Friday 13 November 2015


This is the 500th Consumer Watchdog column and you’ll have to forgive us for feeling a little proud of ourselves.

You might think that over the last ten years of writing this column there have been highs as well as lows. In fact it’s been a constant high.

When we started Consumer Watchdog its purpose was simple. It was there to help consumers fix problems and to help them stand up for their rights. Very quickly we realised that was impossible. The vast majority of people in Botswana had no idea what their rights were so how could they stand up for them? So our purpose expanded to include consumer rights education. Then we realised that, despite the many protections consumers in Botswana have, there remain gaps in the legislation. More importantly there was an enormous gap in enforcement of these rights. So we included advocacy into the mix. That’s where we are now. In 2015 and after 500 newspaper columns Consumer Watchdog exists to support consumers in exercising their rights, educating them on what their rights are and advocating for greater protection.

Of course we’ve certainly had some successes. I can’t be precise but we estimate we’ve responded to approximately 10,000 complaints, questions and celebrations over the last decade.

We’ve also been able to encourage certain stores, most notably furniture stores to obey the law. When Consumer Watchdog started stores were happy to advertise their products for sale on hire purchase and were equally to advertise them in breach of the Control Of Goods (Marking Of Goods) Regulations 1974, which requires stores to disclose the full credit price as well as the cash price and the details of the instalments customers must make. To their credit most stores corrected this when we pointed it out to them.

We’ve also had some success with the variety of financial scams that have circulated around Botswana in recent years. There was Stock Market Direct whose founder, Tony Samuels, ended up skipping the country with several million Pula of “investors” money, never to be seen again. Our warnings managed to prevent a lot of people from losing money but not everyone.

The biggest of the financial scams was of course Eurextrade and again, while we couldn’t stop everyone throwing away their hard-earned money hoping for the promised (but obviously impossible) “2.9% daily” return, we managed to prevent many people doing so. Nobody really knows how much money was stolen by this Ponzi scheme but we heard from and of many people who had invested hundreds of thousands so I wouldn’t be surprised if the total amount exceeded P100 million.

Then there were all the pyramid schemes that came to visit. It started with Success University, then there was TVI Express, WorldVentures, 4 Corners Alliance and the laughable Karatbars, the scheme that encourages you to “invest” in gold at a time when the price of gold is falling, not rising. That’s also the scam that claimed it had received a “thumbs up” from us, thus proving how ridiculous the lies told by pyramid scheme recruiters can be.

Unlike a certain colleague, I also think that the various legal threats we’ve had over the last decade have been high points as well. The lesson I’ve learned is that if you’re telling the truth, something that the public benefits from hearing, then a legal threat is a guarantee that you’re doing the right thing.

Of course not one of the threats has ever succeeded. On every occasion we’ve responded to the threat politely suggesting that we’ve done nothing but report the truth and the company has finally seen sense and left us alone, something they probably should have done to begin with.

Perhaps the most interesting threat we ever received was from a company calling itself "Joyce & Nielsen" who claimed to be acting for "Headway University", one of the many fake universities that sold fake degrees to fake graduates with credit cards.

The web site for this company, which described itself as “full-service business law firm” accused us of spreading “defamatory, harmful and malicious content in violation of state, federal and international law (…) with the intent to harm, defame and cause financial damages to our client, Headway University”.

I wasn’t sure at the time how it is possible to defame a fake university that sells fake degrees to fake graduates. Defamation rests on the assumption that the victim has a reputation to protect. Peddlers of bogus qualifications are criminals. They have no reputation to lose.

However the best thing about this threat was that the law firm didn’t actually exist. The crooks behind the fake university had created an entirely fake web site to pretend that the law firm existed, even stealing the text on the web site from other, genuine law firms. We knew we were doing something right that day.

Perhaps the best thing we’ve achieved, certainly one the things I’m proudest of, is something I’ve only noticed in the last couple of years. Since we established our Facebook group in 2010 the membership has grown to over 22,000 people and something magical started happening about two years ago. We found that we’d created a community. These days, if a member posts a question or a complaint dozens of other members will respond with advice, suggestions and support before we even get a chance to do so. It’s almost like a circle of friends, dare I even suggest that it’s a bit like a family?

Writing five hundred newspaper articles isn’t itself a greatest achievement but it has allowed us the time to see the changes that have happened to the consumers of Botswana over that time. Our growing, national level of skepticism and the mutual support are things I think we can all be very proud of.

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