Friday 24 October 2008

Bad debt?

We got a call recently from a consumer who was in trouble with some money she owed Game in Gaborone. At no point has she denied that she owed Game the money, which at the beginning of the story amounted to just over P8,800 but her ability to repay it hasn’t been helped by how Game tried to recover it.

Before I go any further I have to say that this is not a stab at Game. They were owed the money and they were perfectly entitled to reclaim it from the consumer. Nobody argues with that. It was entirely the customer’s fault that she got into trouble in the first place. But…

Game instructed a Tlokweng-based company called Sadgewicks (Pty) Ltd whose letterhead states they are “Debt Recovery, Business Consultants and Advisors”.

Again there’s nothing wrong so far. Debt collectors are a perfectly respectable way for stores to reclaim the money they are owed.

Sadgewicks got in touch with the consumer and demanded the money on Game’s behalf. She gave Sadgewicks a number of post-dated cheques that would pay off the debt. Over the next few months she paid back just over P10,000 and was beginning to suspect that she must be close to repaying the total amount. However she made a mistake, albeit a fairly innocent one. She changed banks. That meant that the remaining post-dated cheques were worthless. However she says she contacted Sadgewicks and explained what she had done and offered replacement cheques. She claims that despite this Sadgewicks tried to cash the remaining cheques and they obviously bounced. That’s when Sadgewicks, instead of calling the customer and making a plan, called the Police and the lines of communication began to break down.

Throughout the whole saga the consumer has asked for a full statement of the outstanding debt from Sadgewicks and also from Game so she could know exactly how much was left to pay.

No statement was forthcoming. In April she wrote to Sadgewicks demanding a statement. She told them that unless she got a statement of her account she would not be liable for any further interest that might accrue on the remaining balance. She got a letter the following day from Sadgewicks saying that she wasn’t going to get a statement as she had already been given several already, something that she strenuously denies.

Months passed and despite her further complaints, the consumer, who was by now blacklisted and couldn’t get a bank loan called her lawyers who wrote to Game complaining about the lack of a statement and her resulting inability to repay the correct amount.

Again, nothing happened. So she called us.

We called Sadgewicks to see if we could help sort things out. Well, we tried. The problem is that Sadgewicks appear to operate from just two cellphone numbers. Their letterhead does give a land line number but it says in bold capitals that it’s a “FAX LINE ONLY”.

Firstly they refused to take our calls when we rang from the line in our office that withholds it’s number. So we rang again from a normal phone line. Before we could even outline the problem Sadgewicks told us that they had instructed their attorneys to write to us, presumably telling us to get lost. They then “warned” us that “when you are dealing with our company you’re not just dealing with a straightforward consumer issue, you’re dealing with legal matters.” No, sorry, it’s a consumer issue. A consumer is not being given a statement detailing her debt. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to ask for.

Then the call became completely bizarre. They told us that “Previously you have put our company and our lives in danger”. This referred to one of several complaints we’ve had about how

Sadgewicks deal with consumers. This one resulted in them calling the Police to remove a consumer who had gone to settle a matter. We knew the call was coming to an end when they said that they “have nothing further to say to us” and that we could deal directly with their attorneys. We were told that “I am going to report your society, association or whatever you call yourselves to the relevant Ministries as well.” We were then rather rudely told that “I am informing you and requesting you, nicely, please stop calling us concerning debtors.”

Well, OK, you did ask nicely. Almost. We won’t call again. We’ll write to you. You’ll find our letter on our web site, just near the recordings we made of the phone calls we had with you.

One last thing we need to say to Sadgewicks. Don’t bother getting legal with us and threatening to sue us for defamation, OK? Section 195 of the Penal Code (there’s a summary on our web site) says that a matter is not defamatory if:

"the matter is true and it was for the public benefit that it should be published"

Is there a lesson here? I’m not sure. I just know that when consumers try to settle their debts they should be helped to do so with some cooperation and courtesy. In fact almost everyone deserves cooperation and courtesy don’t they? This consumer had to cope without either of those things.

Don’t forget to listen to Consumer Watchdog every Thursday morning between 7:15am and 8:00am on DumaFM.

This week’s stars!

  • Jewel at Game at Game City in Gaborone for being “just brilliant”.
  • Beverley at Nandos also at Game City for being terrific, yet again.
  • The entire team at CafĂ© Dijo for wonderful food and a great atmosphere.

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