Saturday, 22 July 2017

Will these schemes make you rich?

Last week it was Herbalife, the week before it was Amway. They’re two of the largest Multi-Level Marketing schemes in the world and they make a tremendous amount of money. Well, the people at the top of the pyramid do but that’s all. Their own published earnings statements show that the overwhelming majority, at least 90% and many experts think more than 99%, either make nothing or even lose money from joining them.

Maybe you’ll stand a better chance with one of the smaller schemes instead of these MLM titans?

No, they don’t work either.

What about World Ventures, or as it now calls itself, Dream Trips?

We’ve been warning people about the World Ventures pyramid scheme since 2009 when they took over an earlier pyramid scheme called Success University. World Ventures and Dream Trips promise fantastic holidays in exotic places but they’re rarely clear that none of these holidays are free. You have to pay to join the pyramid and then all you get are discounted holidays. You still have to buy the holidays, just at a slightly cheaper price. And here’s a thing. A discount isn’t a product, it’s a reduction in the price of a product but maybe that’s just me being pedantic. What World Ventures is really all about is paying to join a pyramid-structured scheme in which you do your best to recruit multiple layers of people beneath you, just like any other pyramid or Multi-Level Marketing scheme.

The interesting thing is that, like Herbalife, World Ventures publish an "Income Disclosure Statement" (124kb pdf download) in the USA every year and just like Herbalife their 2015 statement makes interesting but disappointing reading. Yet again the vast majority of the money is earned by a very small proportion of the people, the ones at the top of the pyramid.

Referring to what they call their “Independent Sales Representatives” (“IRs”), they report that "22.24% of all IRs earned a commission or override, while 77.76% did not". In other words, more than three quarters of all their American recruits made nothing from the scheme. Nothing at all.

Furthermore, more than two thirds of all the money is made by the 3.7% at the top of the pyramid. 84% is earned by the top 19%. To put it another way, 81% of the recruits who earn money have to share just 16% of the money.

So like the other schemes, if you're at the top of the pyramid you're doing very well. The 1 in 14,000 people at "International Marketing Director" level earned an average of $409,280. The 1 in 20,000 described as "National Marketing Director" have an annual income of $238,645.

Of the small proportion who made any money, the average income was just over $1,300 a year (about P13,000) but that's not a good indication of what the average recruit will earn because the figures are distorted by the tiny proportion at the top who earn a fortune. The median income level is a much better illustration of what you can expect to earn. That's a meagre $150 per year.

And yet again, these amounts refer to income, not profits. These figures are before the recruits took account of all the money they had to spend on travel, accommodation, electricity, internet access and the coffee and drink they had to buy when they did their best to recruit other victims into this scheme. The evidence suggests that most people earn less than they spend trying to make the money. So they lose money.

And don’t forget that less than a quarter of all the recruits earn anything. These figures just refer to the 22% of victims who earned anything at all.

So no, you won’t make any money from joining World Ventures or Dream Trips, you’ll just waste a lot of money, energy and time. Don’t take my word for it, their own figures say so.

Ok, what about Tupperware? They have real products, don’t they? Do people make money from them?

Again, no. The figures Tupperware revealed in their 2016 Income Disclosure Summary (39kb pdf download) in Canada were equally poor. To begin with, almost half of the 37,000 distributors were described as “Inactive, meaning that they were “participants that have earned some commissions from the sale of products, but have not achieved a minimum of $500 in personal retail sales”. Of the remainder, almost all of them, 94%, were in the lowest category of “Consultant”. They earned the equivalent of just P3,800 in a 10-month period. Again that was income, not profit, not taking into account the costs of selling all those plastic products.

Only 40 out of the 37,000 Tupperware distributors in the entirety of Canada earned more than the average annual wage. 97% of them made less than one-tenth of the average wage.

Tupperware, like Amway and Herbalife, is extremely top-heavy. 53% of all the money earned went to the top 6% of the people, leaving less than half of the money to be shared by the other 94%. You can see how uneven it all is.

Here’s the secret about Multi-Level Marketing schemes and their cousins, pyramid schemes. They’re all the same. They’re all based on a Get Rich Quick promise that’s actually a deception. While the people selling the scheme will promise holidays, exotic lifestyles and wealth this is all are lies. These promises are simply not true and many of the people doing the recruitment know this. They know they’re not making any money and that the only way they might do so is to recruit other people into their position, to suffer the way they do.

Over the years we’ve examined dozens of Multi-Level Marketing and pyramid schemes and they’ve all been the same. They’ve all, every single one of them, ended up with people poorer, more miserable and with a trail of alienated friends, relatives and colleagues who’ve been pestered into joining the scheme. Not once have we encountered a scheme that has made anyone money. Not once. So why would the next one be any different?

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Why is it so much?

Good Morning Mr Harriman, I need help. I got a loan from a microlender, it was P3000. I have paid it for about six months in instalments of P220, but last month I wanted to top up to P16000 and before the loan was credited someone bought my plot and now I had the money I wanted. I went back to try and stop the loan but they said it was too late so from the P16000 they credited me P12000 and cleared the amount I owed before.

Right now I wanted to clear it but they are telling me the settlement amount is P21000. I don’t know maths, I wanted to know if I was credited P12000, why is the settlement that much or there is something that I don’t understand.

They said its that much because I did not even pay one instalment from the top up that I tried so much to stop. Please help me understand. Thank you.

Yes, this does sound outrageous but I suspect it’s legitimate, if that’s the right word for such an abusive, exploitative and wicked loan.

The only limit that the law currently applies to loans is the so-called “in duplum” rule which says that when a debt is settled, the interest cannot be greater than the capital amount outstanding. In your case you borrowed P12,000 (after they repaid your former loan) so the maximum possible settle amount could be P24,000 and they’re below that, even if only slightly.

Your problem is that when you signed the second loan agreement you committed yourself for the duration of the loan and also to their terms and conditions that presumably said that could charge an enormous settlement fee if they felt like it. Think about it from their point of view. They were eagerly anticipating all those lovely, lucrative monthly repayments that they could spend on beer, cigarettes and parties. By trying to cancel the loan you came close to losing them that money and they wanted compensation for that.

This is a good example of why we urgently need a right to a cooling off period whenever we take any loan, whether it’s from a bank, furniture store or micro-lender. And we need it now.

Is Helping Hands worth joining?

I was approached by a friend who told me that I should join Helping Hands and can make money. Is this true?

Helping Hands International is a pyramid scheme. The people marketing the scheme describe it as a “non governmental organization” attempting to “empower the less privileged people and orphanage homes”. They also claim that joining the scheme will offer “passive income”, new cars, laptops, a “house of your own”, free trips abroad, loans of up to P500,000, scholarships and “residual income for life” but none of this is true.

Unlike Multi-Level Marketing schemes like Amway and Herbalife, this scam has no products and the business model is entirely based on recruiting people beneath you and them recruiting people beneath them with the promise of money magically flowing up the pyramid in your direction. That’s a pyramid scheme.

I had a WhatsApp conversation with someone selling Helping Hands recently and I asked him “So you earn money by recruiting other people? I don't have to sell anything, just recruit more people?”. His answer was simple. “Yes Sir”.

They’re also liars. Their advertisements claim that they are “in partnership with Bill Gate Foundation, Hyundai Motors, Apple Corporation, HP” but in reality, there are no such partnerships.

So in summary, this is nothing more than a pyramid scheme run by people who tell lies. Like all pyramid schemes Helping Hands International will eventually collapse, leaving its victims disappointed, embarrassed and poorer. Do you really want to be a victim? Please warn your friend and anyone else they might have tried to recruit. Spread the word and help protect them!

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Will Herbalife make you rich?

Last week we looked at Amway, one of the world’s biggest Multi-Level Marketing schemes and asked the same question. Will Amway make you rich? Or will it make you any money at all?

The answer was simple. No. You won’t become rich by joining Amway and the odds are that you’ll probably lose money if you join the scheme.

Maybe you think I’m biased and this all based on my uneducated, ill-informed opinions? That’s certainly what several Amway distributors, or “Independent Business Owners”, “IBO”s have told me over the last few years and in particular over the last week. My opinions are, according to them, ignorant and biased. Actually this isn’t based on any opinions at all, it’s based on the figures that Amway are required to publish every year in the United Kingdom. When the UK authorities tried to close down Amway a decade ago, Amway dramatically cleaned up the way they did business over there and they started publishing an annual “Earnings disclosure statement” that showed how much their recruits actually earned. The latest statement, published in 2016 that covered the year ending in September 2015 made very sad reading. Only one out of almost 40,000 IBOs made more than the average annual wage from their Amway business. The vast majority of them had an income of less than 3% of the average annual wage. And that’s just their income, not their profit. Those miserable amounts are before they paid their internet, phone, electricity bills and their rent. It’s before they bought all the marketing material, attended all the workshops and seminars and before they spent all that time desperately trying to persuade people to join the scheme. The reality is that when these things are considered it’s reasonable to think that almost everyone, probably more than 99% lose money rather than make it from joining Amway.

So what about the other Multi Level Marketing schemes. Is it the same with them? For instance, will you make money if you join Herbalife? Will you make money from distributing their health, nutrition and weight-loss products? Will you make money from recruiting other people beneath you if you join Herbalife?

Again the answer is no.

Like Amway, Herbalife publish a “Statement Of Average Gross Compensation(441kb pdf download), this time in the USA and guess what, it's the same story. The income most people make is trivial and almost all of the money is earned by just a tiny proportion of the members.

According to their 2015 statement, more than 80% of Herbalife’s members, that's 437,152 people, are just people who buy their products and don't have a "downline". These are the people on the bottom rung of the pyramid. They buy products from Herbalife but there's no evidence they sell it to other people and they certainly don’t make any money.

The most interesting group is those people who earned commission from their “downline” sales, the people beneath them. These are what Herbalife refer to as "Sales Leaders With a Downline". In the USA in 2015 there were 68,768 of them. These are the people that Herbalife offer as examples of the riches you can earn from joining Herbalife.

But there are no riches.

Of these people, three-quarters of all the money was earned by the top 3.5%. The top 10% earned nearly 90% of the cash.

At the other end of the scale, the bottom 90% earn just over 10% of the money. The group earning between $1 and $1,000 in 2015 (that's 62.5% of the entire group) actually earned an average of just $303 in the year.

And again, like with Amway, that's their income, not their profit. That's before they paid all those expenses, their phone bills, transport costs and their electricity bills. So just like Amway, the chances of anyone making money by becoming a Herbalife distributor are almost non-existent.

But that’s not the biggest problem with Herbalife. The problem is that Herbalife distributors can be dangerous. Very dangerous.

I’ve had conversations with people selling Herbalife products that have included some remarkable claims. One advertised in a local publication that he had solutions to “Problem with asthma, BP, heart, arthritis, face, ulcers, diabetes, weight”. I contacted him and asked if he really could help with heart problems. “Surely”, he said, “We help with reversing heart conditions”.

Someone else told me that their products could help with weight loss, weight gain, “blood circulation, back pain and joint, period pains and skin prblm”.

Another told me that as well as improving “digestive health”, “heart health”, “dire health threating conditions” and offering “immune solutions”, his products were “very helpful with a lot of various ailement and serious health conditions” and could, get this, improve someone’s CD4 count. In other words he was claiming that his products could help someone with AIDS.

These are all incredibly dangerous, false claims to make and guess what? All of the people making these claims were doing their best to sell Herbalife products here in Botswana.

I contacted Herbalife on all of these and other occasions and asked them what they felt about the claims their distributors were making. Every time they seemed to be appalled and promised they would to kick these distributors out of their pyramid. But is that good enough? If these claims had been made by just one rogue, delusional distributor then we could probably overlook it. But the fact that this has happened several time and that they’ve told a series of lies about their products suggests something different. One even claimed that their products were “approved” by the Botswana Bureau of Standards, which was nothing more than a bare-faced lie.

One last thing about Herbalife. With the exception of pregnant women, the elderly and people with certain very specific medical conditions, none of us need to take the sort of supplements that Herbalife offer. Just buy some fruit instead.

My view is that Herbalife is even less appealing than Amway. Amway’s household goods are at least useful. Herbalife? Well, you can guess my view of them by now.

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

How do I stop being blacklisted?

How do I escape the fact that I am blacklisted? Sometime in 2011 I lost my job and was paying the furniture shop monthly for items I acquired on hire purchase. Upon realizing that I was unable to continue paying every month due to unemployment I requested the same shop to repossess the items and set me free from the chains of misery (bad payer record). Efforts to have the same items repossessed failed up until I had to go for years without paying. It wasn't intentional and only to find out that I’m blacklisted. My question is how do I deal with this? Are there any means of clearing my name and continue with paying now that I secured another job?

Unfortunately, you can't "escape" from being "blacklisted" because there's no such thing as being “blacklisted”. The records held on you by credit reference agencies simply reflect what happened in your past. It will show any bank loans you’ve had, hire purchase agreements you’ve signed, bank accounts you’ve opened, your complete financial history. That allows other lenders to make a reasoned judgment on lending you money.

You fell behind with your instalments and the store is entitled to submit that to the credit reference agencies because it's true, isn’t it? When you finally finish paying the debt they'll also record that as well. Maybe then you’ll present a more appealing profile to possible lenders.

More importantly, asking for the good to be repossessed won’t help you at all. In fact, it will only make the situation worse. The value of the goods you bought is now only a small fraction of their original price and an even smaller fraction of the total credit price you agreed to pay. Once the store adds on penalties and interest to your account, the amount repossessing and selling goods will raise will have very little effect on the amount you owe. The choice you have is whether you want to owe them money while you have the goods or whether you want to owe them money while keeping the goods. I suggest you keep the goods and contact the store and agree a repayment plan that satisfies you both.

Should I join Bitcoin?

Lately someone has been trying to convince me to join Bitcoin and I told them I have to ask you it's legitimacy first. Please advice. Thank you.

Bitcoin is a currency, but not like any currency we've known before. It's a digital currency, other times called a virtual currency or a cryptocurrency. There are no coins or notes with Bitcoin, no bits of metal or paper. Nothing you can put in your wallet or purse. Bitcoins exist purely in cyberspace and that’s confusing. What also confusing is the terminology used with Bitcoin. Terms like "blockchain", "distributed ledger" and "Bitcoin mining" are hard to understand unless you're an expert. There's also the simple confusion that your money is "out there" somewhere and not in your pocket.

Like all currencies Bitcoin’s value can go up but it can also go down. For instance, if you’d bought Bitcoins in November 2013 you would have lost 78% of your "investment" by January 2015. The value of a Bitcoin has now increased again but there’s no reason to think it will always go up.

Then there are security concerns. The technology underpinning Bitcoin is highly secure but anyone who says that a particular security system is fool proof doesn’t know their history. All security technologies will eventually be broken and if a flaw is ever discovered in Bitcoin's security mechanisms it would be valueless instantly.

The fact that it's completely unregulated is another concern. If a conventional currency like the Pula, dollar or Euro showed signs of failing, central banks can do things to support it but with Bitcoin, there's nobody to help you.

Another issue is that when you spend Bitcoins there are no payment protection mechanisms available to you. There are no rights to refunds. no chargeback mechanisms and Bitcoins are completely untraceable, that’s why they’re so useful to criminals and terrorists.

I think Bitcoin is fascinating and something like it is probably the future of money but you shouldn’t see it as an investment. If you have some money you can afford to lose then go ahead, otherwise you should be much more careful.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Will Amway make you rich?


Maybe I should just stop there? Do I need to go any further? Ok, maybe I do.

Amway is one of the world’s biggest Multi-Level Marketing schemes. Originally founded in the USA in 1959 it has a long history of selling a wide range of things including household goods, health and beauty products and foodstuffs. These products can’t be bought in stores but instead are bought and distributed via a multi-level recruiting mechanism. If you join Amway, not only will you be able to buy the products but you’ll also be encouraged (often very forcefully) to recruit people beneath you and you’ll then encourage those new recruits to recruit others beneath them. They call that your “downline” and the series of people above you will be your “upline”.

You can see why many people think of Amway as a pyramid scheme and it’s an accusation that’s has been made many times since Amway became the global company it is today. On various occasions government regulatory agencies around the world have investigated them, most notably in the USA, Canada and the UK. In each of these countries regulators either prosecuted them for crimes such as tax evasion and customs fraud, price fixing, and misrepresentation.

However, Amway is not actually a pyramid scheme, at least not technically. A pyramid scheme is usually defined as a business where the majority of the earnings come from the recruitment of other people lower in the pyramid and where the income from selling products is either minor or non-existent. In Amway’s case there are lots of products to buy. Whether they’re any good, or if they’re worth the money you pay for them, is another issue. Many Amway distributors will tell you that their products are good but, my observation is while this might be true, very often the same or better products can be obtained either at the same price or more cheaply via conventional channels. The spaghetti that Amway sell is certainly high quality and is made according to the traditional Italian bronze die method but Woolworths sell the same thing. And cheaper too.

My biggest concern about Amway is that Amway distributors, known as IBOs, Independent Business Owners, is that when they try to recruit you, they don’t mention the luxury spaghetti and beauty products, but something else. I know this is true because very occasionally I get the approach from someone I vaguely know (and who clearly doesn’t know me very well) who wonders if I’d be interesting in “an exciting business opportunity”. They’re selling a way to make money.

The problem is that this simply isn’t true. You can’t make a fortune or even a small amount from joining Amway. And don’t think I’m asking you to take my word for it. I’m asking you to believe Amway themselves.

About ten years ago Amway were investigated by the UK Government’s Department of Trade and Industry who sought to ban them. This case was eventually dropped but only after Amway dramatically modified its business practices. As a result of this, Amway in the UK are now required to publish income data for their IBOs and that’s where we get the evidence, the evidence that shows how little people actually make from joining the scheme.

The “Amway earnings disclosure statement(195kb pdf download) they published in March 2016 but which refers to the earnings people made between October 2014 and September 2015 make very poor reading.

The statement says that during this period in the UK they had 20,678 "Retail Consultants", people who are “developing a customer base through product retailing”. They also had 18,915 "Certified Retail Consultants" whose job was to “maintain a solid customer base through product retailing and introduce others to the Amway Business Opportunity”. Finally they had 59 "Business Consultants" whose job was to expand “the business by supporting and training RCs and CRCs on retailing products and building their Amway business”.

The average income figures for these groups were, I'm afraid, pathetic.

Retail Consultants had an average income of a mere £40 per month which is £480 per year, Certified Retail Consultants averaged only £106 (£1,272 per year) and the 59 Business Consultants only brought in £1,954 each month (£23,700 per year).

That last figure, the earnings for the Business consultants might sound impressive but for reference, the average annual income in the UK in 2015 was £27,456.

So the top group were, on average, earning less than the average worker, despite being the ones who presumably were working themselves harder than anyone else in the Amway pyramid. The statement also goes into a bit more detail about those 59 Business Consultants. Only one of them had reached “Diamond” status during the year, the level where they earn more than £50,000. Only one out of nearly 40,000 people in the business operating in a country of 61 million people.

That really is a very sad set of statistics.

But it gets worse. The statement refers to “income”, not profits. They don't take account of the costs involved in running an Amway business, of recruiting people beneath you, paying for electricity, phone, travel and internet costs. Nobody really knows how much Amway IBOs spend on such things, apart from the IBOs themselves, and they rarely tell the world about that because they’re too busy trying to recruit other people to make some money from them joining. However, the estimates I’ve seen suggest that 99% or more people who join schemes like Amway actually lose money rather than make some.

In short, even in a large economy like the UK hardly anyone makes even the average national wage if they join Amway. So why should we think it would be any more lucrative in Botswana, a country with a comparatively tiny population?

And what about the other Multi Level Marketing schemes that are constantly appearing? Surely if even the largest of them can’t offer people an income, how can you expect the little ones to do so?

The lesson is very simple. Multi Level Marketing schemes will cost you money, not make you any. The evidence shows that.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

I’ve been blacklisted!

Good day. I am currently listed at CRB for default in a loan payment at a certain bank. I don't have a problem with being listed. But it's the length of time I am concerned about.

I took the loan in 2007 and due to circumstances I wasn't able to pay. But in 2011 I found a job and resumed payments but I'm still blacklisted even now. Even though I've been paying the loan every month. What can I do?

I’m sorry to hear about your difficulty but I’m glad you’re doing your best to repay your debt. So many people get into difficulties and try all sorts of tricks to avoid repaying which only makes things much, much worse for them.

Credit reference bureaux like CRB don’t actually “blacklist” people, they just hold records of what happened to people and this allows potential lenders make a decision based on the history they see a customer has developed. A potential lender can consult the bureau and will see that you took a loan, perhaps you later defaulted but also that you later recovered and settled the debt. That will give them a good picture of how much risk you’ll present to them if they decide to lend you money.

In your case, where I think you’re still repaying the loan and the debt remains unsettled, then that's what the credit history will show and will form the basis of the decision they take. Given that you had a problem and haven’t completely resolved it yet, you’ll be seen as relatively high risk. I imagine this might change once you’ve settled the debt.

When you do finally settle the debt, ask the lender for something in writing stating that the debt was settled and make sure they update your credit record as soon as possible.

Can I make him fix my engine?

On the 5th January, I bought a second hand engine from a dealer in Mogoditshane for P7,300. On the slip I was given a one month guarantee.

The engine was fitted in the car and I used the car for about two months. On the 21st April, while travelling I head a funny noise from the engine. I stopped by the road site to check, I could not see anything. I started the engine and the noise was there again. I moved the car but it failed to move. I then called a mechanic who came and assessed the car and said it had broken the tension bolt which affected the car timing and all the 16 valves had been bent.

I then consulted the mechanic whom I went with when I bought the engine and told him what happened. He told me that he informed the supplier. I then bought the parts that I was told to buy and the mechanic fixed the car. We had a meeting for me to understand what could be the cause that lead to this and the mechanic told me that it’s a factory fault because a he has never seen a tension bolt breaking in 20 years.

I also enquired with another mechanic and he told me the same thing that I was told by the first mechanic. In the process of repairing the engine I spend P4,500 on spare parts and P1,500 on labour.

Your advise will be highly appreciated so that I know if I can take this matter forward or not.

Unfortunately, I suspect you’re in a very difficult position here. The engine was second-hand when you bought it and was clearly offered with only a 1-month guarantee. The seller will probably argue that they sold it in good faith and were very open about its likely state so I suspect there’s not much you can do unless you have evidence that they lied about the state of the engine.

The lesson here is to be very skeptical about any item that comes with a warranty as short as one month. The warranty period on any item is the period that the manufacturer or seller is confident it will last. Anyone who thinks something will likely last only a month is probably correct. Do you really want to take that risk?

Saturday, 1 July 2017

It looks like a pattern

It is wrong to form stereotypes?

Generally speaking, yes, I think it is. It’s obviously wrong to make sweeping generalisations about groups of people based on things they can’t change such as their gender, skin colour, ethnic origin, country of birth or sexual orientation. You could perhaps argue it’s slightly more acceptable, but still dangerous, to make assumptions about people based on things they can control such as their political and religious viewpoints.

But you certainly should judge people by what they do. By their actions. Ye shall know them by their fruits.

I think that goes for organisations as well as individuals. I think you can judge a company by the way it behaves.

Sensible, mature, grown up organisations behave like sensible, mature grown up people. They don’t have tantrums when people complain, they don’t get aggressive when someone criticizes them, they don’t start throwing things when the quality of their products and services are questioned.

Unfortunately not all companies are sensible, mature and grown up. Search through our blog and you’ll find a wide range of organisations who have been upset by things we’ve said about them and instead of having a dialog with us about their complaint, have instructed attorneys to threaten us with legal hellfire and damnation. Do I need to say that not one of these threats has ever gone further than those threatening letters? All they’ve done is cost themselves a lot of money in attorney’s fees. If they’d just grown up, picked up the phone and asked to come over for a chat we’d have been happy to oblige. Instead they behaved like a spoilt child in a supermarket who was refused chocolate.

Before we even get to the tantrum stage I still think you can judge a company by how it behaves every normal day of the week. Or how it allows its staff to behave. Or its agents.

Hotel Express International is a case worth considering. I don’t remember how many times people have complained about the conduct of Hotel Express International agents but I know that I’ve reported on the situation fifteen different times. Now sixteen.

The story is always the same. A reader gets a “cold call”, an uninvited phone call from a stranger in South Africa explaining the amazing benefits of paying to join Hotel Express International, offering them discounts on hotels, car hires and flights. As part of the sales process they ask for the potential customer’s credit or debit card details either “to keep on file” or to check whether they are eligible for “Gold” or “Platinum” membership. Every time, the readers claim, they most certainly did not give permission for Hotel Express to actually deduct money from their accounts but guess what, that’s exactly what happened. Without the customer’s explicit permission they get enrolled into Hotel Express International, their bank balance is debited and they then have enormous trouble getting their money back.

We’ve sent these complaints over to Hotel Express International and sometimes we’ve been able to help get their people’s money back but not always.

As well as being upset for people who feel they had their money taken without their consent I’m also surprised that people are still falling for the suggestion that you need to pay to join a scheme like Hotel Express International to get hotel discounts. You can get discounts for free. I stay in hotels in South Africa quite often and do you think I ever pay the full rate? Of course not.

Just for example, I needed to stay in Joburg some months ago and booked a suite, yes, an entire suite in a hotel at a discount of around 40%, just by booking using their web site. Was I required to pay to join a scheme to do this? Of course not. In fact, if you compare the rate I paid against the official “rack rate” the hotel quotes I saved 60%. I even once got a discount of over 80% in a hotel in Cape Town, just by signing up for a newsletter from the hotel chain. For free.

So why would you need to pay to get a discount when hotel give them away for free?

The bad news is that this isn’t just something from the past. Just a few days ago we received an email telling the same old story.
“I received a call from Hotel Express International selling me an ‘exclusive membership discount’ card for hotels, a call that successfully ambushed, conned and bullied me into unsuspectingly giving them my credit card details so the caller could ‘check if my card is good for acceptance’ by the company. Lo and behold, an amount of R4,265 was debited, without consent, from my credit account!”
To make matters even worse, he told us that a few days later he “received yet another call from them this afternoon wanting to sell me an additional card. I told him I do not need want an additional card. A lady called me shortly thereafter, again I told her I do not need another card. A few moments later I saw an alert on my phone for another debit of R4,265. This is an unauthorized transaction and I want it reversed before I take action.”

Action certainly is needed in his case. So far they’ve taken R8,530 of his money without his consent and that’s a lot of money. We’ll get in contact with Hotel Express International yet again and see if they can remedy this situation but frankly I’m not optimistic.

So here’s my suggestion. Don’t give your credit or debit card details to Hotel Express International. In fact, don’t give your credit or debit card details to anyone who called you. If you called them, it’s a different matter but in 2017, I think that any company that calls you and asks for your card details over the phone is acting suspiciously. And can you really trust a company behaving that way with your money?

Wouldn’t you rather spend that money on a heavily discounted hotel stay? A discount you didn’t have to pay to get?

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Is the EU Business Register legit?

Hi. I received an invitation to insert my company details into the EU Business Register for 2017/2018. The invitation says that it will let companies in Europe know about my company. The email says that it’s free but do you think it’s worth it?

Certainly not. Please don’t consider this, not even for a moment.

The EU Business Register looks remarkably like the “World Business Guide", a scam we warned people about a few years ago. They also offered companies a listing in an online business directory service and like them I think that the EU Business Register is a scam. Even though the invitation you received says that “Updating is free of charge”, in fact the small print says that: “THE PRICE PER YEAR IS EURO 995”. That’s over P11,000. Worse still, it also says that the “TIME OF THE CONTRACT IS THREE YEARS” meaning you’ll be entering into a contract for more than P33,000, all to have your details entered into an online directory that nobody actually uses.

If I’m correct that this is the same people who ran the previous, identical scam (and I’m certain they are, they’re almost identical except for the name) anyone who refuses to pay up will start receiving increasingly aggressive threats from debt collectors and law firms until they hand over the payments they’re demanding.

The good news is that they’ll never actually take anyone to court because no sober judge or magistrate would force someone to pay to be abused like this. I can certainly find no record of the people running the previous directory actually entering a courtroom to do so. Nevertheless, let’s not give them the opportunity to harass people. If you do want to market your business you could spend the same amount on a decent web site that really might get you some business.

Is BitClub Network legit?

Someone is trying to recruit me to invest in BCN (BitClub Network). Apparently they are dealing with Bit coins. What are you views? Is this a genuine investment, is it a pyramid scheme?

Please advise for me to make an informed decision?

The BitClub Network describe themselves as "The most innovative and lucrative way to earn Bitcoin" and they suggest that Bitcoin mining is a way to make money. It’s a complicated issue but Bitcoin mining is the process of storing and validating Bitcoin transactions and possibly earning Bitcoins for doing so. However, the resources such as computing power required to do this are immense and it’s not something that you and I can afford to do.

They go on to say that "With BitClub Network you earn daily profits from our shared mining pools. We also have a referral program so you can get paid for anyone you refer."

Yes, it’s true that they do mine Bitcoins but that’s not really what they’re trying to sell you here.

The clue was in that last statement. They say that you “get paid for anyone you refer”. Doesn’t that sound like a pyramid scheme to you? In fact, I suspect it’s a Ponzi scheme, where any returns people get are paid directly from the people who join after them. I’m not the only one that thinks so. If you fight your way through the advertisements for BitClub Network on the internet you can find a number of people warning that this is a Ponzi scheme.

I urge you not to have anything to do with BitClub Network. It’s yet another scheme that, sooner or later, will collapse, just like all other Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes do, leaving a few people at the top of the scheme rich but the vast majority a lot poorer than before.

Before anyone thinks I’m against Bitcoin, think again. I’ve said repeatedly that Bitcoin is a fascinating new form of currency that may well be something like the future of money. However, Bitcoin is incredibly volatile and unpredictable and worst of all, is completely unregulated. There’s no central bank, no NBFIRA, no consumer body that can help you if things go wrong. Is that a risk you can afford to take?

Friday, 23 June 2017

Facebook. Get used to it.

Whether you like it or not, whether you’ve joined or not, whether you think it’s a good or a bad thing, Facebook is here to stay and you’d better get used to it.

I don’t know for sure, but the best estimate I’ve seen suggests that about half of us in Botswana are on Facebook. Given our population’s youthfulness that’s no surprise but us older-timers are also well represented. It’s also not just a toy for the affluent. The text-only versions of Facebook and the declining price of online data mean that anyone with a cellphone can be a Facebooker.

But still there are some people who are resistant. Some just have an aversion to technology while others seem to have a suspicion that Facebook brings with it threats to their way of life and that it offers nothing more than trivia, obscenity and offence.

I’ve got news for those people. That’s exactly what some people said about that internet in general. Before that people were saying it about the video recorder and television, before that about the telephone and the radio and going even further back in history, they said the same thing about newspapers and books.

And they were right. All of those things did indeed bring greater levels of risk but more importantly they all also brought even greater levels of education, openness, communication and understanding. All progress comes with an upside and a downside. However, almost always the benefits outweigh the risks and that’s particularly true of the internet and Facebook.

Facebook’s critics will say that the content is trivial, bizarre and offensive and again, that’s all true but isn’t that a bit like everyday life? Not every conversation we have with our friends, family and workmates is important. Most conversations are trivial, some are indeed bizarre and occasionally offensive.

But think of what Facebook offers us. Never before have half the entire population of our country been able to converse with one another so easily. Never before has it been so easy to chat to friends, relatives and workmates when they’re far from us. Never before has it been so easy to meet and grow to understand people different from us.

The problem with Facebook is that it’s a very good example of what the internet can be: largely out of control. You can understand Facebook best if you imagine it as being like a bar on a Friday night. A Friday night at the end of the month. Or, as someone suggested to me recently, a bar on a Friday night, at the end of the month and in a mining town. That’s what Facebook is like.

Normal people go to such a bar, or to Facebook, to have fun, hang out with their friends and meet new people but in doing so they become noisier, less diplomatic, less inhibited and a small proportion of them get aggressive and things can then turn nasty.

In the last two weeks I’ve removed eighty-eight posts from the Consumer Watchdog Facebook group. Over the last few years I’ve removed a grand total of 3,284 posts. Most of these were advertisements but a small number were the equivalent of drunken people shouting in that bar. A few have been racist, others bigoted in other directions, a few threatening and every so often, they’ve been defamatory. None of these things are permitted in our bar, sorry, I meant our Facebook group.

I do my best on these occasions to be polite and inform the person who posted the offending item why I’ve removed it and some while ago had an online conversation with a very unhappy Facebooker who didn’t like me removing his post which I thought had defamed someone. But what I said was true, he said. That doesn’t matter, I told him. And it doesn’t. Something that’s true can still be defamatory it it’s not “for the public benefit that it should be published”. The details of someone’s private life are very rarely something for the public interest, despite how inquisitive we might be.

One of the real strengths of Facebook, something that’s relevant to consumers, is how it’s transformed the way in which consumers and suppliers communicate. Yes, if you’re short-changed, let-down or insulted by a store you should probably go see the manager and express your outrage face to face but the landscape has changed. You can now use Facebook to express your complaint. I know this irritates people who insist we need to complain the old-fashioned way but that’s just too bad. Times have changed. Welcome to the modern era.

We’ve been contacted many times by companies who are terrified about this new way of interacting. Our consumers post nasty things about us on Facebook, they tell me. So what are you going to do about, I ask? We don’t know, they confess.

At least they’re asking. At least they realise that they need to do something. Other companies we’ve spoken to have a very different approach. They adopt the same approach my children did when they were little. If they covered their faces they thought they became invisible. Well, peekaboo, that doesn’t work. Stores have a stark choice these days. Either listen to what your customers are saying on Facebook or ignore them. Yes, if you engage with them they might not always react well but of you refuse to talk to them they will always react badly. Always.

So get with it. I don’t know if Facebook will still be with us in ten years time but I know this. Something like Facebook will be. There will be an online conversation forum where your customers will be talking about you, sometimes saying nice things but much more often saying nasty things. Your choice is whether you want to listen to them or not. And perhaps even fix some problems and make yourself look good. Get used to it.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

They excluded my kid!

Hello. I hope you are fine. I have arrears for my child's school fees but show commitment in offsetting the debt. I paid P3500 last month and P1500 month. I went to the school to inform them that I have applied for a short loan and I am still waiting for the loan to be processed, but the school suspended the kid. Is it appropriate for them to do so?

Yes, unfortunately the school is entitled to do this. I know it seems harsh but they’re a business, not a charity

You don’t say how much your arrears were, but while I respect you for doing your best to pay them off, if there is still an outstanding amount owing, they’re entitled to withdraw the service they’re offering you.

It would be exactly the same if you were in arrears with your rent at your house. Even if you were paying off the arrears the landlord would be entitled to take legal action against you and evict you. It would be the same again if you were in arrears with your cellphone contract, your insurance policy or your home loan. If you’re in arrears, your creditor is entitled to take action against you to suspend the service they’re offering and recover the money you owe them.

I have a lot of sympathy for schools in this situation. I’ve met the head teachers of many private schools and all of them are the sort of people who really dislike excluding a child because the parents are in arrears. It’s not why they went into the teaching profession but they are nevertheless running businesses that have bills to pay and while they often show some tolerance there must be limits to that. Let’s also no ignore that small proportion of parents who are really bad payers.

I suggest you keep the school regularly updated on the progress you’re making in catching up and maybe they’ll be a bit more tolerant.

Where’s my laptop?

I’m asking you what I can do. I pawned a laptop and it got stolen from that pawn shop. Now they’re saying that I pawned it at my own risk so they are not taking responsibility for it. What can I do?

You can ask NBFIRA, the Non Bank Financial Institutions Regulatory Authority for their support, that’s the first thing. NBFIRA regulate the pawn shop industry in Botswana and I’m sure they’ll be interested to hear that a pawn shop is operating so badly.

The first thing I’d say is that any business that either owns a lot of valuable equipment, or which stores property on other people’s behalf, that doesn’t have an insurance policy that covers them against this sort of situation is an incompetent company run by incompetent managers and owned by incompetent owners. It’s reckless and reckless people shouldn’t be running a business. If NBFIRA don’t already make possession of insurance a mandatory requirement for pawn shops then here’s a free suggestion. Change the regulations today.

Secondly, I think you need to check the receipt they gave you when you pawned your laptop. Did you sign anything saying that you “specifically consented” to the store not taking responsibility for a loss like this? If you didn’t then they’ve just broken Section 17 (1) (f) of the Consumer Protection Regulations which forbids them from “entering into a transaction in which the consumer waives or purports to waive a right, benefit or immunity provided by law, unless the waiver is clearly stated and the consumer has specifically consented to it”.

I would also go back to the store and see if they have “clearly stated” this rule, perhaps with a sign on the wall that nobody can miss. If not, I think you should escalate this to both NBFIRA and the Consumer Protection Unit.

You should also demand to be given a copy of the police report they filed when they discovered the theft. If they don’t have one then you’ve got a right to question whether the theft ever occurred and in that case you should go to the police yourself and report the theft.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The rights we deserve

For the last few weeks I’ve been describing the range of protections that we’re offered by the Consumer Protection Regulations. Given that these regulations were published and enacted sixteen years ago I think they’re doing well. They’re still largely relevant and there’s not a lot that needs to be changed.

But there are some gaps.

Here’s a big one. We don’t have much protection in Botswana against pyramid schemes and their equally rotten cousins, Ponzi schemes. Yes, the Bank of Botswana has the power to declare them illegal deposit-taking schemes but that requires a great deal of investigation and evidence. I think we need another weapon to use against them. A stronger one.

But is it really a big problem? Do we need to spend time and energy writing new laws to protect people against these schemes?

Oh yes.

Many of you will remember the Eurextrade scam that cost so many people in Botswana so much money in 2012 and 2013. This pretend investment scheme offered people the “opportunity” (which is always a warning word) to invest and earn “up to 2.9%” every day. Not 2.9% each year, 2.9% every day. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who were suckered into joining the scheme couldn’t do the maths because if they could they would have realized how extraordinary that figure is. The numbers are simple. If you invest P1,000 at 2.9% per day after a day you’ve earned P29, giving you a total of P1,029. Another 2.9% each day on top of the previous day’s balance gives you P1,187 after a week, P2,291 after a month, P13,103 after 3 months and after a whole year, the massive sum of P33 million.

Everyone knows that’s simply impossible, that it must be a scam but thanks to a number of very persuasive recruiters many people willingly handed over their money, giving into temptation, gullibility and greed. In fact Eurextrade wasn’t any sort of investment, it was a Ponzi scheme, where the “investments” each victim made were split between the people running the scam and the previous person who joined. If I joined on Monday and you joined on Tuesday part of the money you paid in went directly to me, and you got some of the money from the sucker who joins on Wednesday. It’s “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. It’s a scam. Most of the money went straight to the criminals running the scheme.

We don’t know how many people lost money when the scheme eventually collapsed (as all Ponzi schemes eventually do) or how much money the scammers got away with but I know for a fact it was at least tens of millions. We heard from victims and their friends who cashed in genuine investments, sold vehicles and property and even took bank loans to invest in the scheme. They all lost everything. Of course a small number at the top of the pyramid made a little but that was all at the expense of the victims.

We’ve seen the same again more recently with Helping Hands International, a donation or “gifting” scheme where people are encouraged to add money to a central pool and then withdraw larger amounts. Nobody involved in the running the scheme ever explains where the extra money comes from because if they did they’d give the game away. In fact, as a few people confessed to me, the growth in money just comes from new people joining, not from any interest or profits. Just new victims. That’s the definition of a Ponzi scheme.

But what could have been done to prevent people falling for it? Consumer Watchdog did its best to warn people as did NBFIRA, the regulator of financial services in Botswana but clearly that wasn’t enough.

That’s where I think an addition to the Consumer Protection Regulations might help. I think a new regulation should be added, saying that it would be “an unfair business practice” to “cause a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the origin, amount or likelihood of any income or profits from any business or investment mechanism”.

That would go some way to preventing the sort of lies and exaggerations that the recruiters for Eurextrade, Helping Hands International and all the other Ponzi schemes, pyramid schemes and Get Rich Quick schemes tell us to part us from our money.

It might also go some way to curbing the excesses of the Multi Level Marketing industry with their promises of a new “lifestyle” when all the figures that the companies are forced to disclose show that it’s incredibly unlikely that any new recruit will make anything at all.

Another change I’d recommend is to follow the approach adopted in many other countries about what happens when consumer buy something that goes wrong. Right now if we buy something that breaks down, Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection regulations applies because it clearly wasn’t “of merchantable quality”. We then have a right to one of the three Rs: a refund, repair or replacement. But here’s the problem. We don’t get to choose which of those three Rs we get. That’s up to the store who sold us the broken-down item. I think that should change. I’d like to see consumers have the right to demand a refund or replacement for an item that fails. Obviously there should be some limitations, I don’t think I should be able to demand a refund for a cellphone that fails after two years but maybe we should have that right for the first 14 days? Maybe 30 days? That would be reasonable and I think it would make life a lot simpler for those of us who buy faulty merchandise.

The only challenge would be enforcement but that’s where we consumers have a powerful weapon: the law. If we complain to them, the Consumer Protection Unit in the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry is required to investigate and establish whether the rules have been breached. I think these few new powers would help them become even more effective, don’t you?

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Why won’t they fix my bed?

I bought a bed from a store in Francistown in March and it was delivered to me through their Serowe branch. Unfortunately when it was delivered I realised one of the pedestals had some scratches and I made their delivery guy aware of this right away and he then promised to replace the following day because it was just about knockoff time. He didn't show up the following day as promised so I called the Serowe branch manager. She wanted me to pay for transport to bring my new pedestal but I declined because i had already paid P100 for transport. She then told me they will assist but cannot exchange with the pedestals they have in their store rather they have to wait for another stock from their suppliers. After 3 weeks I realised I was not gonna get help so I went to see the Francistown store manager who promised to help me within a week. After a week I contacted him and he said he will definitely deliver the following week. It has been 2 weeks now and he's not even replying my messages. I'm so frustrated now because I do not believe I should be incurring extra cost on phone calls and trips to Francistown on a bed that I fully paid for.

You certainly should NOT be incurring extra costs like this.

I often wonder how certain store managers sleep at night. Or do they perhaps care so little about their customers that they don’t recognize when they’re not only disrespecting a customer, they’re also abusing them?

The matter is actually very simple, simple enough for even these managers to understand. They sold you something that was not “of merchantable quality” as required by Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations. It’s simply not good enough that the item you spent you money on wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t second-hand, it wasn’t a former display model, was it? If not, you had a right to expect it to be perfect.

This business of wanting you to pay to transport the bed back to them was ridiculous, just like the rest of what they’ve said. All these excuses are completely unacceptable and I think you need to escalate the situation. I’ll contact the Managing Director of the chain of stores and see if their senior management team can take an interest. It’s about time that someone in authority did something useful to help you.

They lied about the phone!

I got a case my sister bought a phone from a store at Rail Park Mall to the value of P500. On their advertisements they said the phone has WhatsApp and Facebook but the moment I used it I found that it does not support any of those features. She tried taking it back to the store but they refused to take it back and refund her as it’s still new. They’re saying the lady who sold it to her was transferred to their Game City branch and my sister must go and look for her there.

We need your help please.

I think this store needs a lesson in the Consumer Protection Regulations. And perhaps some medication. They need to learn for instance that Section 13 (1) (a) says that an item must be “of merchantable quality”, meaning it’s “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”. The same section says that a product sold must “match any sample or description given” to a customer. So if the advertisement says it can run Facebook and WhatsApp then that’s what it must be capable of doing. And then Section 13 (1) (e) says that a supplier, like this store, “fails to meet minimum standards and specifications” if “the advertisement or representation of a commodity or service is made with the intent not to dispose of the commodity or service as advertised or represented”. Yet again, if the advertisement says it can do something, it must do that thing.

And this business about the person transferring to another store? Have they been smoking something illegal? What on Earth does that have to do with you? Are they saying that if she’d died they wouldn’t be liable? Are they insane? Haven’t they read Section 17 (1) (d) of the Regulations which forbids “causing a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”. Put simply that means they aren’t allowed to say silly things.

I suggest you go back to this crazy store and outline your understanding of the Consumer Protection Regulations. Be prepared for being the only sane person in the store.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Even more rights

Are you one of the nine out of ten people in Botswana who believe that consumers in Botswana are badly protected?

Is that even true? Is it true that we’re unprotected? I don’t believe so and that’s because I’ve read many of the laws and regulations that have been passed and issued over the years and they make good reading. In fact, we’re very well protected. In principle.

But maybe not in practice. The bad news is that I don’t think the bodies appointed by Parliament to enforce these excellent rules are always as aggressive as we need them to be. Perhaps worse, consumers like you and me haven’t been adequately taught what our rights are. How can we complain about something improper when we don’t know what’s proper?

One of the best set of rules we have is the Consumer Protection Regulations and perhaps the best bit is Section 13 (1) (a) Regulations which says that “any supplier who offers a commodity or service to a consumer fails to meet minimum standards and specifications” if “the commodity sold … is not of merchantable quality”. Merchantable quality is defined in the Regulations as “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”.

In other words, what you buy must actually do what you were told it would do or what you could reasonably think it would do. A pair of shoes that you treat with reasonable care mustn’t fall apart after only a day. A cellphone must be able to make and receive both phone calls and text messages. An insurance policy must offer the sort of cover that you were told it would offer and that a reasonable person would think it covers. No bizarre exceptions, no unexpected rules.

The big question is what happens next. If a store breaks Section 13 (1) (a) what can you demand they do to resolve the situation?

Our general rule is that when a company sells you something that isn’t of merchantable quality you are entitled to one of the three Rs: a replacement, repair or refund. No excuses or delays are permitted, you’re entitled to one of those things. However, what consumers often overlook is that it’s not up to them to decide which one they get. That’s up to the store. For instance, if your cellphone doesn’t work the store who sold it to you is entitled to do their best to repair it before offering you a replacement. That’s only fair, but there are limits. If it repeatedly fails then I think you’re entitled to assert yourself and demand a replacement or a refund

But it’s not just 13 (1) (a), there are several other protections that can help you. Some are very powerful.

One of the most powerful regulations is found in Section 17 (1) (d). This says that it’s an “unfair business practice” if a vendor causes “a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”.

Think that one through carefully. If anyone selling you a product does or says anything that is likely to confuse you about your rights or your obligations then they’ve broken the rules. If they do anything that might confuse you about what you can do if things go wrong then they’ve done it again. A salesperson that sells you something on credit who doesn’t make it perfectly clear what happens if you fall behind with your payments is being unfair. A micro-lender who says that the “in duplum” rule doesn’t apply to them is not only lying but breaking the Consumer Protection Regulations as well.

The next section, 17 (1) (e) is closely related. This forbids “disclaiming or limiting the implied warranty of merchantability and fitness for use”. Remember Section 13 (1) (a), that forbids selling something that isn’t “of merchantable quality”? This one says that a store can’t ever say that 13 (1) (a) doesn’t apply to them. The cellphone store that claims that the phones they sell only have a one-month warranty and won’t be repaired after that time, even though the manufacturer offers a one-year warranty, they’re breaking the rules. The second-hand car showroom that says that the car you bought an hour ago that broke down just a few meters down the road isn’t playing fair.

However, there’s an exception to this rule. A store IS permitted to disclaim the implied warranty if the “disclaimer is clearly and conspicuously disclosed”. That’s why you’ll sometimes see a sign in some stores that explains that they offer different conditions, such as the cellphone store that sells “grey imports” and consequently only offers a one-month warranty. But look again at what it says: “clearly and conspicuously”. So a sign in tiny letters that nobody can read isn’t good enough, it has to be so obvious that nobody can miss it.

Section 17 (1) (f) is similar. This one forbids a supplier from “entering into a transaction in which the consumer waives or purports to waive a right, benefit or immunity provided by law, unless the waiver is clearly stated and the consumer has specifically consented to it”. You can’t waive your rights under the Consumer Protection Regulations, contract law, the Food Control Act or any other set of laws or regulations unless you have specifically said you’re happy to do so. Which of course you should NEVER do. Never, ever agree to give up your rights. Not unless you want to be abused.

The general lesson here is that anyone who sells you something must be open and honest about the conditions of the sale. They can’t make up rules before, during or after the sale that disadvantage you unless you agreed to be disadvantaged. And that means in writing. It doesn’t say so specifically but that’s what these rules require. It must be in writing. How else are they going to prove that you gave up your rights unless they have written evidence to present in a court of law?

However, they all rely on one single thing. You, the consumer, the potential victim of abuse need to very carefully read and understand EVERYTHING you sign. If you haven’t read it, don’t sign it.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

When can I get my money back?

Kindly assist me. I instructed my bank to transfer P47,500 from my account to my other account at a different bank on the 6th April. I unfortunately wrote an incorrect account number by 1 digit and it was only discovered on the 21st April after making numerous follow ups and being told the money was credited into my account on the 10th. I was made to write a letter requesting the bank to correct the error. Even to date I have not been given a concrete answer. I was at one point told the account holder of the said account withdrew an undisclosed amount and the bank was still trying to locate him/her. Today I was told the account is dormant and had an overdraft so the bank has written for authority to South Africa to reverse the remaining balance and I will only be refunded the balance which is still undisclosed.

I feel aggrieved and don't know where to report the issue further as it involves two banks. Its been 4 weeks of torture for me. I made an error but I feel the bank also had the resources to verify the details provided as I gave them full names, account number and the branch code.

I can understand your frustration. However, we must start by accepting, as you do, that this wasn’t originally the bank’s fault, it was your mistake when you got the account number wrong. It’s also not the bank’s fault that the person who received the money is clearly an untrustworthy person whose overdraft swallowed your accidental payment.

However, I’ve also wondered why banks don’t seem to check the other details before completing a transfer. Don’t they check the account holder’s name and other details? I always assumed they did but it seems you and I were wrong about that. I wonder what the bank would say if you suggested to them that Section 15 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations requires organisations to deliver commodities and services (like banking) “with reasonable care and skill”. Surely basic checks like you mention count as “reasonable care”?

We’ll get in touch with the bank and see if they can’t go a little faster instead of using your money to pay off someone else’s debt.

My laptop doesn’t work!

I recently bought a laptop, only to find that​ it's defective. I went to the Police and they said it's a civil matter and there is nothing they can do. Kindly advise on how I can go about this.

The Police were right. It’s not a criminal matter, it is indeed a civil matter, an argument between two parties where no law has been broken. Let’s leave the cops to deal with crime.

However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have any rights. You certainly have a right to a laptop that works properly. Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations requires a supplier to sell things that are “of merchantable quality” which is defined as meaning “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”.

What that means is that your laptop computer must do what a laptop computer should do. It must compute. While on your lap.

You don’t describe in what way it’s defective but so long as it’s a manufacturing issue, or due to the failure of the seller to sell it properly, then you have a right to one of the four Rs: a repair, replacement or a refund. However it’s up to the store to decide which they’ll offer. A sensible store will offer to repair whatever the malfunction might be.

The only exceptions to this rule are if you caused the problem yourself by perhaps reconfiguring the device and therefore breaching the warranty, installing pirated and therefore risky software or you carelessly infected it with some sort of malware like the recent WannaCry attack.

I think you should go back to the store and assert your rights. Mention the Consumer Protection Regulations and see if that has any effect on them!

Saturday, 3 June 2017

More rights

Despite what 90% of the people in a recent poll we undertook think, consumers in Botswana are remarkably well protected.

The Consumer Protection Regulations, enacted sixteen years ago are incredibly useful tools that we consumers can use to protect ourselves and they give us rights that many other places in the world don’t offer. We even have an agency, the Consumer Protection Unit within the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry with the power to enforce them, whether suppliers and stores like that or not.

Last week we covered some of the rights but there’s a whole lot more of them that you and I should really understand.

Did you know, for instance, that suppliers must offer commodities and services “with reasonable care and skill”? Section 15 (1) (a) says that the guy repairing your cellphone or laptop is required to possess and demonstrate the sort of skills you would reasonably expect him to have. Obviously, you can’t expect miracles, so the ancient phone you inherited from one of your kids that you just dropped in the bath is probably dead. Sooner or later your ancient Blackberry will be beyond repair. However, you still have a right to expect anyone who does a job for you to do it in a reasonably careful and skilful manner.

Section 15 (1) (e) says that if any transaction is cancelled “in accordance with the terms of an agreement, advertisement, representation, or provision of law” then the supplier must “promptly restore to the consumer entitled to it a deposit, down payment, or other payment”. How is that relevant to you and me? It means that if a supplier fails to deliver your goods and you’ve given them an ample opportunity to fix the problem you’re entitled to cancel the deal and get back whatever money you paid them. It doesn’t matter if it’s the wedding photographer who didn’t take pictures, the car dealership that took your deposit and then increased the price of the car or the store that delivered second-hand goods instead of new ones. Whatever the circumstances, if you legitimately cancel a deal you must be given your money back. It’s that simple.

Then there are two sections that work together very well.

Section 13 (1) (b) says that any “supplier who offers a commodity or service to a consumer fails to meet minimum standards and specifications if” “the commodity or service causes a probability of confusion or misunderstanding as to its source, sponsorship, approval, or certification”.

A little later, Section 13 (1) (d) forbids a company from claiming that an item “is of a particular standard, quality, or grade” or that it’s “of a particular style or model” if their claims “cannot be substantiated”.

This means that someone who sells you something must be extremely careful about how they describe it. If they say that it’s a particular model, then that must be true. If they say it’s of a particular quality then that also must be true. If they say the items are from a particular country then that must be true as well.

Most importantly if they say that their item has been approved by a particular company or regulator then they can’t be lying or exaggerating. For instance, you’ll occasionally see that a piece of technology has been approved for use with devices from a certain manufacturer. That isn’t always true. In China there were cases of fake iPhone charger cables that exploded, injuring their users. Some years ago here in Botswana a reader showed us the jeans he’d been wearing when the battery in his Nokia cellphone spontaneously caught fire. The problem was that it wasn’t actually a Nokia battery, it was a replacement he’d bought having been assured it was suitable for his phone. It wasn’t. He was lucky only to have his jeans catch fire.

A supplier will also be in deep trouble if they falsely claim that an item has been certified by a particular regulator. We’ve seen cheap electrical irons that appear to have an approval mark but which turns out to be fake. They weren’t approved by anyone at all, they were fakes, extremely dangerous fakes. Luckily electrical irons are covered by one of the Bureau of Standards’ compulsory standards and can be seized and trashed if they’re not safe to use.

We all love a bargain, don’t we? I certainly do and when I see that something has been reduced in price that’s always a good thing. But is it a genuine reduction?

Section 17 (1) (a) of the Regulations forbids suppliers from “making false or misleading statements of fact concerning the reasons for, existence of, or amounts of price reductions”. So if the supplier says there’s 10% off the prices today then that must be the truth. If they deliberately increased the prices yesterday so they could reduce them the next day, claiming that the goods were now discounted, they’d be in trouble as well. Price reductions must be exactly what they claim to be, real reductions in price.

The next section is a very good one, it’s just a shame that so few people know about it. It says that it’s “an unfair business practice” if someone claims that “a part, replacement or repair is needed when it is not”. What could be simpler than that? If your car mechanic, cellphone or laptop repairman or your electrician tells you that something needs to be fixed then he must be telling the truth. But how confident are you that this doesn’t happen? Are you really sure that the people who fix things for you are always telling the truth? I’m certainly not. We’ve heard many times from consumers who’ve been asked to pay for expensive repairs that turn out to have been unnecessary, just very profitable for the repairer. The problem is that very few of us are qualified to argue with the person we believe is an expert.

With all these protections and the ones mentioned last week, I think that consumers in Botswana are very well protected. The only problem is that people haven’t been taught what protections they have and if you don’t know something’s illegal, how can you be expected to complain about it?

There’s no excuse now!

Friday, 2 June 2017

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Is the battery covered?

I bought a Huawei phone on the 28/12/2016. A month later I realized that the battery is swollen. The first week of using the phone the back cover cracked and broke. Now the battery is not working! The phone has less than 6 months! What rights do I have as a consumer?

I’m told the fact that the back cover is broken nullifies my warranty but what if the swollen battery caused the back cover to break in the first place? Do I have a case against the seller?

You most certainly do have a case against them in my view.

Certain components are often excluded from the warranty that a manufacture offers with a product, particularly electronic items such as phones and computers. Usually it’s things like the cables. However, there’s a big difference between cables that might fray because of misuse and a battery that’s swelling. That’s a sign of a battery that has a serious problem, possibly even a dangerous one.

The first thing you should do is to stop charging your phone. Don’t plug it in at all. Trying to charge a battery in this state is potentially dangerous.

Secondly you need to go back to the store where you bought the phone and explain to them that they sold you a phone that failed to meet the requirements of Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations 2001. That requires them to sell you an item that was “of merchantable quality” which means “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”. A phone battery that swells like this and potentially endangers you clearly fails this test. Their warranty exclusions aren’t relevant.

Let me know what they say.

Can I get my money back?

Can you please help me. I was contacted by a company called Hotel Express last year around November or December. I mistakenly gave them my account details but cancelled my deal with them as they wanted to take money straight from my account. They kept calling to ask if they can take the money but I refused. Then today I got an SMS that they have taken P1,700 from my account without my authorization. Can you please help me recover the money? I don't have their contact details. Please help me.

I’ve warned people about Hotel Express International many times in the past, going as far back as 2010 and it’s always been basically the same story. You get a call from someone who invites you to join their travel discount scheme, offering you discounts on hotels, car hires and flights. As part of the sales process they ask for your credit or debit card details either to check if you’re eligible to join or to establish if you’re entitled to some special level of membership. Many of the victims who’ve contacted us have claimed that they didn’t give explicit permission for money to be deducted from their accounts but that’s exactly what happened. Without explicit permission they’ve been enrolled and, like you, their account is charged and they have endless trouble getting their money back.

Given that the discounts offered by this company can be obtained elsewhere for free, you have to wonder what the point is. You don’t ever have to pay the full rate in a hotel. There are plenty of special offers and discounted rates available for you to choose from. A few months ago I stayed in a hotel in Johannesburg and do you think I paid the full rate? No, of course not. I saw a special offer online that gave me a luxury hotel room at about half of the normal rate. Did I need to pay to join a discount scheme to get this special rate? Again, no, of course not. I got the discount for free, just like I’ve done many times in the past. I even once got a discount of over 80% in a hotel in Cape Town, just by signing up for a newsletter from the hotel chain. For free.

So ask yourself this. Why would you pay to get a hotel discount when hotels give them away for free?

We’ll get in touch with Hotel Express International in South Africa on your behalf and see what can be done. Be prepared for a battle though!

For everyone else, please don’t waste your money joining Hotel Express International and whatever you do, if they call you, don’t give them your card details.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Your rights

How well do you know your rights as a consumer? In fact, did you even know that you had any rights? I think it’s time to remind ourselves of some of our rights, the rights that the laws of Botswana give us. Specifically, those given to us by the Consumer Protection Regulations.

Perhaps the most important comes from Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations. This says that “any supplier who offers a commodity or service to a consumer fails to meet minimum standards and specifications if … the commodity sold … is not of merchantable quality”. “Merchantable quality” is defined in the Regulations as “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”.

Put simply this means that what you buy must actually DO what you were told it would do or what you could reasonably think it would do. A cellphone must be able to make and receive both phone calls and text messages. If you were told that you’d be able to surf the web with it then that must be true. An iron must heat up and allow you to press your clothes. A vehicle must be capable of transporting you from A to B.

The same section forbids suppliers from offering items that don’t “match any sample or description given to the consumer” or that aren’t fit “for any particular purpose made known by the consumer”. In other words what the guy in the stores says about the item you buy must be true. If you request a particular function or capability from the store then that’s what you must be given. Otherwise they’re in trouble.

Section 13 (1) (c) is another powerful weapon. This says that a supplier has transgressed if “representation is made that the commodity is new when in fact it has deteriorated, or it has been altered, reconditioned, used or is second hand”. In other words, new means new. A store is simply prohibited from selling you something that isn’t new unless they make it very clear that this is the case. A sofa they repossessed from a customer yesterday can’t be sold as new. The same goes for a cellphone that was returned by another customer, even if they never actually used it. It someone else took it out of the box and touched it, it’s no longer new. It’s as simple as that.

One of my favourites is Section 13 (1) (e) which says that a supplier is in trouble if “the advertisement or representation of a commodity or service is made with the intent not to dispose of the commodity or service as advertised or represented”.

I think you can interpret that in a number of really useful ways. It means, for instance, that if an item is priced on the store’s shelf as P35.95 and when you get to the till they try and charge you P45.95 then they’re broken that rule. They’re not selling it as it was “advertised or represented”, are they? It also means that if something is advertised for sale in South African Rands then you should be able to pay for it in Rands. Most of us have seen this, sometimes with just a Rand sticker, other time with both a Rand price and a Pula price. I think this mean you can demand to pay using the Rands you have left over from your last trip south. In fact, you should try that next time you see something priced in Rands. The store will say No of course but it’s worth explaining to them that you know your rights and are prepared to stand up for them.

I also have a fondness for Section 15 (1) (b) which says that a supplier fails “to meet minimum standards of performance” if they quote “scientific or technical data in support of a claim unless the data can be readily substantiated”.

You know what that means? It means homeopathy, reflexology, acupuncture and all those silly electronic devices with names like QXCI, SCIO, and “Quantum Resonance Magnetic Analyzer” are all in breach of the law and that anyone peddling them and making ridiculous claims about their benefits are acting illegally.

In fact, the people who were doing their best last year to sell that last one, the absurdly named “Quantum Resonance Magnetic Analyzer” made some remarkable claims. They said that once you’re plugged into the device you’ll get “a complete body assessment” and that a “98 page report is generated reflecting various conditions of the body’s health systems producing 39 reports and 238 test results.”

They went on to claim that it can test you for 41 different areas, including “Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular”, “Brain Nerve”, “Blood Sugar”, “Immune System”, “Human Toxin”, “Heavy Metal” and “Basic Physical Quality”.

That’s nonsense. Nonsense that breaches the Consumer Protection Regulations.

Section 15 (1) (d) of the Regulations says that a supplier “shall fail to meet minimum standards of performance if” they advertise something “with intent not to supply reasonably expected public demand”. So a special offer or a discount that is advertised has to be backed up by sufficient quantities of the product to satisfy a normal level of interest. For instance a store can’t advertise fantastic reductions on the price of televisions if there’s only one discounted TV in stock.

The only exception to this rule is “unless the advertisement discloses a limitation of quantity”. So if the store only has a handful of items they want to discount and dispose of they have to be open and honest about that. All it takes is for them to say something like “but we only have 5 left, it’s first-come, first served!” Anything else is abuse.

Source: A poll conducted on May 2017 on Facebook.
Yes, Facebook, so you know it's meaningless, Ok?
These are just some of the protections that consumers in Botswana have. It’s just a shame that so few people know about them. In a recent survey we asked how well protected consumers felt they were and around 90% said that they felt we’re either badly or very badly protected and that’s a shame because the opposite is actually true. We just don’t know about it.

We do now.