Saturday, 21 December 2013

An import(ant) warning

Importing cars really is a very dangerous business.

Mainly it’s dangerous for consumers but it’s also dangerous for some of the importers.

There are three main reasons why buying a car from overseas is such a risky thing to do.

The first is the simplest. You’re buying a car you’ve never actually seen, touched or driven.

When you buy a car, particularly a second-hand one, you always take it for a test drive. You always get a chance to see if it works properly, if it’s comfortable, if it just feels like the right car for you. You also get a chance to check its condition. Is there oil leaking from it, does the gearbox seem ok, are there any weird noises coming from the engine? Even if you can’t judge these things for yourself, at least you can take a mechanic or a friend or relative who knows more about cars than you do who can advise you.

None of this is possible when you buy a car from overseas. In that case you don’t get any more than a picture on a web site and do you really think you trust that? I don’t think so and we’ve heard from many consumers who’ve learned the hard way that many of these companies can’t be trusted.

The second reason is that it’s also not even a very cheap way to buy a car. Some months ago I asked an expert to do the calculations for me. He contacted a company in the UK who have a representative here in Botswana and this is what he told me. Note that the exchange rates are a little out of date but recent changes have made it even more expensive to import a vehicle from the UK.
“I requested a price for a 2004 VW Touareg and they came back with a basic price of £8,400. On top of that was £850 for shipping, £400 port costs, £350 delivery to Gabs, £1,400 for duty and tax, a total of £11,400. That’s about P137,370 or R145,612.

The trade price for the same vehicle in pristine condition from SA would be R154,800. Chances are it would be some R15-20,000 less. So expect a trade price of R134,000 or P124,200.

In addition, once landed, the owner is going to have problems getting spare parts. They are NOT the same in every region and there are many subtle differences that we are unaware of. UK weather is very different to ours, which can mean some changes to deal with cooling issues. Radiators may well be smaller and control modules may also have different settings. European cars also often have very different specification to cars built for Africa. One common difference is the lack of rear electric windows that can alter the internal wiring of the car.

This is the same issue with Asian imports. This has caused many problems in the past as these parts are sometimes special orders and non-returnable, so if the local dealership gets the wrong part, it became the dealers problem. That’s why many local dealers will refuse to service imported vehicles.

I certainly would not want to be doing 4x4 off-roading in an imported Touareg in the desert on one of our summer days with a radiator designed to cruise chilly UK motorways!”
The third reason is perhaps even more worrying. Some of the importers are crooks.

We’ve reported in the past about a variety of suspicious importers including one called Westridge Holdings, who represent and advertise locally using the name “Trans Africa Vehicle Exports”. We’ve heard from a number of their customers, or should I say “victims”, who have given them large amounts of money to import cars but who have either been given the wrong car or no car at all. Getting money back from them has then proved impossible. Despite numerous promises, including one in my presence while I secretly recorded the conversation, no refund was paid. Subsequent court rulings haven’t worked either.

This is "Bling". Clearly ripping off your
customers is a good way to make money
Another importer, calling himself “Bling” played a similar game. A reader emailed us, saying:
"My fiance was robbed off by a young man commonly know as Bling. He obtained monies amounting to P120 000 in February 2012 on agreement that he will be delivering an X5 BMW car from UK in three weeks. After this period my fiance reported the matter to the police in Francistown and there was no development on this case. He was paid by a cheque amounting to P108,000 for Standard Chartered bank and P12,000 cash."
We contacted "Bling", otherwise known as Michael "Fortune" Balapi, and he admitted that had taken the money and hadn't actually delivered anything in return. He also admitted that he would have to repay them somehow but when we pushed him to put this in writing and to at least make some payment up-front and to acknowledge the situation he became evasive, coming up with a variety of rather feeble excuses.

Since then we’ve heard from two other victims who had the same experience with Balapi and he has since become less communicative, even becoming threatening, asking us "are you sure about what you're doing", warning us that he would "see what to do" if we published the story and suggesting that we "watch out".

Luckily a little press coverage of the story allowed the police to finally trace him and as I write this our friend “Bling” is a guest of the Francistown Police who are no doubt encouraging him to acknowledge the error of his ways. With luck the law will take its course.

The lesson is, I think, simple. Car importing is a business that is inherently risky, expensive and populated, to some extent, by criminals. Is this really an industry you think you can trust to get you a vehicle?

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