Friday 27 February 2009

You have to admire scammers

Of course I think scammers are scumbags but I do have a slight, grudging admiration for some of them. They are, at least, very good at what they do.

A few months ago we investigated an SMS lottery scam. One of our team received an SMS saying that she had won a Toyota Landcruiser. Of course this is nonsense but we phoned the number and recorded our conversations with the scammer. He was extremely friendly and persuasive. If he hadn’t been a despicable scam artist he would have made a despicably good car salesman or indeed a good salesman for anything else he tried to sell.

We’ve put the recordings online so you don’t have to make the calls yourself. Take a look at our web site.

But the fact remains that these scams are just unbelievable. I’m sorry for saying it again but you can’t win a lottery that you haven’t entered. You can’t win a car in a competition you haven’t entered. The relatives of dead Nigerians are never going to contact you and offer you a share of their ill-gotten inheritance. None of these things will ever happen.

However there are some scams that are much more persuasive. These are the so-called “phishing” scams. These are emails that attempt to seduce you into disclosing your personal banking details. Superficially these sound unlikely to work. Who would be so foolish as to respond to an email and give away their credit card details?

Well, this week I got one myself and it was very impressive. I knew what it was immediately but it was nevertheless very persuasive. It pretended to be from Amazon, the online store that started by selling books but that now sells everything except the kitchen sink.

Let me explain why it was so persuasive. I first received one of these emails about a week ago. It started with the usual phishing approach. It suggested that Amazon are very concerned about online security (yes, they are) and that “In order to maintain the integrity of our system, we require a brief validation of your account details.” It explained what this would help “prevent or detect fraud or abuses of our website”.

At the end of the email was a link I could click on that would help me do this.

Now I knew that this was a phishing attack. I knew this because reputable companies like Amazon NEVER send such emails. Reputable companies that use web sites to do their business never email you for such things. They might invite you to visit their web site, but they will never place a link to it in an email.

What these scammers had cleverly done was manipulate my emotional connection with Amazon. I like Amazon, I’ve used them for years and I trust them. If I hadn’t known better I might have trusted an email that appeared to be from them.

A few days later I visited the Amazon web site and I bought something. By pure coincidence just an hour later I received another phishing email that appeared to be from Amazon.

So what did I do? I went exploring the world of phishing. Do not do this at home. I did this very carefully using a highly secure computer with a range of built-in security mechanisms (yes, I use an Apple).

In fact, the link in the email connected not to Amazon but to a web site based in Spain. I was lucky enough to be using software that automatically warned me that the site was untrustworthy but not everyone will see such a warning.

What I saw was remarkable. In front of me was a perfect replica of the Amazon web page where you confirm your account details. It looked just like the real thing, the colour scheme, the typeface, the content were all just like the real thing. All the links actually connected to the genuine Amazon web site. All except one. The button to change or confirm my credit card details went to a web site hosted in Germany. This next fake web page asked me to enter all my credit card details, including all the confirmation items like the expiry date and that additional 3-digit security code.

I know for sure that within moments of entering my details my credit card would either have been used or my details traded with other scammers. Either way a crook will have stolen my money.

The thing that surprised me was how professionally it had been done. I could really understand see how someone could fall for this.

However, there is a simple way of not falling for these “phishing” attacks.

Never click on a link in an email unless you know the person who sent it to you. No bank, no online store will ever email you and ask you to visit their web site by clicking on a link. Any emails you get from a company, whether you’ve used them before or not, that ask you to click on a link should be deleted. If you want to visit their web site go to your browser and type in their web address yourself. At least then you know where you’re going.

And finally, that same lesson again. Be skeptical. Just because something is said in an email doesn’t make it true.

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

My cellphone, a Sony Ericsson W800i, fell in water during the festive season. After the holidays I took it to a cellphone shop at Gaborone station. I explained the problem to the assistant and she took the phone and went into an office in the shop. When she returned she told me that I will have to pay P150 for them to repair it. I agreed and she asked me to leave the phone and come after a week.

After a week when I returned the technician asked me to give him more time and I agreed. I came back again after another week and the same guy told me to come the next day to collect the phone. I asked him if it was working and he said he failed to make it work and I could take it to another technician of my choice.

The next day I came back with the hope of collecting the phone and the technician told me to pay P30 because even though he failed to make the phone work, he made it switch on. I refused to pay the charge and the guy refused to give me my phone.

Now my question is, is the P30 worth paying? Please help me get my phone back. I reported this matter to the Police but they advised me to go to Consumer Affairs at the Ministry of Trade.

Can you help?

To be perfectly honest I do think you are being a tiny bit unreasonable. However so are the cellphone repair people.

Given that the store had your phone for quite a while and that they clearly were working on it I think they deserve something for their time. They did get it to switch on so they clearly weren’t completely ignoring your phone. P30 seems reasonable for what they did.

On the other hand, they should have mentioned this to you before you left the phone with them. It would have been reasonable for them to say that it will cost P150 if they get it working but P30 even if they don’t. At least then you would have had the choice.

Technically they should give you the phone back for free, mainly because they didn’t tell you about the P30 in advance. However, they have your phone and is it really worth the fuss, just over P30?

Frankly it’s probably not worth the bother over P30, is it?

Thursday 19 February 2009

A holiday from abuse?

We all need a holiday occasionally, but perhaps what we need more is a holiday from being abused by holiday clubs.

Yes, we’ve had another problem reported to us about holiday clubs. Before a certain company gets angry and threatens us with all sorts of legal nastiness again, I don’t mean “The Holiday Club” specifically, I mean holiday clubs in general.

Just to refresh your memory, in 2007 we reported on the problems various consumers had reported to us regarding a company called Suntide, who trade as "The Holiday Club". The problem they had was that once they had joined they weren’t permitted to leave. The contract they signed was “irrevocable”, something they could never cancel. We reported on the facts that were reported to us and commented that we felt it was unfair never to allow consumers to terminate a contract, even when they had paid everything they owed. That is just unreasonable. You can close a bank account, you can terminate a lease, you can even end your marriage if you follow some basic procedures and settle your debts. So why couldn’t you terminate a contract with The Holiday Club, that’s what we wanted to know.

So what was their reaction? They instructed their lawyers to send us a variety of threatening letters saying we had defamed them, interfered with their freedom to operate and that we had accused them of being cruel to cute, furry little animals.

Of course we hadn’t done any of these things. We wrote back to them on various occasions and told them to get a grip and leave us alone. Which they did, we didn’t hear from them again.

Now we’ve had another complaint, this time about another holiday club. This time it’s a company called Flexi-Club. The problem goes like this. While on holiday in South Africa a few months ago a couple, presumably after a few of those brightly-coloured drinks with the little umbrellas, were sweet-talked into signing a Flexi-Club membership application. In fact, they signed a 1-year credit agreement to buy the initial membership.

Remember how these clubs work. You pay an initial membership fee that includes a number of points that dictates the value of the holidays you can take. You then pay an annual fee that is dictated by the club for the on-going maintenance of your membership.

The problem that this consumer faced was that once they got back home from their holiday they realised that that had hopelessly over-extended themselves. Along with bond repayments, food, school fees and everything else they simply couldn’t afford the membership. They phoned Flexi-Club, emailed them, wrote to them and faxed them, sent them blood and other bodily fluid samples, pleading with Flexi-Club to let them change their minds. No such luck.

Of course it’s true that they DID voluntarily sign a contract. Nobody held a gun to their heads, they weren’t in fear for their lives. What’s more the credit agreement they signed to pay the initial membership fee did, in fact, have a cancellation clause. OK, a perfectly useless cancellation clause. It says that they can change their minds but only within 5 business days and only if they did so in writing. Which of course was useless because they were on holiday at the time. The cancellation clause also doesn’t count if they signed the agreement at Flexi-Club’s office.

So the problem is that once you sign the contract you’re committed and there’s little chance you can get out of it. However, then there is the other problem. Nowhere in the contract and regulations that the consumer was given does it describe how they can change their minds after they’ve paid the membership fee. There’s no obvious way they can terminate their membership of this “Club”. That’s the problem with holiday clubs in general. They all appear to be lifetime commitments and that’s wrong. It’s particularly wrong as they rarely, if ever, tell you this before you sign the contract. You only find this out when you change your mind later.

That was the problem with The Holiday Club and it seems to be the same with Flexi-Club. It’s very easy to get caught but very difficult, if not impossible, to escape.

We contacted Flexi-Club to ask about how members can leave but they have treated us the same way they treated the consumer who contacted us. We’ve been ignored.

So what’s our advice regarding holiday clubs?

Steer clear of them. They’re not even a very good way of taking holidays. They give you little flexibility, there are huge restrictions on when you can go on holiday, where you can go and, most importantly, they only provide accommodation. They don’t pay for your transport, food, drink or entertainment. You are much better off going to your local travel agent and finding what amazing special deals they have on offer.

If you do a quick search of other consumer advocacy web site you’ll see that we are not the only ones warning people about holiday clubs in general and certain clubs in particular. You can see some links to these reports on our web site. If you fancy some amusement you can also see some of the threatening letters we got last time as well as our very polite letters back to them suggesting where they could stick their silly threats.

This week’s stars
  • Khumo at Air Botswana yet again for outstanding customer care, for energy and dedication.
  • Willem and the entire team at Cafe Dijo for running an incredibly friendly restaurant.

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

In May 2008 I paid a Real Estate Agent called Mossbee Business Services a deposit of P5,500 for a property they had offered to rent me. However, when I later went to collect the keys so I could move in the manager told me that the property was no longer available at the rent we agreed. I was very disappointed but asked him for my deposit back.

The manager, Mr Moses, promised me that he would repay the deposit and in June 2008 he gave me two cheques but these both bounced. In July he sent me P3,000. I keep asking him to repay the balance but so far I haven’t received a thing.

What can I do?

You can do exactly what you did. You can us.

We spoke to Mr Moses from Mossbee and asked him why he hadn’t paid you the balance he owed you. He gave us a sob story about cash flow and financial difficulties but we explained to him that this really wasn’t your concern. We explained to him that he owed you the money and that you had been VERY patient by waiting so long.

Mr Moses assured us that he would pay you the balance by Tuesday 10th February or the following day.

Update. The consumer called us on Wednesday 11th to tell us that she had called Mr Moses on Tuesday 10th to see where her money was. Apparently he told her he had promised us that she would get the money by “midweek”, not a specific date. He told her that he doesn’t know when he’ll have money for her.

So we called him again and he promised that she would get her money by Friday 13th.

Then we gave Mr Moses some encouragement. We told him that if she didn’t get the money on Friday 13th then we would tell readers of The Voice the entire story. We also said we would mention Mr Moses’ name. We would also mention that he runs Mossbee Business Services. Do you think we’ve done that enough yet?

Given that this consumer is still owed money that clearly should have been refunded she has several courses of action. She can call the Police, she can instruct her lawyers to drag Mr Moses to court or she can call the Real Estate Institute of Botswana who regulate the activities of real estate agents like Mossbee. They have the power to cancel the membership of a company who fail to meet certain standards. By failing to repay a deposit and by bouncing cheques perhaps?

Friday 13 February 2009

No end to naivete?

“No end to naivete?”

Yes, I know I’ve been going on and on about scams and scammers recently but it really seems that there’s no end to them.

Last week I wrote about the “John Major Foundation” scammers that had ripped off a theatre group in Francistown. They were supposedly offered a trip to the UK to attend a conference that didn’t in fact exist. Neither, of course, does the John Major Foundation.

However the scammers behind this fictitious organisation managed to persuade the group to pay over P18,000 for the accommodation they were expecting to enjoy in London. Of course anyone who has stayed in a hotel knows that you don’t pay for accommodation in advance. You pay when you check out, not before you’ve even checked in, not before you’ve even arrived in the country. You would think they would know that, don’t you?

Perhaps you’d also expect them to have been suspicious that this supposedly respectable Foundation operates using a free email address? Perhaps you would expect them to have been suspicious when they asked, not for a cheque, but for a Western Union transfer to pay for the accommodation?

But there’s no end to naivete. There’s also no end to people’s inability to stop digging, despite already being deep down a hole. That’s one of the things that scammers rely on. They rely on your emotions winning the battle against your common sense. Of course some people aren’t blessed with much common sense to start with. They’re at a natural disadvantage.

Other people seem naturally gullible. There are people who really believe that homeopathy, reflexology and energy medicine do something. There are people who believe joining a pyramid scheme like Success University will make them millionaires. There are people who believe that TV evangelists and preachers in flashy cars are genuine messengers from God and not just thieves. There are people who believe that total strangers will call them up and offer them millions of dollars, a free car or an all-expenses trip to the other side of the planet.

I’m not sure if it’s good news or bad news but we’re not the only ones who fall victim to ludicrous scams.

37,000 Japanese investors recently fell victim to a remarkably unbelievable scam. I suppose it says something about his ingenuity that Kazutsugi Nami was able to persuade so many people that he had invented his own currency and that they should give him their Yen in return for his imaginary “Enten”. Unbelievable, don’t you think?

Not so. Nami, a former bedding and health food supplier was able to persuade all these people that his new electronic money was soon to become an accepted currency. His investors were apparently promised annual returns of nearly 40%. A bizarre twist was that these returns WERE sometimes paid, but only in more Enten, not real money.

Eventually of course the whole fraud fell apart and Nami was arrested and charged. Some of his victims lost fortunes but least some of them seem to have learned their lesson. One 70-year old woman who lost the equivalent of over P100,000 was quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald as saying, “I was stupid. It's my fault as I was greedy.”

Not everyone is as realistic. When Mmegi contacted the Francistown group last week about the scam that we had discovered their organiser told the reporter that they were still not convinced that it was a scam. This is despite there being no John Major Foundation, no HIV/AIDS conference in London scheduled for the dates suggested and the John Major Foundation website being registered to an address in Lagos, Nigeria.

She was quoted as saying that she had no doubts about the invitation and that they expect to leave for London on February 25 to attend the conference from March 2 to March 12. "We are still waiting for our accommodation confirmation," she said.

She’s going to be waiting for a very long time.

Denial is a very powerful force in the human mind. We can all persuade ourselves that something is true or untrue despite all the evidence. We can persuade ourselves that buying on credit is a good idea and not going to cripple us financially. We can persuade ourselves that eating too much and not exercising isn’t relevant to us. But denial is something more.

Denial is almost wilful. Denial involves some deliberate self-deception. Smoking is a good example. Everyone knows smoking is dangerous. Everyone now knows that at least half of all people who smoke will die as a result of it but smokers still take the risk.

Surely everyone knows, deep down, that total strangers don’t cough up free cash, holidays or profits? Surely we all know that, don’t we? But so many of us seem to fall victim to that catastrophic mixture of gullibility, denial and, let’s not be ashamed to say it, greed. It’s greedy to want money, travel or fame without working for them.

Surely as consumers we DO know when we are being abused? Let’s be honest, it’s NOT actually that difficult to tell when you are being ripped off. Store credit as a sensible way to buy things, investment schemes offering amazing returns, lottery wins, free trips around the world, international job offers you didn’t apply for, they’re all too good to be true.

Of course I know things aren’t going to change overnight, there will always be the gullible who fall for scams but let’s do our best to be more skeptical?

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

I received an email from someone I didn’t know which said:

“I was refered by Mark who suggested I contact you regarding a free listing on our new website. Personally I dont think the timing can be any better. The world is on the brink of a recession and you have a choice - cut costs and shrink your business OR grow your sales.”

It described how “In the world of direct marketing, vouchers are the most visible type of offer made to generate a response or motivate prospects and customers to take action. They're a direct incentive for prospects to visit or call you. And once you have a customer in front of you, you can sell more, inquire more and work on creating a lasting relationship.”

“We have launched a new electronic discount voucher service on the web called Mawandi Hyper Discount Store. Via this platform to help you distribute your discount deals, bargains, vouchers and competitions to thousands of South Africans.”

It went on about these vouchers and how they can help me to boost my business. Apparently consumers would get a voucher, although it wasn’t clear how they would get them, and the voucher would encourage them to buy things from me as a result.

Do you think this sounds legitimate? Should I respond?

No, I don’t think you should.

There are several curious things about the email you received. Firstly it came from a Gmail email account. There’s nothing wrong with Gmail accounts, many people have one but they are not the sign of a legitimate business.

Then there’s the introduction. It said “I was refered by Mark who suggested I contact you”. Which Mark? Who on Earth is he? Also did you notice the spelling mistake? Later on in the email there were other spelling mistakes. Again, not the sign of a very professional company.

Then there is the lack of real detail on how this would work. A truly useful business idea would be simple to understand and not just a series of hints, veiled promises and vague ideas.

Then there’s the research you can do. Go to the Internet and search for “Mawandi Hyper Discount Store” and guess what you find? On a South African web site you find an entry which says:

“Direct Sales - Earn R9360 Per Month. Mawandi Hyper Discount Store provides you the opportunity that could change your financial position forever... You earn a monthly commission of 20% every month from those advertisers/customers recruited by yourself. ”

Here we go again. This is a rather feeble direct selling scheme with a very dubious web site selling virtually nothing at all. You won’t make any money from this silly scheme. Delete the email and tell all your friends not to fall for it either!

Monday 9 February 2009

ATM Use - hoax email

There is a hoax email going around that suggests that if you are held up at an ATM you should enter your PIN backwards which will alert the Police.

This is a hoax. It does not work.

See the story at Snopes and at Urban Legends.

*_In the spite of armed robbery, here is something you may really need._*






Friday 6 February 2009

Another scam - "The John Major Foundation"

I’m depressed. I really am. It’s not the recession that’s depressing me, in fact I think that’s a great challenge that I’m sure we can rise to. It’s not rising food prices that are troubling me although I do think that’s a worry and I think we should expect more from Government. No, before you misunderstand me I do NOT think it’s Government’s job to step in and dictate what food should cost, what farmers should grow or where it can be sold. That’s the Zimbabwean Government’s approach and that’s why our Zimbabwean brothers and sisters are starving. What Government should be doing, in my slightly humble opinion, is encouraging us to become a little bit more self-sufficient.

Why isn’t the Ministry of Agriculture distributing leaflets educating us on growing our own food? They employ agricultural specialists, surely they can give us guidance on growing veg at home? If every one of us started growing some spinach, some tomatoes, some fruit, we wouldn’t be hugely successful farmers but we WOULD save a little money, we would have some delicious food and we would contribute just a little bit towards our environment.

No, that’s not what’s depressing me.

It’s scams again. Normally I’m either amused or angered by scam artists. I get outraged and start writing about it, posting guides on our web site and doing something constructive. This time I’m depressed.

On 22nd January Mmegi reported on what seemed like a minor triumph. A Francistown-based theatre group called Ghetto Artists announced that they were flying to London courtesy of the John Major Foundation to contribute towards a conference on HIV/AIDS. You may remember that John Major was the Prime Minister of the UK and this foundation was his brainchild. Ghetto Artists are a theatre group who do lots of community activism work to help spread the message on HIV/AIDS.

So far so good, a very pleasing news story about one of our local groups doing well for themselves and being recognised for doing good work.

On the 29th January Mmegi reported on the story again but this time there had been a disappointment. They were informed by a certain Reverend Charles Wilson from the Foundation that he had:

“a privileged report that they received from British metropolitan police stating that ‘some participants who will be arriving in London are planning to carry out an act of terrorism’.”

As a result the trip had been postponed.

When I read this alarm bells began to ring in my head. I know London well, I lived there for over a decade. The Police in London don’t go around giving secret briefings to anyone, even if they are a foundation apparently run by the former Prime Minister.

So I started Googling. The John Major Foundation has a web site but curiously it didn’t work. Using a few Internet tricks I was able to dig a little further. The web site ( is registered to an address in guess where. London?

No. It’s registered to an address in Lagos, Nigeria. Are the alarm bells ringing yet?

Dig a little wider and you find that there is simply no such organisation as the John Major Foundation. This is a scam.

So I called Ghetto Artists and spoke to their co-ordinator. Understandably she was very upset to hear of the scam. Rather optimistically I asked her to confirm that she hadn’t given them any money, had she?

Too late, she had. They had already sent them P18,000 for accommodation costs.

That’s the key objective of this sort of scam. It’s the “advance fee”. It doesn’t really matter how the scam works exactly but at some point in almost all of these scams the scammer will ask you for money up front. It might be a transfer fee for a bank transaction, legal fees or in this case accommodation costs that’s what the scammer is really looking for.

Tragically this case had, as it’s victims, some good people doing good work. Of course, you might argue that they had been naive and gullible but that doesn’t make it their fault. The real crooks are the Nigerian scumbags who have ripped off a group of decent, dedicated people. That should never be forgotten.

I suggested to Ghetto Artists that they should call the Police and make a complaint. Of course there’s very little the Police can do, there’s virtually no way they’ll get the money back. However the more people that come forward to talk about being scammed the less likely someone else is to fall for it. It’s also important that the Police and any other authorities can measure the scale of the problem. We’ve all heard of people becoming victims of these scams but nobody can really say how many there are.

Maybe if they had this sort of information the authorities could start co-ordinating their actions, maybe even talking to the Nigerian High Commission about action that can be taken in Nigeria and perhaps even educating the public about these scams.

However that’s not going to happen, is it? I’m afraid we still need to rely on the media, on Mmegi, on Consumer Watchdog but more importantly on ourselves, on our own skepticism, on our own judgement.

If you’ve been scammed please consider letting us know so we can help spread the word to other people and help them avoid falling for it.

You can see more about scams and how to avoid them on our web site.

This week’s stars
  • Tepho at BBI for brilliant service and being polite, helpful and knowledgeable
  • Good at Mascom for excellent service

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

I bought some shoes for my son from Options in Game City. My son was not with me, but I bought what I thought would be the right size. Unfortunately, they were too small so I took them back for a refund.

When I went back the next day, I explained that I wanted a refund as the shoes didn't fit my son. The manager said to me that the store doesn't give refunds and that I could only exchange the shoes for something else. I pointed to a sign that was posted there which stated clearly that the store gives refunds if product is brought back within seven days. He then told me that he didn't have the password for the cash register and that only the owner can do so and they were away for the holidays. He asked me to come back after the holidays. I told him that if I came back after the holidays, it would then be more than seven days from the purchase. I asked him to write down on the receipt that I did come on time and he told me to come back later. I even asked him to write his name.

When I went back after the holidays, I found the sign about their refund policy had been removed. There were still marks where it had been posted, but it was gone. As a result, they refused to give me a refund. Instead, I had to buy some other items, which I really didn't want. I don't know if the sign is back up again, but it seems the store went to great lengths to deny me a refund, which their policy clearly stated that I deserved!

It sounds like you’ve not been given the service you deserve. At least Options had a statement explaining their returns policy but it sounds very strange that it disappeared when you tried to exercise your rights and get a refund.

You were entitled to a refund, the law is really that simple. So long as the goods you bought hadn’t been extensively used or damaged you were entitled to get your money back. All that silliness about not having the password for the cash register is totally immaterial. That sort of thing usually suggests that a store doesn’t want to help you.

Despite being forced to choose a different product to replace the shoes I think you should write to Options and demand they do something better to make you a happy customer again. Let us know what they say for themselves.

Thursday 5 February 2009

John Major Foundation - update

Mmegi reported on the scam on Thursday 5th February after we warned them but the bad news is that the people from Ghetto Artists still appear to be in denial.
Ghetto Artists outreach programme manager, Katlego Mononyane, says that they have not had any doubts about the invitation and they expect to leave for London on February 25 to attend the conference from March 2 to March 12.

"We are still waiting for our accommodation confirmation," she says.
You can see the report here.