills me,i cnt stop laughing"
"The irony of it is that end of the day not only he doesn't heal anyone but it's the naive people who fall for him that heal his pockets and solve his money problems"
As you can see members of the Consumer Watchdog Facebook group are a smart bunch of skeptics.

We called "Healer Nkunumbi" to hear what he said. You can listen to the 4-minute call made by a colleague who pretended to be having problems getting pregnant if you visit our blog or Facebook group.

Of course this is all very silly and humorous. "Healer Nkunumbi" is a rather comical character with his preposterous claims and his ridiculous offers of miracle remedies.

But he’s not just funny. He’s also dangerous.

I worry about the vulnerable people who might, as a result of desperation and despair, resort to his offerings. A woman with fertility problems or an illness might be tempted to give him a try if everything else has failed. So where’s the harm in that, you might ask, if everything else has failed?

The first potential harm is doubt. Who actually is this guy? What are his qualifications? What skills does he actually have, if any? We have no real idea what and who he is.

Then there’s the chance that he might actually do something rather than just talking about it. When he sees a woman with fertility problems is he going to examine her? Is he going to touch her? Given the nature of her problems a real doctor would obviously do a detailed physical examination so he’s probably going to feel like he should do so too. How would you react if you heard that an unknown man had touched your mother, sister, daughter or partner in such a way? I know what my reaction would be.

Then there’s the risk that he’ll offer her some sort of treatment for her condition and who knows what that might be. Chances are it’s be some entirely useless herbal concoction but there’s a chance whatever he gives her might actually have an effect and that’s dangerous.

Unlike the Panado you buy from a pharmacy where you can be certain that every tablet contains exactly 500mg of paracetamol, you have no idea what so-called traditional healers are giving you or what effect it might have. That’s why the majority of people see no effect whatsoever and the rest often end up dead.

I often find myself going through the same thought process when we encounter a scammer. Of course their stories are ridiculous and we have a lot of fun calling them and baiting them but that often overlooks the pain and suffering they cause. They obviously cause financial hardship when they steal money from their victims but there’s also the romantic scammers who break someone’s heart along the way. Yes, of course the victims are often enormously gullible but that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer.

It’s ironic that sometimes the funnier and more extraordinary the scam appears the more successful it will be.

A researcher from Microsoft, Cormac Herley, pointed out (pdf download) that scammers do their very best to exclude skeptics in their first email. By making the clues as comically obvious as possible, every person possessing even just a trace of skepticism will reject it immediately, leaving only the na├»ve and gullible potential victims behind. The scammer won’t waste any of his time trying to persuade skeptics to part with their money because they’ve already ruled themselves out.

As Herley said, the:
“initial email is effectively the attacker’s classifier: it determines who responds, and thus who the scammer attacks (i.e., enters into email conversation with). The goal of the email is not so much to attract viable users as to repel the non-viable ones, who greatly outnumber them.”
That’s the challenge to us all. To remember that behind every comical story of abuse there’s often abuse, tragedy and exploitation.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice #1

I would like to know if there are laws that protect consumers after they get into loan agreements contracts with Financial Institutions. For instance if I took a loan at the bank and maybe along the way I encounter a financial crisis which impedes me to service my loan according to the terms of my contract with the bank and I make them aware of that but they don't help.

Next thing I start getting calls from debt collectors regarding my payments when the bank did not even intervene to try and find a way around the problem. So I want to know if that's how they should do it, what about my rights as a customer? Or does this mean I am a good customer only when I’m paying and once I encounter problems I’m no longer a customer and I’m sent straight to the debtors.

Your clarification on this matter will be highly appreciated.

Yes, there are plenty of protections for consumers but there’s not much that can be done when a consumer breaks an agreement that he or she voluntarily entered into. So long as the contract is valid and legal both sides are committed to it.

Of course a sensible company will do its best to help a consumer pay off their debts in a manageable way but there’s no obligation for them to do so. They’re entitled, whether you think it’s right or wrong, to use whatever mechanisms the agreement and the law allows them to use. That involves using debt collectors, registering you with a credit reference agency and even taking court action against you to reclaim the money you promised to pay them.

Unfortunately the answer to your question “does this mean I am a good customer only when I’m paying” is simple. Yes, that’s the definition of a good customer, one who sticks to agreements that they have signed. To them a bad customer is the opposite, someone they can’t rely on to make the payments they agreed to make.

I suggest that you speak to the bank and see if it’s possible to negotiate a repayment plan that satisfies both the bank and you. Most companies would rather have some money from you rather than nothing or going to court to get something from you. We’ll be happy to ask them for you if you prefer?

Dear Consumer’s Voice #2

A friend of mine bumped some gentlemans car and was charged P1,000 by the police which my friend paid. The gentlemans car was repaired by his insurance company but there was an "excess" of P1,200. The gentleman paid the excess but he's now demanding the excess he paid from my friend. Is that how things should be when insurance companies are involved?

Yes, that’s exactly how it works.

When you take out a vehicle insurance policy there is always an “excess” amount in the policy. This is the amount that YOU must pay before the insurance company will pay the rest. In this case let’s imagine that the total cost to repair the vehicle was P5,000. The gentleman’s insurance policy says that he has to pay the excess of P1,200 and the insurance company will pay the remainder, in this case P3,800.

In this situation, the owner of the car, through no fault of his own, was faced with a bill for P1,200 from whoever repaired the car, the amount that his insurance company won’t pay. He’s within his rights to demand that amount from your friend, the person responsible for the damage to the car. Remember he did nothing wrong but he’s the one suffering financially as a result.

The excess is there to encourage customers from making small claims but it’s worth knowing that the excess amount can sometimes be negotiated with an insurance company. A higher excess will usually result in lower monthly premiums you have to pay. A lower excess usually means higher premiums. When you take out an insurance policy it’s always worth asking about the excess and setting it at a level you think you can afford compared to the monthly premiums.