Friday 26 October 2007

There ought to be a law against it

Every so often someone asks us whether we need new laws to protect the consumer. Do we need additional protection from abuse, from scams and against stores and suppliers who are trying to pull the wool over our eyes?

No. That's always our answer.

Yes, there will always be a need for new laws. As the world develops new things come along that previous law makers couldn't have imagined. Over the last decade banks have been forced to adjust to the new risks they face from money-launderers. Laws and regulations have been passed by all the civilised nations such as ours that force banks to take certain precautions to make sure the money they accept from a customer isn't actually the proceeds of crime.

More recently our government has been discussing new laws regarding cyber-crime. Yes, again this is needed because new threats are emerging that never existed before. Crooks can do things with a computer these days that were never dreamt of before.

But new laws to protect consumers? No way. We're already very well protected by the Consumer Protection Act and Regulations, by the Control of Goods Act and by the basics like the Penal Code which make theft and fraud punishable offences.

Yes, there are certain things we think should perhaps be adjusted slightly. The Consumer Protection Regulations give a long list of things that it declares are unfair business practices. However, at the end of the list it includes the following:

"any other method, act or practice that the Minister may, upon the recommendations of the Director, determine, by Order, to be an unfair business practice"

There are a few things I would dearly love to see the Minister declare as unfair business practices. First of all is the habit of many stores of forbidding you from taking a contract home with you before you sign it. Yes, you could argue that it's covered by the clause that forbids "causing a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction" but I would love to see it more specific. I want to see a new regulation that says it's forbidden to "prevent a customer from having a reasonable period to review a proposed contract before signing it". I might even go further and state that there should be a compulsory cooling off period of at least 24 hours. Both you and the store have to wait at least 24 hours before you are both committed. I've tried hard but I can't think of anything that you might want to buy on credit that you absolutely have to have immediately and can't wait a day for.

Another regulation. All contracts must have either a termination clause or a clause outlining how long the contract will last. When you get a mortgage or a bond you know how long it's going to last. When you buy something on credit you know how many instalments you have to pay. When you buy a house you know that you can always sell it some time in the future. Even when you get married you know that you can always get divorced if it turns out you've made a hideous mistake. So why does one company I can think of include a clause in their contract that makes it a lifetime commitment? Without their gracious permission you can NEVER change your mind. It's outrageous and should be made illegal.

Finally one last regulation I'm appealing to the Director of the Consumer Protection Unit to recommend to the Minister.

Can we please make it illegal to mis-pronounce "Gaborone"? I can forgive tourists from English-speaking places who make an honest mistake. It does, after all, start with a G so you can see how they might think that it's a G like in "Ghastly", "Gaga" and "Go Away". To be fair, most tourists, after being politely corrected, will mend their ways and stop doing it.

The real criminals are the people who actually know how it's pronounced and just don't care. Whether residents or visitors from down south, there's really no excuse for such rudeness. They wouldn't do it in other places. If they went to the capital of France and insisted on saying "Paris" rather than "Paree" they would get that French withering look, contemptuous muttering and dreadful service they would so richly deserve. It would be the same elsewhere. Rome is really Roma, Florence is really Firenze, Munich is really M√ľnchen.

So why do they do it here? Ironically many of these people are also perfectly happy to say "Hauteng" rather than "Gauteng" so why can't they bring themselves to say "Haboroney"?

I think that even if we can't have it made illegal we should start to stand up for ourselves. Just because someone is a customer that doesn't mean you have to take abuse. Let's all start to use our natural courtesy and in the friendliest way possible, correct it every time we hear it.

Either that or just tell them to "Ho to Gell".

This week's stars!

  • Keabebwe Paka at Naledi Motors for outstanding service and for being friendly, helpful and pro active.
  • Also from Naledi Motors, their driver Moabi Naledi for good driving and courtesy.
  • Lemogang Mphato and Phodiso Kebadiretse from Aluminium 2000 for wonderful service, who both worked over lunch while remaining cheerful and kind.

We still have Wimpy vouchers to give away. Our friends at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we'll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 19 October 2007

We need power cuts

Every day there are stories in the papers and on the radio and TV about our impending power shortage. By now we’ve all heard the warnings of the dire consequences of the problems with ESKOM in South Africa and the problems we’re going to face unless we reduce our consumption.

What we’re being asked to do isn’t that complicated. Turn lights off when we don’t need them. Turn off the TV when there’s nothing to watch. That one shouldn’t be too difficult. Seeing as there rarely seems to be anything to watch anyway that one should save a huge amount of power.

We also shouldn’t waste hot water which takes a huge amount of energy to heat. One specific plea is for us all to turn our geysers off in the evening when we get home from work and back on again when we go to bed. The critical time is in the evenings when we all start cooking, watching TV and consuming electricity like it’s going out of fashion.

The threat we’re apparently facing is that if we don’t reduce our evening consumption we’ll have power cuts. But I think that power cuts are exactly what consumers deserve and in fact need. I think they could be the best thing that could happen to us.

The main problem is that we are all hugely careless with electricity. I’m not excluding myself from this, I’m just as guilty as the next guy. We’ve all grown accustomed to seeing electricity as something that’s effectively free. We just turn a switch, press play on the DVD player, switch on the oven without every really seeing it as consuming something.

In part this is a sign of how amazing technology can be. If you consider what goes into delivering electricity to your house or office it’s a wonder that it’s so cheap. Even in a country like ours with a hugely distributed but tiny population we should be amazed that so many of us have electricity. I don’t think we notice it, it’s become almost invisible. Without thinking we leave lights on, the TV on in the background without us actually watching it, pool pumps pumping throughout the day and night. We consume carelessly.

Power cuts may actually do us some good. Maybe we’ll learn to appreciate our power supply?

Meanwhile so what if we do have power cuts? How much of a disaster is it? Well, obviously if you’re a hospital it’s pretty serious but then they all have generators for when this happens. What about you and me?

So you’ll have no lights. So light a candle or a paraffin lamp instead. They’re prettier for a start, they’re not that expensive and they can even be romantic.

You won’t be able to cook your dinner. So have a braai instead. The meat, beer and wine in your fridge are going to get warm anyway so why take them all outdoors and get cooking and drinking. Invite your loved one outdoors for a romantic, candle lit dinner.

Your electric heaters won’t work but who cares? The evenings are getting warmer so who needs them anyway. If you do get cold I’m sure you and your partner can find a way of generating a little heat can’t you?

Your TV won’t work. So live without it! Yes, you CAN do it, trust me it IS possible to survive without TV every so often. You could even, horror of horrors, have a conversation with your partner. Revolutionary I know but you’ll be surprised at what might happen!

So all in all power cuts aren’t that horrific. There are plenty of ways to pass the time during one and above all there’s one inescapable fact. You don’t need electricity to use a condom!

But can these power cuts be prevented? Can we as consumers do anything to stop them? Yes, of course we can. In fact we’re the only people that CAN stop them. BPC can’t just conjure more electricity out of a hat. Eskom aren’t suddenly going to switch off their local South African customers just to please us in a foreign country. The new power station at Morupule won’t be generating power for years. It’s all up to us.

So start saving electricity. Stop being so wasteful. Consume less and be a good neighbour. If we all understand that, as John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself” and start thinking about our community rather than just ourselves we might all benefit. Your neighbour consuming less power will help you just as you conserving resources will help him.

Finally, there is one other thing, a thing that should be of considerable interest to all consumers. Don’t forget that by consuming less electricity you’ll be saving money!

All in all I think the impending power crisis might actually do us some good. Like our recent drought which made us a little bit more water conscious this shortage of power might actually benefit us all.

This week’s stars!

  • Duncan at Game for being flexible as well as very helpful.
  • Thuso at the Total filling station at Game City for being friendly.

We still have Wimpy vouchers to give away. Our friends at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 12 October 2007

Dear Store Owner

I think it’s time for me to write to store owners and explain a few things to them.

Not all stores, just those that seem to think that disobeying the law is acceptable. In particular those with the great-looking offers of things you can take home today but you pay for over the next couple of years.

Firstly there’s our latest discovery. The Control of Goods (Marking of Goods) Regulations 1974. These are the regulations that insist that anything sold “on hire-purchase terms or by way of credit-sale” must disclose “the total amount to be paid by way of deposit and instalments”. As well as the details of how many instalments there should be, what the deposit is and so on the total amount must be displayed. What’s more they can’t hide it away in tiny little letters somewhere you’ll never find it. The Regulations go on to say that the total price must be displayed “in characters of similar size”. So stop hiding it all away from us ok? It’s illegal and if you don’t stop soon someone is going to report you to the relevant authorities.

Did I mention that the original Control of Goods Act says that if you breach the regulations you can go to jail for up to 6 months? A year if it’s your second offence.

So unless you want to savour the hospitality of the Prisons Department and their charming prison food and accommodation I suggest you start quoting the full prices. OK?

Then there’s the issue of confusing your customers. The Consumer Protection Regulations make it very clear that you may not do anything that causes “a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”. So why do you all do this?

Here’s a little secret for stores. A small but significant proportion of the people that visit your stores and enquire about your credit schemes actually work for us. We employ a huge team of mystery shoppers that help us do our day job. We are paid by several organisations to mystery shop them and then to report back on the results. It’s all very scientific, we analyse an enormous range of factors but that’s not the point, you can call us if you want to learn more about that. What matters is that many of our mystery shoppers also volunteer to go into stores in their spare time and try to expose any shady dealings we suspect might be there. Of course most of the time they come back with really good news. However, quite a few stores really aren’t thinking carefully about their actions.

For instance, what about the stores that refuse to let you see the contract they want you to sign until you actually sign it? Don’t you think that might very easily lead a customer into signing a contract they don’t understand? Isn’t that causing “a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”? How can you expect someone to understand a contract they only see after they’ve been forced to sign it?

Anyway, stop doing it OK? It’s illegal and the authorities can close you down if you don’t stop. Oh and your customers will stop buying from you when they find out.

Even if you do let the customer read through your contract beforehand you should also make sure what they are reading is understandable. What about when you get a customer who clearly only speaks Setswana and the contract is in English? Well, the law is quite clear. You are simply forbidden from:

“taking advantage of a consumer's inability reasonably to protect his interests by reason of … inability to understand the language of an agreement”

If he only speaks Setswana and your contract is only in English then you’re in trouble! What are you going to do about that?

I’m not going to tell you the answer. You can either work it out for yourself or send us a cheque!

Finally there’s my favourite. OK, I don’t mean that. The products I despise the most. Useless, fake, nonsensical health products that offer you miracles when in fact all they offer you is a dent in your bank balance. Whether it’s some ridiculous herbal rubbish that says it will cure diabetes or some wobbling electric belt that claims to melt away fat but in fact braais your stomach they’re all nonsense and all are illegal. Yes, they’re illegal.

Their crime is to promise “outcomes where those outcomes have no safe scientific, medical or performance basis”. These things simply don’t work. But then neither do homeopathy, reflexology, acupuncture or hypnosis. None of them actually do what they claim to do. Well, no more than a sugar pill does.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask for shops to start obeying the law. Almost every one of their customers does after all, very few of us are shoplifters so I think we can expect the same, perhaps even better from them don’t you?

This week’s stars!

  • Fungay at Nandos at Game City in Gaborone for being cheerful and making a customer laugh.
  • Mmoni from Wesbank for brilliant attitude and for being very respectful.

We have goodies to give away. The good people at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 5 October 2007

Illegal store credit

At Consumer Watchdog we are very fond of stores that offer credit schemes. Well, perhaps not exactly fond of them but they certainly very generously give us an enormous number of cases to investigate. Their delightful credit schemes with all those wonderful hidden charges, deceptive interest rates and nonsensical, compulsory insurance policies provide us with an endless sequence of customers who feel they have been abused, insulted and generally ripped off.

So in return for giving us all those juicy cases here's a present, a reward for stores. A series of suggestions for them. Some are just recommendations, some are handy hits and one has the full force of the law. I'll leave that juicy one for last.

Firstly let's have some openness and honesty from you. We think that every time you invite customers to sign up for a credit purchase you should give them a leaflet that describes, in very simple terms that everyone can understand, not only their obligations under the agreement but also what they can expect from you. Ideally it should be in both English and Setswana so everybody can understand it.

Also why don't you be completely honest about things like interest rates? Calculate them correctly. Tell your customers, the people who give you their hard-earned money, exactly how much all the extras are as a percentage of the cash price. If the cash price is P3,000 but using your credit scheme they'll end up paying back a total amount of P5,000 then be honest about the extra P2,000 and tell them that it comes to 67% of the cash price. If they're paying that back over two years then tell them it's an Annual Percentage Rate of 33%.

Also, let people take the contract away with them to look at overnight. The last time we checked most stores told us that customers weren't allowed to take agreements away to consider. We can only see the contracts when we sign them. That's just outrageous. What do they have to hide? We're going to do a full survey of stores and we'll report what each one of them says. Then you'll be able to see which stores are open about their agreements and which ones have something to feel ashamed about.

Please don't hide things from your customers. When you insist on including things like credit protection insurance in the agreement be honest with us. Don't tell us that it's to protect us against loss when in fact it's to protect you against us defaulting on our repayments. Don't include things like "cartage", "handling charges" or "maintenance contract" which just seem like an excuse to charge the customer lots more money.

Then there's the big one. The one that has the force of the law behind it. The one you are ALL ignoring, the one that is actually illegal. Against the law. Not allowed. Forbidden.

It's our latest discovery. It's not as big as Newton discovering gravity but we're rather proud of it. However we're a little ashamed that we didn't discover it earlier.

It's called the Control of Goods (Marking of Goods) Regulations 1974. This is a set of rules about how things that are offered for sale must be marked. It talks about how prices, sizes and weights must be displayed, how discounts must be identified and how they can use abbreviations like "½ doz" and the obvious ones like "P" and "t".

Hidden away in Section 6 of the Regulations is the good bit. This remarkable little section talks about goods that are sold "on hire-purchase terms or by way of credit-sale". It states very simply that anything sold on credit or hire purchase must show the following details:

"(a) the amount of any deposit;

(b) the amount of each instalment;

(c) the frequency of instalments;

(d) the total number of instalments;"

So far so good. If you look at anything advertised for credit sale they always show these details. However, then you get to the best bit. My favourite, item (e).

"(e) the total amount to be paid by way of deposit and instalments."

Yes, the law demands that they tell us on the label what the total repayment will be. But when was the last time you saw a store state in their advertisements what the total amount would be? I don't think I've ever seen it. I've checked as thoroughly as I can and it looks like these regulations have never been repealed so are still in force. If this is correct all the stores who sell things on credit are acting illegally if they don't tell us the TOTAL amount to be repaid. Yes, illegally.

So here's my final tip to stores. Stop breaking the law and start acting legally.

I'm going to start reading all the other laws and regulations that seek to protect the consumer. In the next few weeks we're going to start explaining them in this column and on the radio. The Consumer Protection Act states that the government must "disseminate information to enable consumers to acquire knowledge of basic consumer rights and obligations and the skills needed to make informed choices about goods and services". At the moment it's simply not happening so Consumer Watchdog and Mmegi are going to do it instead!

By the way, in case any stores that have credit schemes don't read this column we're going to write to every one of them and suggest very politely that they may be breaking the law and ask them what they are going to do to clean up their act.

I wonder if they'll say thanks?