Saturday, 6 March 2021

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Can I be cleared?

I would like to enquire if you can assist me to get ITC clearance, after settling full payment of the account.

I have fully paid a furniture store account on December 2020, which was handed to some debt collectors. Still to date I find my name listed under ITC. I trying to seek help from the debt collectors, there's no assistance. What do I do?

The most important thing you can do is to keep talking.

Credit reference bureaux like TransUnion and the others make money by holding records of customers and their debts that they can share with other potential lenders. Lenders like banks, micro-lenders and furniture stores pay these bureaux to record and then share our data so they can all lend money more carefully.

Are they allowed to do this? Yes, 100% they are. They can do this because we said they can. Hidden in our loan agreements, hire purchase contracts or credit agreements is a clause saying that if we fail to pay our instalments then they can register this with these credit reference companies. If you don't believe me then go and check your contracts right now. It's true.

The good news for the future is that the new Data Protection Act will force these companies to be much more open about this and will force them to allow us to see what the hold on us. However, despite being a very powerful piece of law, it's still not enforceable (Government, what are you doing about this?).

Another bit of good news is that credit reference bureaux do a good job for the majority of people who pay their debts carefully and without problems. They make it easier for these people to get loans because lenders can see who is most likely to be an easy, uncomplicated, profitable customer. They also allow lenders to keep interest rates a little lower by avoiding bad debtors.

In your case there seems to have been a mistake. If it's true that you have paid off your debt then the furniture store needs to update your records and call off their debt collectors. Today.

And for those of us who DO owe money to debt collectors? The lesson is simple. Talk to them. If you owe money to someone the very worst thing you can do is try to avoid it. Talk to them and you might be surprised how reasonable they might be. Most lenders would rather get something back instead of nothing. They'd rather get their money slowly rather than never at all.

How can I spot a scam?

(Several people asked me to post this warning again.)

There aren't many pyramid and Ponzi schemes active right now but you can be sure they'll be here very soon, doing their best to recruit people by promising them vast profits. A few months ago Crowd1 was busy, despite being declared illegal in various countries around the world. You might also remember people desperately trying to recruit others into a "WhatsApp gifting" scam that promised to multiply the money people paid to join. Both were just scams that relied on gullible victims joining and then recruiting multiple levels of victims beneath them.

Here's a simple recommendation. Whenever someone invites you to join their money-making scheme, ask yourself WHY they're inviting you. If they've found a way of making money, why are they sharing it with you instead of keeping it to themselves? The answer is very simple. Anyone inviting you to join their scheme is trying to make money FROM you, not WITH you.

Another clue is products. Real businesses have products and services. Scams don't. Or if they do, or they only pretend to have them, but they don't really matter. They are primarily interested in recruiting other people and then getting them to recruit even more. You'll often hear the promoters of these schemes defend themselves by insisting their scheme isn't a pyramid scheme because there are products. Others will say it's legitimate because anyone can earn more than the people above them in the pyramid. That's all excuses. What matters most is the word "primarily". Section 9 of the Consumer Protection Act says that if "participants in the scheme receive compensation derived primarily from their respective recruitment of other persons as participants" then it's a pyramid scheme. It's not difficult.

Then there's the Bitcoin angle. As I've said before, Bitcoin is a legitimate but very high-risk cryptocurrency that is a fascinating vision of how money might work in the future. However, it must never be seen as an investment and it's surrounded by a huge number of scams, pyramid schemes and Ponzi schemes. A good example was BitClub Network, whose founders are being prosecuted in the USA for running a scam that stole $722 million from victims around the world. That actually had no connection to Bitcoin at all, it was just an enormous Ponzi scheme and there were plenty of victims in Botswana.

The simplest lesson is to be skeptical. Don't believe anyone who claims you can make large amounts of money with little effort or just by recruiting other people. Anyone who claims this is either lying, deluded, na├»ve or desperate. Don't believe it! 

Saturday, 27 February 2021

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Where's my refund?

I need assistance as I am at my wits end. In December 2020 I applied for admission to university. I received communication that I had been accepted. On the 31st December I made a payment to the university not only for the registration fee of US$ 50 but also a semesters fee of US$ 1,079.

Consequently by the 10th of January unforeseen personal issues cropped up. I knew I wouldn't be able to study online. I immediately notified the university via WhatsApp. They acknowledged it. Subsequently I have been inundated with calls and emails to register, to join zoom classes etc.

Upon enquiry I was told that I should ignore them. I was asked to write an email informing them about my decision. Which I did. I followed every protocol the university website stated.

My battle is to get my refund. Last week Thursday I spoke with the financial department. A man there was extremely rude to me. I reported his actions in an email to the Distance Learning's Head.

I was informed that the university only ever makes payment once a week on a Thursday and that by 18th February I should received notification but I have received no proof of payment. This being 6 weeks now from start of refund process. I am at my wits end as I am being pushed from pillar to post. I am being fed platitudes upon platitudes. All I ask is for my refund. 

The good news is that this university has a policy on refunds. They also have a web site that describes the process and you've followed those instructions properly. That's all the good news.

The bad news is that they're useless. And at least one of their staff is rude. And escalating the issue to a senior manager seems to have no effect. That's not the level of professionalism that you have a right to expect from a company that took a large amount of your money.

Back to the good news. I'll contact the head people at the university and make it clear that they should show that they can adhere to their own procedures and treat their customer with the respect they deserve. As a high-level institute of education they should be able to learn a lesson, don't you think?

How much is my refund?

I am in need of your assistance. I bought a service from a company for installation of a solar system for an amount of P27,500. This was on December 15. The system has never worked not even once since installation. These guys have been trying to get it running up to today they are failing dismally. So today I asked for my money back since the system is not working. They guy is saying he can only refund P26,000 instead of P27,500. He says he is covering his costs of going to the site many times. But who's fault is it? It's supposed to be his because he offered me a service that never worked so I want my money back.

Kindly advice on what to do to get my full refund back.

I think you should tell him exactly what you've told me. You paid for a working solar system and that is exactly what you're entitled to get. Or, if there's a problem, you're entitled to a refund. An entire refund. Not a partial refund. I don't care if he had to travel to the site many times". That really is his problem, not yours.

Section 7 (6) and (7) of the Consumer Protection Act says that when "goods or services are not availed as advertised, the consumer shall have the right to cancel the contract (and) the supplier shall refund the consumer the amount paid". I suspect that this guy sold you a solar power system that he suggested would work properly? He failed.

Maybe you should also tell him that Section 15 (1) of the Act says that a consumer "has the right to receive goods which are of good quality, in good working order and free of defects".

This guy owes you P27,500. And an apology for saying silly things.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Is this fair?

Around March 2020 I borrowed the sum of P2000 at 25% interest to be paid on April. Unfortunately on the 1st of April we were on national lockdown and I couldn't pay the amount because I was not working and it was impossible for me to make money. On September I paid P1000 and on November I paid P1000.

Now they summons me and demand I pay a total amount of P3291.25. Is this fair and how do I deal with the matter.

Is it fair? Certainly not. Is it possible? Yes, certainly.

We have to remember that microlenders don't lend money because they're feeling generous. They're not charities, they're businesses and they're in busines to make money. Sometimes lots of it. And they make it from those of us who borrow from them.

The first problem with microlenders is that borrowing from them can be outrageously expensive. This one is charging 25% per month which is a wickedly high interest rate. It's many times the interest rate a bank or a large lender might charge. The second problem occurs if you default on the repayments. Your circumstances don't matter in the slightest to the lender, if you're behind with your payments they'll charge you interest on the outstanding amount and then interest on the interest you previously owed. Very quickly you can find yourself in a situation like yours.

The good news (and it's actually not that good) is that the amount of interest the lender can charge you when you settle the debt is limited by what lawyers call the "in duplum rule". This says that when a debt is settled the amount of interest can't be more than the amount of the original amount you borrowed that's outstanding. It means the maximum possible interest they can charge on a loan of P2,000 is another P2,000. They're allowed to add a little extra for their expenses but you should perhaps count yourself lucky they're not demanding more from you.

The most important thing you should do right now is talk to the debt collector who summoned you. Explain your circumstances and do your best to arrange a repayment plan that you can afford. You'll be surprised how willing most debt collectors are to do a deal. They'd rather get something than nothing and slowly rather than never at all.

Finally, if you are summoned to court please make sure you attend and explain your circumstances to the magistrate. If you can show that you're doing your best to repay your debts then you should be lucky.

How to deal with a complaint

We heard from a consumer recently who had made a terrible mistake. He bought building supplies from a supplier last December and when, after a couple of months, they still hadn't been delivered he did what every consumer should do in a situation like this. He cancelled the deal, found the supplies elsewhere and asked for a refund from the first company. Was that his mistake? No.

When the supplier failed to make the refund, he then posted a complaint in the Consumer Watchdog Facebook group. Was that his mistake? Again, no.

The supplier then threatened to sue the customer for complaining in public, claiming that they had lost business as a result of his complaint. They demanded that he apologize "for 5 days'. He refused. Was that his mistake? No.

He then complained to us directly and we got in touch with the supplier who implied that they would sue us too. Was that his mistake? No, that wasn't a mistake either.

Finally, he complained about them to the Competition and Consumer Authority. No, before you ask, that wasn't a mistake either.

So what was his mistake? It's simple. He chose a supplier so arrogant and insecure that they threaten to sue customers who try to exercise their rights. It wasn't his fault but it will be a mistake for anyone else to give that company money. No, we won't name the company although if they do ever sue either the customer or Consumer Watchdog, it will become obvious. And then every consumer can decide whether they're grown up enough to deserve our money.

Saturday, 6 February 2021

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Are these scams?

Mr Harriman, how we can we spot scams? My friend invited me to join Solmax saying we can make a lot of money. My other friend says I should join a scheme called PetronPay. Are these legit? 

Many people have asked me about both of these schemes and my answers have always been the same. It doesn't matter what name a scheme uses, if someone invites you to join a money-making scheme there's one simple fact you need to know. Anyone inviting you to join such a scheme wants to make money FROM you, not WITH you. 

I've already done some research on Solmax and it's complicated. The people recruiting others to join Solmax are actually inviting you to join a scheme called Igniter Pay, which they claim is an "internal project" of a company called Igniter 100 which then trades as YouRemit which is setting up as a money transfer service. They say that Igniter will be listing on the London Stock Exchange later on 2021 but there's no real evidence this is true.

While recruiting people they make claims such as "In Solmax you invest £100 Today … which can provide you with about £2000 next year same time" and that "Over 119.9 million people are into Solmax". They also claim that you earn a "direct bonus" of 10% of any investment made by people you recruit. So what's the truth?

It's a scam.

Like all such scams, the people running it will make lots of money from the people they recruit. Those recruits will make the organisers rich until they're caught and prosecuted.

PetronPay is very similar. It's another scheme that promises enormous returns that are completely unbelievable. For instance they claim that you can earn 2.5% return every day. Let's do the maths. If you "invested" P1,000 on 1st January this year and earned 2.5% interest daily and reinvested that each day, by 1st January 2022 you would have a balance of P8,207,500. Do you really think this is likely?

Like Solmax, PetronPay is a scam and is therefore illegal. Anyone promoting it, or even joining it, can face a fine of up to P100,000, five years in prison or both. Please don't waste your time, money, energy, relationships and freedom on these scams.

I'm paying twice!

At the end of November I got a loan with an agreement that they will pay off a loan from my previous lender. Now both lenders are deducting money from me because the first lender says they haven't received anything from the second. Its now 2 months and both offices are saying they can't help me. I'm now in financial problems because of that. Please help me sir.

I'm very happy to speak to both lenders to find out what went wrong and to encourage then to fix their mix-up. However, I think there's a more important issue here. If you are borrowing money from one lender to pay off a loan from an earlier lender then I'm scared that you might be in a spiral of debt.

When faced with debt many people think the solution is to borrow even more money to pay off earlier debts. In my experience that's a sign that their debt might be out of control. In these cases, it's time to seek some professional advice. I can put in you in touch with ethical debt counsellors who can help you to take a hard look at what you owe, your income and help you develop a plan to rationalise what you owe.

I know it's easy to say, but debt can be a crippling burden. Of course, there are some types of debt that are reasonable. Very few of us have enough money to buy a house for cash and that's a situation when borrowing money from a bank is a reasonable thing to do. Also, in most circumstances a property will increase in value during the term of the loan so it probably makes sense. However, you should ALWAYS be careful when borrowing money to buy something that will lose value, such as a vehicle.

The lesson is simple. While debt can sometimes be a sensible thing, it's something we must approach with great caution and only after we've sought advice from experts. Remember that lenders don't lend money because they're kind and generous people, they do it to make money from the people who borrow from them. It's their business to make money from us. Be careful.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

They won't fix my phone!

Hello Sir, I need your help, I took my phone for screen repair on 21 December 2020. On 22nd the phone went blank and I took it back to the shop and they refused to help me. I went to the Consumer Affairs office to report on the 19th of this month and they told me they will call the man but they haven't got back to me.

Please help me. 

Yet again a store needs a little education on their obligations. Or maybe they know their duties already and have decided to ignore them? Either way they need to fully understand that consumers have rights and aren't afraid to use them. 

I messaged the store inviting them to consider their obligations under the Consumer Protection Act and asking whether they might be more helpful. They responded by saying they offered "no guarantee" on screens of brand new phones and that the receipt also said there was no guarantee. They also said that you agreed to this by signing the receipt before collecting the phone.

Well, that's nice but it's also nonsense. I messaged the store telling them that they're surely aware that Section 15 (1) of the Consumer Protection Act says that a consumer:
"has the right to receive goods which are of good quality, in good working order and free of defects".
I also reminded them that Section 16 (2) of the Act says that a consumer: 
"may return goods to a supplier in their merchantable or original state, within six months after the delivery of the goods, without penalty and at the supplier's risk and expense" 
if they failed to offer goods in working order.

As for their claim that you agreed not to have any rights, that's also silly. Section 23 of the Act forbids a supplier from requiring a consumer to "waive any right" or allowing a supplier to "waive any liability".

This supplier has clearly failed to honour their obligations under the Consumer Protection Act. They have also failed to treat you with the decency that a decent company would offer. Do they really want to be famous for this?

My phone doesn't work!

Please assist me, I bought a phone in December and I am always missing calls it rings sometimes and most of the time it doesn't ring, I can't even take pictures. I went to the shop about the issue of not taking pictures. They said memory card could be having viruses which I always bought from them and they formatted it I went home withing 2 days the phone did the same thing. Today I went back to ask them to either give me another phone or I top up and get a better one the lady refused and said they don't exchange and they don't refund, they wanted to remain with the phone and fix it. I couldn't leave it because I thought since the phone doesn't even have a month they can help me better. Please assist they even refused to give me the owner/managers number.

Ok, is this yet another cellphone provider that thinks the law doesn't apply to them?

Maybe not. I contacted this store and they responded quite quickly.

They said
"Good morning Sir. Indeed the customer came here complaining about the memory card of which we formatted. The second time he came saying the memory isn't working and he has now removed it but he didn't bring the memory card to us. The third time he came with the card of which I replaced and gave him a new one."
So hopefully this will fix your problem. It's a shame it took us to escalate the issue but at least there's been some progress.

The lesson here is never to give up. If a store lets you down, just politely assert your rights, explain what you need them to do and very often they'll be reasonable people and fix your problem. If that doesn't work, then escalate the problem to the management and that might help too. If that doesn't work, then you can always come to Consumer Watchdog.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Should I pay them?

Help! I received an email saying that I had visited pornographic web sites and that a hacker had installed malware on my computer and they had used the camera and the microphone without me knowing to record me while I watched pornography.

The email said that they had also installed a hidden application which had a second function to extract all my contacts from social media, phonebook list and emails.

The man said I must pay him $500 using Bitcoin or the video of me watching pornography will be sent to all of my contacts.

What must I do? I don't have Bitcoins and don't want to be exposed. 

Don't panic. Nothing is going to happen to you. You're safe. 

Despite the threats included in the email, you can feel safe that this is nothing more than a threat. The so-called hacker hasn't hacked your computer, they didn't record you watching porn and they didn't steal your contact details. They are not going to expose you and not humiliate you in front of your family, friends and contacts. This is just a scam designed to exploit the lack of knowledge people have about computers, the internet, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and technology in general. They rely on people either having a guilty conscience, or being terrified of being embarrassed. Or both. They rely on emailing thousands, if not millions of potential victims and hoping that just a few people will respond by paying them.

I can reassure you that they are emailing huge numbers of people because the very same day you emailed me, I got the same threatening email. I bet many readers of The Voice received the same email.

Just delete the email, add the sender to your Junk mail file and move on.

And finally, just to be safe, make sure your computer's firewall is switched on and any antivirus tools are up to date. These don't need to cost you any money and despite what a new laptop might tell you, there are plenty of free options.

Must I take the tablet to be repaired?

Good day Mr Harriman. I need your help, I bought a tablet for my son in Molepolole on the 16 December 2020. After 2 days of opening it it wasn't working and they took it for fixing. I got it back on 6 January 2021 but by evening it wasn't working. I went to them on 7th January they are suggesting I use my own expenses to take it back to their technician because there is nothing they can do. Please help what can I do?

You can explain to them that in 2018 the Government of Botswana introduced the new Consumer Protection Act. This replaced the older version of the Act and it reaffirmed a simple fact. If a supplier sells goods that don't work, they have three options. They can choose to replace the item, repair it or offer the customer a refund. It's their choice to decide which option they select but they MUST select one of them. They can't choose none of them. I suggest you tell them that it's Section 16 (3) of the Act they need to read, understand and remember. They need to stop making up stories about it being the responsibility of customers to help fix problems that are the supplier's job to fix.

You should also tell them that the next section of the Act, 16 (4), says that of the same problem happens again within three months of them repairing it, they don't get another chance. Then they only have two choices, a replacement or a refund. Given that they've already used up their one opportunity to repair the tablet, their options are now much more limited.

Ask them which they prefer, a replacement or a refund because those are the only options left open to them.

If they still argue, tell them that for a small fee I'll educate them on their obligations under the Consumer Protection Act. Correction, make that a large fee.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

When should they take my money?

Please educate me here. I have a policy with an insurance company and I signed that they take their money every last day of the month. For the past few months its not been the case, they take their money around the 5th, 8th, 10th which is not part of the agreement. The other month they did the same and found nothing in my account and my bank penalised and charged me P150 for that and still I had to pay them premiums. Can you explain to me why this is happening?

I'm sure many readers of The Voice will have had exactly the same experience. Maybe not with an insurance company but perhaps with their bank, network provider or any other company that takes regular payments from their bank account.

I suspect this all depends on what it says in the contract you signed with the insurance company. What were the precise words in the section about payments? Did it say the exact date that the payment would be taken? Or was it a bit more flexible than that? Did it say that payments would be taken on a specific date unless there was a reason not to? Did it perhaps say that the insurance company will normally take it on the agreed date unless they want to take it on some other date?

Regardless of what agreement says, there's a bigger issue. Simple courtesy. If a supplier such as an insurance company or bank needs to take money earlier than expected they should at least have to courtesy to tell me first. Or perhaps even to ask me if it's ok? Or to check whether it's going to inconvenience me or cost me money. The simple fact is that the insurance company were rude to you and that's not acceptable.

We should both contact them and remind them that courtesy costs nothing but brings forth respect.

A bed or a refund?

Hello Mr Harriman, I paid for a bed worth 1.5k in December 2019. I left the bed at the shop because I didn't have transport at that particular time. In February 2020 I found transport and told them that I am coming to pick the bed but the lady gave me endless stories that she is not at the shop so no one will help me, So I gave in. In September I called her again that I am coming to pick the bed she gave me a screenshot where she asked her boss if the bed is available and he said no and she told me it will be available after a week. I reached her after a week and she told me the bed is not available. In October I called her again that I am coming and she told me the shop has moved to a different place and i asked for her boss's number. She gave it and I asked for a refund and he also gave me endless stories and empty promises up to this date they are failing to refund me. I am so disappointed in them and if supporting local mean this its a problem now.

I can understand your disappointment. You paid for a bed more than a year ago and you still don't have it. That's completely unacceptable. You have every right to cancel this deal and walk away with your money refunded to you in full.

The bad news is that I've heard very similar complaints about this company before. They have a long history of mistreating customers like you and failing to deliver decent products in a decent way. That doesn't mean we can't get you a refund, it just means that this might be a bit of a struggle. However, it's a struggle I'm looking forward to!

The unfortunate fact is that some companies don't deserve to succeed, they deserve to fail. Those companies that sell decent products at decent prices and serve their customers with respect and care deserve to become fabulously successful. The others, the ones like this company deserve to lose every customer and shut down. It seems harsh but that's how business works. This company should close as soon as it's met it's obligations.

Like giving you a refund.