Friday 25 July 2008

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

I recently received a text message on my cellphone telling me that I had won a Toyota Landcruiser. All I had to do was phone the foreign number they gave me and I could collect my prize. I never entered a lottery or competition so I don’t know what they’re talking about. Can this be true?

What should I do?

Delete the message. Don’t be tempted to call them back, don’t SMS them, don’t do anything other than delete the message and forget about it.

Sadly, nobody is ever going to give you a Landcruiser like that. Let’s be honest, nobody is ever going to give you a Landcruiser at all!

This is clearly a scam. We don’t know how this one works but it could involve the person at the other end either getting you to disclose enough personal details so they can steal your identity. Alternatively it could just be that you will phone a premium rate number that will run up a huge phone bill for you. It could even be one of the “419” style, advance fee frauds that anyone with an email address has by now probably received. This involves a total stranger offering you a staggering amount of money, but you soon learn that the only way you get your hands on this entirely fictional sum of money is to send an “advance fee” to pay for lawyers or export agents. Of course as soon as you pay them this money they disappear and you never hear from them again.

There are some very simple lessons here. You can’t win a lottery unless you’ve entered it. Nobody will ever just give you a fortune for nothing. You simply can’t believe everything you read in emails, text messages or even a newspaper articles. Switch on the sceptical part of your brain whenever you read anything. It may save you a fortune.

Don’t believe anything

It’s been a very lucky month so far.

First of all I learned that someone in Nigeria had died and all I had to do was respond to the unsolicited email from his poor unfortunate widow, son, daughter or pet cat (I can’t remember which) and I would get a share of the dead relative’s immense fortune that had, inexplicably, got itself stuck in a bank account somewhere.

Quite how this unfortunate person had found my details wasn’t made clear but who could fail to be moved this sad story of woe? Who could fail then to offer their personal banking details or to send over the “advance fee” that all of these messages eventually require from their naïve, unsuspecting and hopelessly gullible victims?

Then there was the later email I got from a representative of the World Bank. Well actually he claimed to represent the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Lottery Organisation and the World International Debt Reconciliation Committee. He probably also represented the United Nations, the League of Nations and The Holy Goat for all I know.

His message was cryptic but promising. Apparently they had “uncovered an outstanding unpaid/unclaimed sum of money in your name and a mandate has been given to our commitee, World Debt Reconciliation Committee, to contact you for the payment of your funds”. He told me that as soon as made contact with him my “Inheritance and Lottery Winning prize fund will be paid without any hitch”. What could be more exciting?

However it did strike me as slightly curious that despite representing almost every international organisation in the world apart from the Boy Scouts he was emailing me from a Hong Kong Yahoo address. Still, maybe that’s rising prices for you.

I made contact with this very important international representative and he asked me whether I would like the money delivered to my doorstep or whether I want to go to Spain to collect it from him personally. I’ve selected the doorstep option. I’ll let you know if, by any chance, a suitcase full of cash arrives. Somehow I suspect it won’t but maybe I’m just sceptical and not, as he hopes, gullible, naïve and idiotic.

The next incident like this happened just a few days ago when someone called us at Consumer Watchdog to ask our advice after he received an exciting text message on his phone. The message was very simple. Our caller had won a Toyota Landcruiser. All he had to do was call a number that turned out to be in Tanzania and the car would be his. Our rather smart caller was sceptical. So were we. When we looked closely, the message had come from a Kenyan number so why would we need to call a Tanzanian one?

More importantly there was a bigger point. A sad one. A truly tragic realisation that, sooner or later, we all have to accept.

Nobody is ever going to give you a free Landcruiser. It’s simply not going to happen, not ever. It never has happened and it never will happen. So give up hoping now.

The lesson from all of these messages is that miracles really don’t happen. You’ll never actually get millions from anonymous Nigerians. Nobody is going to send you a lottery payout for a lottery you didn’t enter. International organisations don’t just go round giving total strangers suitcases full of cash. They really don’t.

Then there was the last email I got that almost falls into the same category. This was the loathsome one, the one that really made me angry. All the others had either made me laugh or had depressed me when I was reminded of the incredible gullibility that abounds.

This was an old-fashioned chain email from South Africa. It began with the scary suggestion that “The Government is planning to close the child protection unit and this is a petition against it”. It then proceeded to give details of revolting cases of child murder, rape and abuse. The email had pictures attached that claimed to show the dismembered body of a baby although I’ve no idea what relevance this had to the child protection unit. I’ll be honest, I didn’t open the pictures because I have a perfectly clear idea of what horror looks like and I don’t need to be reminded.

The email is a lie. A complete and utter lie. The South African Government has absolutely no plans to close any child protection service. A quick Google search found a statement from the South African Police Service begging people to stop circulating these awful pictures and the lying email because it’s taking up their time when they should be out there catching criminals.

I couldn’t help but observe something about this and other hysterical South African emails I’ve received in the past. I don’t think any black people were on the circulation list. Every surname I could read was what you might call a “traditionally white” surname. Of course this is a very crude assumption but you probably get my point. There’s a nasty hint of racism in this type of email. There’s a hint of that feeling that is still apparent in what I hope is a small section of our South African cousins that the “black” government are doing nasty and wicked things like failing to protect children, unlike in the “Good Old Days”.

Like all unsolicited contacts from strangers we consumers have to remain sceptical. Nothing is for free, nobody is going to give you a fortune unless you’ve earned it and just because something appears in an email, don’t assume it’s true because very often it’s just a damnable lie.

This week’s stars!

  • Thandie Maitlhoko from Mascom at Riverwalk for being friendly and for going the extra mile.
  • Mrs V Botlhale from Department of Taxes for being understanding, jolly and helpful.
  • Eric also from Taxes for being helpful, chatty and friendly. Our reader asks “What is it about this Department that makes them so good”? We’re going to find out!

Friday 18 July 2008

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

I recently went to buy a personal computer from a store that advertises in The Advertiser.

When I contacted them they told me that it came with “free Windows and Internet”. However when I went there to buy it they said they would install Windows for me at no extra cost but that the Internet would only be free for the first month but then it would cost me P600 each month.

I am now suspicious about the computer and the store. What should I do?

The trouble with buying a computer is that unless you’re an expert it is easy to be confused by a salesman. All they have to do is talk techie and most of us have no idea what they are talking about, except that it sounds impressive.

Also many of the supposedly cheaper computer stores are crooks. Yes, crooks. Crooks that will sell you pirated software. It is believed that up to 80% of the computers in Botswana are running pirated software. There is no difference between pirated software and a stolen cellphone. Both are sold by criminals.

There’s no such things as “free Windows”. If you buy a laptop it usually comes with Windows installed by the manufacturer and the cost is included in the price so it “seems” free. If you buy a desktop PC you must demand that they tell you the price of Windows and any other commercial software you want to run. You should also demand original installation CDs in case you need to re-install it at a later date. If you really want to keep costs down you can always get a free suite of office programs by using Open Office from

Also, the free Internet thing is silly. Yes, the Internet IS free but connecting to it costs money.

The lesson is simple. Only buy from a legitimate, trustworthy PC supplier. It won’t actually costs you much extra and you WILL get the real thing.

Finally, before you buy check out the Shopper’s Guide to PCs on our web site.

Learn by doing

Did you learn to ride a bicycle by going on a course? Maybe you learned to drive a car by watching a video on how to do it? Maybe you learned to sew by watching your Mum doing so? Were you taught to breathe by a consultant?

No, I doubt it. I suspect that if you have any of these practical skills you learned them by actually doing them. We learn practical skills by practicing them, that’s why we call it “practicing”. The word practice comes from the Latin word practicare which means “to carry out or to perform”. Attorneys have “practices”, not because they are amateurs (we hope) but because they are “doing” it. They are practicing their profession.

So why do we seem to think, why do large organisations seem to think that their staff can learn new skills in any other way?

Of course there ARE certain things you can learn in a classroom. After all we all went to school and learned some things but think about it. How much of what we learned came from when the teacher was talking and how much came from doing the exercises he or she gave us? We learned mathematics by doing sums, we learned language by speaking it and we learned science by doing experiments.

So back to the question. Why do organisations think they can get their staff to develop skills by attending workshops, conferences and, worst of all, training courses? Ask yourself the question. What was the last course you attended when you actually developed a new skill? No, I don’t include chatting up members of your preferred gender and recovering from hangovers.

It also seems that the larger the organisation the more prone they are to making this catastrophic mistake. In the paper last week there was an advertisement from the Ministry of Health inviting “qualified consultants” to offer to deliver a (wait for it) “Customer Crush Course for Health Personnel”. No, not a “crash course”, they want a “crush course”.

To begin with I thought this was just a typographical error but then I read a little further. They want nearly a thousand staff each to attend a 5-day “customer care crush course” over an eight-month period. Now I understand what the crush will be. I spent a short while in front of a spreadsheet trying to calculate what this is likely to cost. I won’t bore you with the calculations but I suspect this training program could easily cost P2 million.

Does this matter, you might ask yourself, if this means that the Ministry of Health improves it’s quality of customer service? Perhaps it’s money well spent? Well, it would be if this approach worked. The problem is that it doesn’t.

Firstly they have already mistakenly decided that a 5-day course is the solution to a problem. Let me put this plainly. A 5-day course is not the solution to any problem, certainly not one that has anything to do with customer service.

Learning how to deliver excellent customer service is in the same category as riding a bike, driving a car or sewing. You can only learn it by doing it. You most certainly DO NOT learn it by sitting on your back side for a 5-day training program in some hotel, particularly when that training consists of presentations, group discussions and printed handouts.

Instead perhaps the Ministry of Health should give some serious thought to how these things really work?

So, you’re thinking, here we go again, Consumer Watchdog is moaning about the Public Service and it’s on-going failure to understand that customer service is as important to them as it is to banks, insurance companies, restaurants and supermarkets?

On the contrary. There is good news from the Public Service. Just last week in the newspapers and also on the Government web site they have published a “Customer Service Standards Framework”. Go to their web site at and you’ll see a link there.

These standards are remarkably specific and detailed. For instance they say that the public can expect a “response to correspondence” within 10 working days. Suppliers, whether local or foreign, can expect payment within 10 working days and you can get an Omang card within 8 days if you are in Gaborone, 10 days if you’re elsewhere.

We should all celebrate the Public Service for biting the bullet and publishing these ambitious standards. Ironically they’ve beaten almost all of the private sector in stating publicly the standards we can expect from them. They’ve been very courageous and, for once, I’m not going to be pessimistic about what the Public Service can achieve. Instead I think we should all wish them well. Then we should demand that they meet these standards. Every time it takes you longer than 8-10 days to get your Omang card, more than 10 days to get paid by them or more than 2 weeks to get a response to that angry letter you sent them you can write to them demanding an explanation.

More importantly though I think that this shows that there ARE some people in the Public Service who realise that what they should be doing is setting standards rather than sending people on ridiculous, wasteful and utterly useless training courses. They realise that if they are going to spend our money then they should spend it on things that work rather than throwing large quantities of it in the general direction of a second-rate training program.

Many centuries ago Sophocles is said to have remarked that “One must learn by doing the thing”. It’s nothing new and we all know it. It’s just that most of us don’t have vast quantities of the public’s money to waste.

This week’s stars!
  • Shakes and Shortie from Sandilands Plumbers who we’re told were incredibly helpful, patient and persistent and followed through with a problem.

Friday 11 July 2008

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

Does a furniture store have the right to take goods that I bought from them, black list me and still expect me to pay for the goods while they have sold those particular goods?

I bought a Television set from OK Furniture last year. I had problems paying my monthly instalments and eventually they came to take the TV away. I was told that I still had to pay the outstanding amount. While I do understand that I have to pay that amount, I don't understand why OK Furniture should sell that TV set, black list me and still make me pay for the set. I tried to find out from their manager but to no avail.

Do they have the right to do this?

Yes, they do.

When you bought the goods on credit you entered into a contract with the store to pay them an amount of money over a set period. When you had difficulties and stopped paying they were within their rights to reclaim the goods you had bought and sell them so they could get back some of the money you owed them. Obviously the TV, now second hand, wasn't worth nearly as much as when you bought it.

For instance if you bought a TV for P2,000 on credit, paid them back P500 in instalments and they finally sold it for P600 then you still owe them P900 plus their costs.

You should confirm that the price they got for the TV when they sold it was credited to your account. You should also ask them for a full statement of the amounts concerned.

On the subject of "blacklisting" then yes, they DO have the right to tell TransUnion, or whoever else they use, that you had a problem paying. There's no such thing as "blacklisting" as such, just credit histories that might contain details of repayment problems.

I'm sorry we can’t be of more help but if you get the figures from OK Furniture, send them over and we’ll happily check them for you.

A Consumer's Self Defence Class

There was an advertisement in the papers recently for a product called Canova. The advert described Canova as “a breakthrough to wellness”. If you believe what is written in the advertisement a young woman call Constance had been suffering headaches, dizzy spells and weight loss. As a result of all these dreadful symptoms she lost her job. She’d tried various medications but all to no avail. But then, Praise Be, she tried Canova and experienced a miraculous recovery. The advertisement says that Constance “applauds Canova for her recovery”.

I don’t believe a word of it. This is a good example of the sort of pseudoscientific claptrap against which we need to protect ourselves. We need to arm ourselves with some basic sceptical weapons.

Don’t trust anyone who is trying to sell you something that makes miraculous claims. It’s an old saying but if it sounds too good to be true then it certainly IS too good to be true. But how can you spot them? What are the signs you should look for?

Firstly if you’re going to evaluate something that claims scientific powers then you must understand the nature of science. You don’t need to be a qualified scientist, the basic principles of science are actually quite simple.

Science is based on evidence, controlled experimentation and open disclosure of the results of such experiments. In science there is no secrecy, nothing is hidden, nothing is allowed to masquerade as something it isn’t. All true scientists are open about how they experimented and they encourage other scientists to try and replicate their results. That’s one of the critical things. Real scientists understand that something isn’t accepted as plausible until another scientist, somewhere else, has repeated the results.

The Canova product doesn’t qualify. If you go to their website they appear to have quite an impressive range of research findings that justify their claims about Canova. But when you look a little closer you see something else. A complete lack of real evidence. There are plenty of pictures of test tubes, graphs and electron microscopy images but very little in the way of real evidence.

That’s one of the key self-defence lessons. Just because something is presented with glossy imagery that doesn’t mean it’s any good. You have to look a little deeper, past the claims, to see if what the supplier suggests is plausible.

To be fair their web site does give details of various experiments they claim to have undertaken but yet again at second glance these are less impressive. They were all conducted in Brazil by a small group of researchers. There’s nothing wrong with Brazil but if this product really was so miraculous you’d expect the news to have spread by now wouldn’t you? Also, many of the so-called research papers were never published so haven’t been exposed to that other great scientific test: peer review. Until a piece of research has been shown to other scientists and been made open to their criticism it’s simply unacceptable.

The advertisement and the web site both include a range of claims that are cleverly phrased. Whoever wrote the advertisement was very careful not to make any actual measurable claims about the product. It says that Canova “helps to control opportunistic infections” and “helps boost the immune system”. That sounds very good until you try and explain to yourself what it actually means.


For me, the most telling phrase in the advertisement is one of the least conspicuous but I think it suggests what this is really all about. The advertisement says that Canova “can be taken with any other medication”.

Next time you buy a real medication like aspirin, paracetamol or a decongestant read the leaflet that comes in the box. The one I’m looking at while writing this is for a simple anti-inflammatory painkiller you can buy over the counter and it lists a huge range of side effects, special precautions and symptoms of over-dosage. The reason this leaflet is there is because this medicine actually contains ingredients that DO something and that come with recognised risks. Every drug that does something has the slight risk of side effects, whether it’s a simple painkiller, the contraceptive pill or an antiretroviral drug.

Canova has no leaflet, has no side effects and can coexist with all other medicines for one simple reason. It does nothing.

You can tell this if you look at the packaging shown in the advertisement or in the small print on the web site. It’s a homeopathic remedy. Homeopathic remedies are based on the notion that a small dose of something that causes harm can cure that harm. They also assume that water retains the memory of a substance that it once encountered. The tiniest amount of a supposedly active ingredient is introduced into water and that water is then repeatedly diluted to 1/100th of it’s previous strength, sometime 30 times. That’s such a powerful dilution that after 30 cycles not even a single atom of the ingredient remains. It’s simply water, nothing more, nothing less.

Finally, let’s be cynical for a moment. If this Canova stuff really worked then don’t you think that the medical and pharmaceutical industry would have been in there like wild dogs? I’m no praise singer for the pharmaceutical industry but I DO credit them with self-interest. If there was money to be made from such treatments they’d be there right now, making lots of it.

So don’t buy Canova. Don’t buy any product that makes miraculous claims. It will do you no good other than to lighten your wallet.

And be sceptical. About everything.

This week’s stars!
  • Kebue Kebue who works as driver to the Assistant Minister of Finance who apparently is cheerful, hard-working and trustworthy.
  • Kabelo Mpatane from BHC who we’re told is extremely helpful, cheerful and friendly.

Friday 4 July 2008

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

In May I went to Super Power Doors to buy doors for my house. I found the doors that I liked and together they costed P5,700. I paid a deposit of P3000 and was told my doors would arrive in October.

Earlier this month I went back to Super Power Doors to check if the doors have arrived. While I was there I found out they had new doors in stock. The doors were much better than the ones I had chosen but more expensive. I decided not to wait until October and take one of these better doors that they had in stock. The cost of the new door after they gave me a discount was P6,500. I paid them another P3,500 and I was able to take the door.

A few days later I discovered that Builders World had exactly the same door in stock but at a much lower price. After a discount they could offer me the door for less than P5,000.

On realising this, I approached Super Power Doors and asked them to give me the difference between what they and Builders World charge or agree to have me return the door and get back my P6,500.00. They refused. Now I feel cheated because I paid a ridiculously high price for the door.

What should I do?

I’m sorry but what do you expect?

The first store didn’t deceive you, they were totally honest about the price they were charging and you accepted it without any complaint. You entered quite willingly into a contract with Super Power Doors and they have kept to their side of the bargain so why would they want to take the doors back or give you any compensation?

Unfortunately you’ve paid the price for not shopping around. When you are preparing to spend any amount of money, particularly when it’s a large sum, you really must shop around.

An outbreak of naiveté

Don’t panic. I don’t mean stupid or uneducated or ignorant. I mean naïve. Naïve is used by psychologists to mean a creature that is new to a situation or an experience. It is used by doctors to mean a patient who has not taken a particular drug before. Websters Dictionary defines it as “showing unaffected simplicity and lack of guile or worldly experience”.

Well, there’s a lot of it about.

At Consumer Watchdog we’ve had a series of people contact us over the last few weeks asking for help. They were all in situations that really did seem to illustrate the general level of naivete that abounds in the marketplace.

One person got in touch because she had bought a door from a supplier. Rather than embarrass anyone unnecessarily I’ll just call them Company A. She spent a huge amount of money on the door, took it home, had it installed and was happy. Well she was until she discovered that exactly the same door was for sale at Company B for P1,500 less.

Most of us would have been frustrated by that, would have moaned a bit but would have learned a lesson from the experience. Not in this case. She went back to Company A and demanded that they either take back the door and give her a full refund or alternatively they should pay her the difference between the two prices. Not surprisingly Company A said No. That’s when she contacted us, outraged that they hadn’t done as she had asked.

We were forced to explain to her that there was really nothing we could do to help. She had willingly bought from Company A, they hadn’t lied about anything, they hadn’t deceived her, they hadn’t done anything wrong and there was no reason to complain to anyone or expect the company to fix anything.

The only person who had done anything wrong was the shopper herself. She hadn’t done what we all should do and that’s to shop around before buying anything expensive.

We had another consumer who contacted us, distressed because he’d been “blacklisted” because his TV had been repossessed. He’d bought the TV on credit but very quickly fell behind with the repayments. The store eventually came to take the TV away but told him that of course he would still owe them the outstanding amount. By the time he contacted us, the store had sold the TV, were still pursuing him for the balance and he’d been registered with a credit agency as a bad payer. His question was “Do they have the right to do this?” Our answer was “Yes”.

He failed to adhere to his credit agreement, they repossessed the TV, they sold it as second hand, got back a little of the money but he still owed them the balance. He had defaulted on his agreement, he had failed to make the payments he agreed to. The store had every right to register him as such.

The only person at fault was the shopper himself. He signed an agreement that he probably knew he couldn’t keep up with.

Another consumer called in with a problem with a property. He had found an office to rent, but didn’t want to move in for a month so paid the landlord a month’s rent as well as a fee for writing a tenancy agreement. The next month his plans changed and he told the landlord he wasn’t moving in and could he please have the previous month’s rent back? The landlord said No and the tenant was bewildered and angry. We had to explain in simple terms that the landlord had done nothing wrong. He had reserved the property for the tenant, he hadn’t let it out to anyone else, he’d had it ready for the tenant to move in. It wasn’t the landlord’s fault that the tenant changed his mind.

In fact the landlord was cross that the tenant had just walked away from his obligations but luckily for the tenant they had never gotten around to signing the agreement so there was little that could be done.

The person at fault was the tenant for not realising that he had obligations as well as the landlord.

Of course not all the stories we hear involve customers being naïve like these cases. In most cases the customer really has been wronged, has been abused and sometimes has been lied to. There are occasional cases reported to us that are so scandalous we believe someone should be in prison, not just in receipt of angry letters form Consumer Watchdog.

But consumers don’t help themselves and their fellow consumers when they get themselves into situations where THEY are in the wrong. It IS sometimes the customer’s fault that they have been listed with TransUnion, their TV has been repossessed or they’ve just spent too much money on things. It’s time that some consumers abandoned naivete and embraced maturity, common sense and logic.

To help we’ve posted a series of Shopper’s Guides on our web site. So far these cover things like store credit, buying used cars, personal computers and cellphones. Take a look and let us know what you think. Also tell us what other products or services you think we should cover?

This week’s stars!
  • Kutlwano at Air Botswana for being patient and helpful and going out of her way to meet a customers needs.
  • Kabelo "KB" Johannes of Security Systems for showing how it can be done.
  • Lorato Mogorosi at KFC in G-West for treating customers with respect and understanding that they pay her salary!
  • Wonder Kepaletswe at Botswana Life for always making a follow up.