Friday 11 December 2009

Warning signs

What are the warning signs that consumers should look out for if they want to protect themselves? What are the clues that something is perhaps not what it seems? What signals should make you run in the opposite direction?

Well, you can start with pseudoscience. Whenever you encounter a pseudoscientific claim you know you should be running away screaming at the top of your voice. So what, you may ask, is pseudoscience? My dictionary defines it as “a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method”. Note the key bit: “mistakenly regarded”. “Pseudo” comes from the Greek word for “false”.

A simpler definition might just be “fake science”. Pseudoscience is something pretending to be scientific. The commonest approach is just to jumble up some scientific-sounding words into a phrase that sounds impressive but, in fact, is just mumbo-jumbo. Want an example?

A couple of weeks ago we were contacted by a consumer who had been approached by a stranger in a restaurant who offered him a get rich quick scheme. It involved selling the products of a Chinese company called Winalite. The selling mechanism was clearly a multi-level selling mechanism, put simply a pyramid-structured scheme. He was naturally suspicious and got in touch and we did some investigation. This company offer a range of products including a range of high-tech women’s “sanitary ware”. One phrase that the manufacturers use to sell this products was this:
“the new anion-chip is proved to launch anions and far infra-red function by detection”
Well, it sounds scientific, doesn’t it? Yes, it does, but that doesn’t mean it IS scientific. In fact as any teenager studying science at school will tell you, it’s just a jumble of fancy words with absolutely no meaning. It’s pseudoscience.

That’s a warning sign you should always look out for, particularly as it’s an approach often used to sell so-called health products. A year ago we saw a product calling itself BodyTalk (see here and here) which, it’s ignorant proponents claimed, “utilises state-of-the-art energy medicine to optimise the body’s internal communications”. More pseudoscientific hogwash.

What else should you look out for? What about one so obvious that it often escapes normal, reasonable, intelligent people? Money up front. It’s the essence of the 419-style “Nigerian” scam but you also find it in a range of other scams and deceptions. Like skirt length and the style of jeans, scams come in fashions. The current fashion is for fake travel and employment schemes. In the last year we’ve seen several that offer amazing job opportunities in far-flung places that will earn you a small fortune. All you need to do is give them all your personal details and some cash. It can be as little as P375 for an “administration fee” and lead up to as much as P20,000 for the entire process but the one thing you’re guaranteed not to get is a job.

A couple of weeks ago we were alerted to a company calling itself “Royal World Adventure” that was demanding over P10,000 to get a job on a cruise liner. Just last week we heard of another possible travel scam offering people jobs in Ireland. Again there’s money needed up front and no real prospect of anything from it.

We’ve also been approached over the last few weeks by a number of readers about Stock Market Direct. This company, whose name makes it sound like a stock broker, in fact sells “educational software” that they suggest allows you to trade on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the JSE. They do presentations at which they extol the virtues of online trading and suggesting that you can make small fortunes very quickly. However it’s not as simple as that.

You may have seen notices in most newspapers in the last week or two from the Botswana Stock Exchange warning people about the company. They point out that they seem not to be registered stockbrokers in Johannesburg and that in any event JSE rules require you to operate through a broker and not to trade directly yourself. They also point out, very sensibly, that nobody can promise massive returns on any stock exchange. Yes of course some people make a lot of money but just as many don’t. Investing in stocks and shares is a bit like betting on a horse. If you’re not an expert or very well-informed you can easily lose the lot.

The BSE end their notice with a warning:
“Members of the public are accordingly advised to exercise caution and discretion in any dealings they have with Stock Market Direct.”
That’s very sensible I think. Obviously I’m not going to comment on the motives, character and ethics of Stock Market Direct but yes, we all SHOULD exercise caution when giving them lots of money to get their software.

All of these clues have one underlying message. You really shouldn’t believe the unbelievable. As Carl Sagan once said, “incredible claims require incredible evidence”. Claims that you can make a fortune selling miraculous sanitary towels, solve all your health problems with ludicrous technology, get a wonderful job on a cruise liner or make an instant fortune by betting shares are all “incredible claims”. Before you part with your hard-earned cash you should demand some incredible evidence.

This week’s stars
  • The Botswana Stock Exchange for making their regulatory voice heard.

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