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.