Saturday 30 May 2009

Motivate yourself

Last week Botswana was “lucky” enough to host another royal visit from yet another esteemed motivational business speaker but I have a confession. I really don’t understand what motivational speakers are for. Yes, you might say that they exist to motivate. But who, why and, critically, for how long?

What’s the point of motivating someone to change if the companies from which they are sent aren’t prepared to change? I sometimes think that the reason companies waste vast quantities of money sending their teams to these ludicrous events is the same reason they send them on pointless customer service training courses. So they can SAY they’ve done so. When the MD, CEO or Board of a company asks the HR Director what he or she has done to improve service delivery they can be reassured that the customer service team were sent to spend a day listening to some buffoon droning on about what a visionary he is or they’ve had to endure 5 days in a classroom watching a sequence of cretinous presentations on customer needs.

It gives a company and it’s managers that curious satisfaction that they’ve spent some money on a problem and as many companies seem to think, money is the solution to their problems. Particularly when it isn’t actually their own money.

I suspect that often the reason a company punishes it’s poor, suffering employees by sending them to these events is the idea that if their competitors are sending their staff then they’ll lose out if they don’t send theirs as well.

But none of this actually makes any sense, does it? If I’m right, and of course I always am, then there really are no reasons to waste your time and money on attending any of these things or of sentencing your staff to do so. All you’re doing is throwing money in the direction of an over-paid ego.

What’s more, you realise, don’t you, that these are people are professional speakers. They’re rarely professional managers or HR or financial management professionals, they’re usually not even professional customer service specialists. They’re trade is talking. As a trade they are closer to preaching than business.

The link with preaching is interesting. There are many parallels between these speakers and cult leaders. They both talk nonsense, they take people’s money for attending their high-energy, low-content events and they don’t actually deliver anything concrete or valuable.

Last week’s visitor was Michael Jackson. No, not the weird singer. I have no evidence to believe that this one throws his children out of windows, changes his skin colour or has more plastic in his face than human flesh. He does come up with some curious lines though.

I may be doing him a disservice by quoting the publicity surrounding his presentation rather than having actually been there to hear it for myself but what do you make of this?

“Organisations are made to survive on the terms of the customers”.

Yeah, whatever.

What about this pearl of wisdom?

“Business should strive to understand and implement the concept of being truly competitive.”

Truly inspirational. That’s in the same category as “business leaders must remember to breathe out after breathing in”.

Like many of these people his message actually seems to have been quite simple. It’s that technology and the economic crisis make it very important for companies to be competitive. The trouble is that this message is buried in a couple of hours of waffle about destiny, mindsets and challenges.

I believe that the whole motivational speaking industry is based on a deception. It’s based on the idea that you actually benefit from paying money to listen to someone whose only qualities are confidence, an enormous ego and a web site.

It simply isn’t true.

A company will only benefit from listening to, working with and learning from someone who has actually done it, someone who has actually transformed a company, someone who has actually improved the quality of service in a company, not just someone who has the ability to persuade people to give them their cash in return for a couple of hours of half-baked platitudes about how technology is the answer to everyone’s problems.

These speakers rely on our laziness. They rely on us believing that we can get away with spending a few bucks on something quick rather that really undergoing a transformation. They allow us to feel as if we’ve achieved something when, in fact, we just thrown away some cash.

If you seriously want to change your organisation or learn about how to improve the quality of the service you deliver start walking round and opening your eyes. Go to places where you know the service is great and start using your senses and your imagination.

And finally I want to issue a challenge. Can any reader supply me with any evidence, and I mean real, scientific evidence that engaging any motivational speaker, anywhere in the world, just to speak has actually achieved anything? It should be fairly simple to provide the evidence. Find me an example of a genuine improvement in the service delivered by a company and a subsequent increase in profitability that was clearly and obviously caused by the staff of a company attending a motivational speaker’s pointless presentation.

Surely if these speakers were actually worth the money they charge there would be such an example but I can’t find one and that’s probably because they don’t exist. Don’t waste anyone’s money on these stupid events. Either spend it on booze for the company Christmas party or just send it to me so I can drink it for you.

This week’s stars
  • Priscilla at FNB Main Branch for service above and beyond the call of duty to support a customer with very special needs.

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

This week we had a series of emails about scams. There really is an epidemic of email scams hitting us at the moment. Some are more obvious than others, some might not even be scams but they are suspicious enough that you shouldn’t have anything to do with them.

Dear Consumer’s Voice #1

I was offered a scholarship by a school called FUNDESEM Business School. The scholarship is called International Business Program and their website is

The scholarship request said that I had to write a motivation letter as to why I felt I deserved this scholarship, so I wrote in and I emailed it to the given email address. Soon after, they told me that I’d been shortlisted. They told me that I needed to send $100 for my admission interview which would be conducted via video conferencing. They said that the money is so they can see if my profile is appropriate. Do you think this is a legitimate reason and should I pay the money or could it be a scheme to rob me off $100 and leave me wondering?

I do await your advice as the contact person keeps reminding me that the deadline for submission of monies and other stuff is coming up real soon.

This is a very interesting one. The first impression you get of FUNDESEM when you visit their web site is that they look OK but I would NOT trust an educational establishment that demands money to interview you. You should be really suspicious of any organisation requires money from you BEFORE doing what they offer. $100 is also a lot of money for conducting a quick interview. Did they explain how this video conference was going to take place? Are you required to have a webcam to do this? Why do they want to see you anyway?

You also have to ask why, if they are based in Spain, they want payment in US dollars and not Euros?

It’s all too suspicious. We’ll dig around some more and let you know what we find. Meanwhile don’t give them your money!

Dear Consumer’s Voice #2

I got an email saying I “have won a prize money of Three Hundred, Twenty Thousand Pounds(£320,000,00.) for the month of May 2009, Prize promotion which is organized by YAHOO AWARDS & WINDOWS LIVE.YAHOO/GMAIL”.

Can this be true?

No, it can’t. This is a complete scam, no doubt about it. There are several clues when you read the email. Firstly there is no way that Yahoo, Microsoft and Gmail would collaborate on this sort of thing. Secondly big companies do not give away money like this to total strangers like you and me. Next, look at the quality of the English. It’s appalling. Don’t you think that companies like that employ some people who can write a proper sentence in English?

Finally, and this is the most obvious clue. It’s stupid!!! We’ll put the full email from these scammers on our web site so you can see the full stupidity of it.

Total strangers do not contact you offering you money. Never. Not ever. The only sensible thing to do with these emails is to delete them.

Dear Consumer’s Voice #3

I received an email from the Botswana Trade Commission offering me a “B2B Export Import Worldwide Selling Solution”. It said that they offered:

“a one-stop free trade service for buyers and sellers around the world. an online business platform providing a process covering every phase of the international supply chain with the objective of promoting export-import trade in particular. List all your products, place sale offers and sale leads, connect your product and services to the whole world...... all for free.”

I run a small business and I need to advertise. Do you think I should respond to this email?

No, certainly not. The main reason is that there is no such organisation as the “Botswana Trade Commission”. That’s a good clue, don’t you think?

You could also argue that the verbal rubbish they talk is a clue but then I have to confess a lot of real businesses and all management consultants talk this sort of nonsense as well so we should overlook that.

The other clues are that the web site links they give don’t work. Then there’s the final clue. Their email offers you the opportunity to:

“Open your Botswanan Products”.

Need I say more? Would anyone in Botswana have made that mistake?

Final lessons

Let’s face it. Life doesn’t work this way. Total strangers just don’t make contact with us, totally out of the blue, offering us jobs, education, money or opportunities for business. It simply doesn’t happen.

I can’t say for sure that the first issue is fraud but it’s very suspicious. Both the others are clearly attempts to get you to part with your cash in return for nothing. The danger is that in these uncertain financial times these scams are going to look more and more attractive to people who are feeling desperate. More and more crooks are going to emerge because they too are going to need money, our money. They’re not going to want to work for it, they’ll want to steal it from us.

That’s why we all need to become increasingly suspicious about the claims people make, particularly when we don’t know who they are.

Friday 22 May 2009

Two sides?

We’re often told that there are two sides to every story and that’s frequently the case with the consumer issues that come to us. So often we do a little investigation and we discover that the story is not quite as simple as one side would have us believe. That’s perfectly understandable I suppose, we’re rarely very good judges of circumstances when they affect us personally. So it’s no surprise that we often find that consumers have exaggerated slightly, ignored the negative things they’ve done, or neglected to do, and have selectively forgotten their mistakes.

Of course the same goes for suppliers, they can just as easily be selective when they tell their side of the story.

Yes, I’m being fairly even minded and fair, but sometimes the story can be perfectly one-sided. Sometimes there is simply an abusing party and an abused party.

Of course we all know by now who the abusers are. They are the stores that offer things on credit without disclosing the total credit price as the law demands they do. I believe that anyone who has entered into such a credit agreement has been deceived by a company that abuses it’s customers, or maybe I should call them it’s victims.

The so-called holiday clubs that ensnare people into signing contracts that they can never leave until they are dead and buried are also abusing their victims.

But it’s not always the suppliers that are in the wrong. We had a complaint recently from a customer who bought a second-hand Nissan from Barloworld. Fairly soon a number of problems emerged, some fairly minor but one related to serious problem with the clutch that caused the car eventually to break down. He reported the problems to Barloworld and they took the car in and attended to several of the problems. So far so good. However things got a little argumentative about the clutch. The customer claimed that the clutch had failed for no good reason but Barloworld weren’t so sure. They eventually arranged for it to be assessed by Nissan and their report was perfectly clear. There damage to the clutch “was beyond abuse”. The customer had, according to the experts at Nissan, subjected the vehicle to “abnormally severe driving conditions”.

In simple terms, Nissan found evidence that the customer had trashed the clutch and must have known about it. It wasn’t Barloworld’s fault.

In fact Barloworld seems to have lived up to their obligations. They fixed everything else that was wrong with the vehicle and spent a lot of time and money investigating the clutch problems. It’s not their fault that the customer had caused such damage.

At the same time as this issue we were also contacted by another Barloworld customer who had bought a car from them and hadn’t been given, despite assurances that he would, a spare set of keys. After several calls he contacted us. We went straight through to the MD who got on the case and within a day or two we got a call from a now very happy consumer saying he’d got his keys and a really nice apology from the MD. I bet he’s now a huge fan of Barloworld.

Dealing with car dealers isn’t always good news. We had a complaint recently about Barloworld’s neighbours, Lion Motors, the local Peugeot dealers.

This customer had ordered some parts for his car but following some delays had cancelled one of the items. Now the key thing is that the customer, when he cancelled that one item, knew for sure that Lion Motors hadn’t actually order it yet. They confirmed this to him. He, very smartly, put the cancellation in writing so then became angry when they later tried to charge him for the cancelled item. Despite extensive discussions on the issue Lion Motors have refused to give him his deposit back.

When the customer called us we made several calls to Lion Motors, left a series of messages and got precisely no response. Not even a courteous acknowledgement. Not even a “Thanks, we’ll get back to you”.

This isn’t my way of saying that you should buy from Barloworld and not from Peugeot. However I do think it’s fair to say that you should only buy from dealers who show their customers some respect.

My advice is that before you buy a car you should ask your friends, colleagues, relatives, neighbours and even total strangers what experiences they’ve had with the car you want and the dealer selling it.

The quality of the after-care from a car dealer matters just as much as the quality of the car. No matter how much you spend on a car, whether it’s new or second-hand, sooner or later you’ll take it back, either for a routine service or for a repair. That’s when you tell the difference between a good dealer and a bad one. That’s what you should be asking everyone about and that’s what these complaints help us understand. They give us a clue which dealer who will show it’s customers some respect or which one won’t.

So indeed some stories are fairly one-sided. Sometimes one party is in the wrong and it’s not always the supplier. In fact some suppliers do behave well and will give you respectful service. Some won’t. It’s up you to decide which.

This week’s stars
  • Peter, Mark and the team from Apache Spur at Riverwalk in Gaborone for “excellent service”. Yet again!
  • Mr Merafe, Mrs Lentswe and Lillian from the Department of Immigration Citizenship for being amazingly swift and efficient and for their “exceptionally courteous and professional service”.

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

I got a letter from a company called Citi Consulting from Melbourne, Australia claiming that I have unclaimed funds lying in Australia somewhere. They said I should send them my ID and proof of address and they would recover the money, deduct a fee and send me a cheque. The money they said is AU$8,000 but they didn’t say exactly how I came about this money. They also refused to tell me where the money is from when I called them on the phone, saying they would only tell me once they have proof of my identity.

Their website is

I lived in Melbourne Australia before, from 1999 to 2002. Can you assist me by finding out if they are a genuine company.

I am very suspicious of this. Citi Consulting is a real company but their approach starts our sceptical alarm bells ringing.

They have a web site that claims they have “dedicated teams of professional researchers” who “have recovered millions of dollars for clients from companies, institutions and governments across the world”. They list a number of ways in which they can reclaim money on your behalf. Pension contributions, insurance payments, unpresented cheques and “overpaid accounts” are all ways in which they claim they can get you some cash.

The good news is that they claim that you pay them nothing until you get paid something. Sounds good so far, don’t you think? However serious questions have already been raised about them in the past. On a number of occasions they have been investigated by regulators in Australia and have ended up being ordered to stop making misleading offers to the public. On each occasion they have contacted people like yourself who might be owed money by a company in Australia. On at least some of the occasions people have complained that what they are offering is worthless.

Did you work when you were in Australia? If you did there is a possibility that you might be owed back you pension contributions but you should certainly NOT pay an intermediary to get them back.

If it's possible that you are owed money in Australia I would start by visiting which is an official Australian government web site that allows you claim back money you are owed FOR FREE. You really shouldn't have to pay anyone to do this for you. If you are owed any money you can get it entirely for free and entirely by yourself. Isn’t that better?

Skeptical self-defence

In these days of internet-based scams, deceptions and hoaxes it’s incredibly important that we should all engage the sceptical parts of our brains. It’s very simple. Don’t believe anything you are told unless there is a very good reason to believe it. Evidence is always a good place to begin.

There are endless scams out there at the moment. This week’s offer is an interesting one. It’s not a traditional scam because they’re not asking for money up front. What they’re doing instead is relying on the fact that you don’t know that the Australian Government is one of the few in the world that are quite “switched on”. The Government themselves will help you reclaim money. In fact, when you get a chance you should visit the web site which was set up by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission which is full of fascinating information on scams and how to avoid them, money tips and educational material. This is what our Government should be doing. Our Consumer Protection Unit could do worse than emulate our Ozzie cousins.

Although Citi Consulting isn’t a traditional scam it’s still in the league below some of them.

That’s where Consumer Watchdog’s appeal to skepticism comes in. We can all do it, it’s nothing to do with education, background, gender or age. All we have to do is not believe what we’re told until there’s a good reason to do so.

In the recent past, members of the Consumer Watchdog team have been invited (yet again) to join the Success University pyramid scheme, to pay to join a silly South African coupon-based web directory, told that we should eat alkaline foods and that we should pay an American astrologer money because she felt “strong vibrations which have been amplified by the energy waves produced by the Reiki Grid which I performed for you”. We’ve also repeatedly learned that we’ve won millions in foreign lotteries, we’ve been offered millions by the supposed children of corrupt West African crooks and we’ve been offered jobs on cruise ships for extraordinary salaries.

Obviously this is all complete nonsense but the danger is that in desperate times people tend to grasp at anything that offers a magical solution to worrying problems. The truth however is that these miracle solutions are always, yes ALWAYS, fraudulent, naive or just plain stupid.

Money is going to be tight for a while, shouldn’t we all do our best to keep hold of what we’ve got and stop it falling into the pockets of frauds like these?

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Who can help?

Who can you turn to for help when things go wrong, when you’ve been abused, when you’re unhappy or when you think your rights have been ignored?

Well, there’s good news and there’s bad news. You can have the bad news first.

You can’t rely on the Government to help you. In fact it’s the Public Service you can’t rely on. Government are very good at debating things at length, concluding that action is required and finally passing laws but that’s all they can do. It’s the Public Service who are then tasked with enforcing the law. It’s the Police that are meant to stop us from driving like lunatics with a death-wish, it’s the Ministry of Health who are meant to stop charlatans from claiming that they are doctors who practice a form of so-called traditional medicine and it’s the Consumer Protection Unit who are meant to protect consumers from the more flagrant breaches of the Consumer Protection Regulations.

It’s just a shame that none of these bodies seem to do any of these things. For once I don’t think we need to see statistics to show that they are failing us. Think about it. If the Police were actually serious about doing something about the dreadful quality of driving we simply wouldn’t see combi and BX drivers driving like homicidal maniacs because they were be too afraid to do so. If there was a real risk of being stopped and hassled by the cops if they went through a red light then they wouldn’t do it.

If the regulators of health claims were serious then you simply wouldn’t see advertisements from crooked so-called “traditional doctor” charlatans because they would be too afraid to advertise their illegal and dangerous concoctions.

If the Consumer Protection Unit was a real threat to stores that held Batswana in complete contempt then we wouldn’t see furniture stores being supremely arrogant and ignoring the laws relating to store credit and attempting to deceive consumers about their charges. We wouldn’t see holiday clubs forcing people to continue their membership until their dying day because they have them trapped in lifetime contracts. Contracts that are, in my humble, non-legally-trained, but well-advised opinion, illegal, immoral and an insult to their victims.

If our regulators were worth their cost then we would see them actually doing something rather than just reading the Daily News and surfing the web all day.

A quick bit of good news is that we do now have a regulator that isn’t afraid to regulate. The admittedly horribly named Non-Bank Financial Industry Regulatory Authority appears to be a regulator that isn’t afraid to regulate. It seems that every week there’s a notice in the newspapers from NBFIRA warning us that some disreputable insurance broker is no longer registered and that we shouldn’t use their services. That’s what regulators are there for. A regulator that doesn’t regulate is a waste of space and money. Regulators that don’t actually regulate should be closed down and the money should be saved and instead given to me to spend on wine, women and song. At least I’d be happy with the spending, I’m not at the moment.

The good news is that there ARE people you can call on when you feel wronged or abused.

No, for once I’m not going to praise us at Consumer Watchdog. No, while I think we can offer support and solutions (and all entirely for free), this time I mean someone else.

I mean you.

The consumer him or herself is the most powerful enforcer of rights. You might not have legal powers to enforce the law but you have something much more useful, a very effective weapon for controlling the behaviour of suppliers. Our money. Those suppliers desperately need our money. Particularly these days when the international economy is in decline, they are going to be even more desperate to part us from our money.

Of course in hard times the sensible suppliers will offer us discounts, easier repayment terms or perhaps even a free something extra to tempt us to buy from them rather than the store next door.

The less scrupulous scumbags will be the ones that try sneakier ways of getting our cash. No, let me correct that. Some of them are that sneaky already. The stores that refuse to obey the law and disclose the full cost of buying an item on credit before you buy, as the law requires, don’t need to get any sneakier, they are sneaky enough already. The clubs that don’t tell you that it’s a lifetime contract before you sign it are crooked enough. The cellphone stores that claim they don’t offer a warranty just because they feel like it are abusing us already. None of these groups of thugs needs to get any worse in order to classify as “sneaky”.

I think that the next couple of years might be some of the best times for consumers. Sure, we’re all going to need to tighten our belts a bit, be a little more prudent and do as our parents told us when we were growing up but the balance of power is going to shift slightly. It’s going to shift in our favour. Suppliers are going to have to try a lot harder to attract us.

We consumers might soon have the power to put a couple of the sneakier companies out of business. We might be able to get our own back on the suppliers that have abused us. Wouldn’t that be fun?

This week’s stars
  • Tapiwa and Tirelo, both from Aon Botswana for service above and beyond the call of duty and for “proving that it can be done”.

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

We are a local distributor for office machines. In September last year we supplied a customer with a heavy-duty shredding machine. Since then the machine as been returned to us on 3 separate occasions and now the 4th time the customer is asking for their money back.

Each time they returned the machine to us they claimed that it was not working.

Each time we have simply turned the head of the shredder 180 degrees to fit correctly on the bin as when it was returned to us it has been returned back to front. The machines come with a safety switch which is only activated when the head is correctly fitted to the bin. The safety switch has been explained to the customer both over the phone and in person in our showroom.

We have again tested the machine and once we put the head of the shredder on correctly it works perfectly.

Please advise where our obligations stand, although the machine is still under warranty does the customer have the right to expect a full refund after 8 months if the machine is in perfect working order?

Your advice would be much appreciated.

Despite what some customer service gurus tell you, the customer is NOT always right. In fact, sometimes the customer is a real pain. Sometimes the customer is irrational, demanding and not worth your time. Very occasionally the customer is insane.

From what you’ve told us this customer is not insane but is certainly a pain.

No, you don’t have to give him a refund. You don’t have to give him anything other than courtesy. You’ve explained on numerous occasions what is going wrong and that it is the customer that is causing the problem with the shredder and that it’s not a fault with the shredder or with your service.

What I suggest is that this time you put it in writing. Explain in simple and very courteous terms how they should treat the shredder, how it should be operated and what it is they’ve been doing wrong. Explain also that while the machine is still covered by the warranty this only covers real problems with the device.

If possible it might be a good idea to attach a copy of the warranty agreement to your letter.

Of course it’s critically important that you are very polite but remember that you as a supplier have rights as well as the customer. Just as importantly the customer has obligations as well as you. They have an obligation not to mistreat or misuse what they have purchased.

Is the customer king?

No, the customer is NOT a king. It’s perhaps the commonest thing you hear from people claiming to be customer service experts but they’re wrong, completely wrong.

It’s not just kings that deserve good service. Everybody deserves good service. I think it’s wrong to suggest that you and I have to be elevated to some special status to earn the right to good service. It really doesn’t matter what level of person you are, we all deserve the same quality of treatment.

I also think that is suggests something very wrong. It suggests that customer can do no wrong, that they are somehow in charge, that they can “rule” over suppliers. That’s not true. The relationship between a supplier and a consumer is not that of a king and his subject, it’s a partnership. Both parties enter into the partnership freely, openly and with both parties having rights. Does that sound like a monarchy?

Just to make it clearer, there are occasions when the customer is a complete jerk. We were once contacted by the owners of a restaurant asking for advice. They had a regular customer who would choose something from the menu and would then, every single time, eat most of it and then complain that it wasn’t to her liking. She would then insist on not paying. On several occasions the owners had indulged her and she had got her free meal. That’s OK if it happens very rarely but the owners were now getting irritated and asked us how they should deal with the situation.

We suggested that they politely show the customer the door and suggest that she choose a restaurant more to her liking in future.

There’s nothing wrong with doing that. Consumers don’t actually have a right to buy from a particular supplier. A supplier can choose not to serve someone if they don’t want to.

This week’s letter is similar. The consumer in question is obviously the problem, not the device they bought. This supplier has every right to decline to fix it any more.

This supplier also deserves credit for being so patient and for checking up on his obligations as a supplier. See? There are good guys out there.

Friday 8 May 2009

Viral scammers

There’s a scene in The Matrix, which if you haven’t seen your kids probably have, when one of the bad guys tells one of the heroes that “human beings are a virus”. His point is that humans are destructive, spread uncontrollably and are just plain damaging.

That, of course, is just from a film and said by a baddie to make a dramatic point. However I think it can be said truthfully about scammers.

Like viruses, scammers are malign. They do damage, they hurt us, they destroy our ability to live and they deserve all our efforts to eliminate them like the disease-causing vermin they are.

Critically though, and this is my very impressive link to a current news story, scammers adapt and evolve like viruses.

Like flu it seems that scammers can evolve remarkably quickly and reappear in new, more challenging forms to infect us. Swine flu has recently emerged as what most of think as a new form of flu but in fact it’s just a “reassortment” of (experts currently believe) 4 other types of flu viruses. That seems to be one of the remarkably clever things about the flu virus. If a creature is simultaneously infected with two forms of flu, the genes from the two can mix together to form a third form of the virus. Of course it’s unlikely that any person will get two forms of the flu at the same time but in a world of billions of people it’s going to happen sooner or later. Hence this recent form of swine flu.

Scammers also evolve. Their sneaky tricks don’t just stay the same, some die out, others adapt and improve.

These days there are surprisingly few of the traditional Nigerian “419” scams. These older scams almost always followed a simple approach. You would get an email from someone claiming to be the widow, son, daughter, business partner or lawyer of a deceased businessman who had left a fortune in a bank account that required a foreigner to remove the money. There would be a hint of illegality about the transaction that would encourage you to keep quiet about the whole idea. The scam would come shortly afterwards when, in order to actually get your hands on the fictitious money, you would be asked to pay an “advance fee”. This usually took the form of a legal fee, a tax or duty or a fee to an intermediary. Of course when you’ve sent with this sum to the scammers they’ll go quiet on you.

But we all know about this now. That’s why the smarter scammers have moved on to other ideas.

I’ve written before about some of the tricks they’ve come up with instead and you can see these on our web site. All of them are “advance fee” scams but the story they use to trick you is different each time. There was the scam we discovered that pretended there was an AIDS conference in London to which the victims had been invited. All their expenses would be paid by a fictitious organisation, the victims just had to pay their accommodation costs up front. Of course, as with a conventional 419 scam that was what the scammers were after.

Most recently the scammers seem to have moved on to recruitment-based scams. In the last couple of months we’ve uncovered a variety of scams that pretend the victim has been selected for a range of high-paying jobs around the world. A group calling themselves “ITA Work and Travel” have been emailing people saying they’ve been selected for jobs on cruise ships in exotic parts of the world. Again, there’s a fee to pay up front, this time $350 as a registration fee. One victim who has already been conned managed to get a “visa” from the US embassy in Pretoria saying she could go to work there. When we showed this to the US embassy in Gaborone they told us immediately that it was a fake. Of course we knew that, you don’t ever get a visa by email and we could tell it had been adjusted on a computer but it was nice to have the experts that it was false.

Another scam that was forwarded to us was similar but offered jobs as au pairs in the UK. Same idea, same unrealistic salary opportunities, same poor use of English, the same unbelievable offers.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve received two new offers, each seemingly related to the current financial crisis. One offered me a loan “to both companies and Individual at interest rate of 3% even with bad credit”. Of course, you can tell that as soon as I make contact with them there’ll be an “advance fee” for some reason. Again the same clues are there, the poor English, the email from nowhere and the complete lack of credibility.

The last one explicitly referred to the looming recession. Claiming to be from a contractor in Hong Kong, it said:

“The statistics shows that the Economy of your country is getting better and will be more profitable in few years to come. I do hereby wish to let you know that I am interested to invest in your country through you… with the Sum of Sixteen Million, five Hundred Thousand US Dollars that I would like to invest in your country if possible.”

Different message, same scam. Sooner or later can’t you tell that there will be a demand for money up front?

Like a virus, the best way to stay healthy is to avoid infection in the first place. Ignore these emails and dump them in the bin as soon as you receive them or alternatively. Put a condom on your computer before you pick up your email.

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

Furniture stores are still advertising products for sale on credit without showing the total credit price. Is this legal?

No, it’s most certainly not. We’ve warned stores repeatedly over the last few years of their obligations under 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;
(e) the total amount to be paid by way of deposit and instalments.”

The Regulations even go further and say that these details must be displayed “in characters of similar size”. There really is no excuse for not showing the total cost a consumer faces when they buy something in credit. Really no excuse at all.

So is it possible that the stores simply don’t know about these Regulations? Yes, it’s possible but only if they’re illiterate. We’ve written to the stores several times, we’ve published articles in the newspapers, we’ve been on the radio and on the TV several times talking about it. They all know. To their credit a number have subsequently changed their advertising. Ellerines and Beares changed their advertisements very quickly, others took a little longer but all credit to them for doing the decent thing. Others took a lot longer. We’ve been in LONG correspondence with Game Stores and their various representatives in South Africa about this and they have now finally given a promise that they’ll change soon. However others like our own Furnmart and the South African Supreme Furnishers have just ignored the law.

One store, who to protect their sensitive feelings we’ll keep anonymous, responded to us by politely informing us that they complied with the terms of the South African National Credit Act. How very nice but we have our own laws in Botswana and all of them need to be obeyed in Botswana, not just the ones that are convenient to a foreign chain of stores.

So why do they ignore the law? It’s difficult to tell but it’s probably because they don’t actually want their customers to know how much they’ll end up paying if they buy something on credit. They don’t want you to know that it can cost several times more to buy on credit than it does if you buy for cash. It even costs several times more than getting a loan from your bank to buy the same item. They don’t want you to know that most furniture stores aren’t actually furniture stores. They make most of their money not from selling furniture but instead from lending you the money to buy the furniture. Most furniture stores would be better classified as money-lenders.

Can this be true? Can stores really be making THAT MUCH money from credit? Look at this real example.

We saw an advertisement in a store window for a bedding protector. If you bought this thing for cash it would cost you a mere P199. However if you looked closely at the advertisement it said that if you bought this sheet using their 2-year credit scheme you would pay a deposit of P72 followed by 24 payments of P70. Look at those numbers again and see if you can work it out in your head. Don’t bother getting a calculator to work it out, I’ll tell you.

The total amount you would repay on this item is a staggering, awesome, jaw-dropping P1,752. For something that is on sale for cash for P199! Take off the store’s profit on the cash amount and it’s probably only worth P100. If you do some more maths you can work out that this store is charging a massive, staggering, appalling 390% per year in interest.

That’s a staggering profit.

The silliest thing we see is the items offered for sale on credit, usually electrical items like TVs, DVD players and hi-fis only come with a 12-month warranty. Remember that stores will warranty something for the period they’re virtually certain it will work properly. They know that a DVD player will work for a year. But you pay for them on credit over 2 years. So when it goes wrong after 13 months you’re still paying for something that you can’t use. What’s more you’ll probably end up paying for the replacement on credit as well.

If at all possible you should avoid buying on credit. You should certainly not buy from a store that refuses to disclose the full amount you’ll be paying if you sign up for their credit scheme. How can you trust them if they simply ignore the law?

Sunday 3 May 2009

We get mail - updated

Dear Consumer Watchdog,
I can say you are unfair to online casinos after reading one of your replies to a question concerning online casinos.I searched the site that contains a lot of online casinos,pokers,lotteries and sports betting sites.I chose a casino there and has been playing it since 2 years ago. They paid me all my winnings and even when I won 50,000 dollars I was paid. So why condemn playing casino online?
Thank you.
Yours faithfully,
Grace Williams

You don't expect me to believe this rubbish, do you? How gullible do you think we are?

Frankly I don't believe your story. You didn't win a thing, did you. Be honest. What's your connection with the online casino industry?

The online casino industry is just a more extreme version of the real casino industry. The average return is less than zero and the whole thing is based on the public ignorance of mathematics and probability.

Only fools play online casinos.

Dear Sir,
I don'texpect you to believe me. Why you sing preises of Gaborone Sun and Grand Palm casinos,you condemn the online one. I am happy you agree that at least there are genuine online casinos.

Sorry, you misunderstood me. I don't sing the praises of physical casinos either. However at least with a "real" casino you know who you are dealing with. With online casinos you have no direct contact and there are NO standards that can be applied.

I do NOT agree that there are "genuine online casinos". We recommend that nobody EVER gambles online.


Friday 1 May 2009

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

On 26th March I asked Lion Motors (Pty) Ltd for prices of parts I wanted for my car. They gave me the prices and told me that they don’t keep the spares in stock, so it would take 3 to 4 days to receive the parts as they had to order them from RSA. They asked me to pay a deposit so that they can place the order with their suppliers.

The following day paid a deposit of P1,000 for them to order the parts. I was told that the order would be placed when the original person I spoke to was back the following Monday, 30th March.

When I called on the Monday I was told that the order had not yet been placed because the original employee (the only person one who knew how to drive the system) was still not back from sick leave. I was asked to call back in the afternoon as she was expected sometime during the day. I called again that afternoon and I was informed that she was not yet back and that still the order has not been placed. This time around, the supervisor told me that they are trying to get someone to assist them with the system to enable them to place the order.

The same day I spoke to a manager who eventually told me that they were still awaiting someone from head office to assist them with the system.

On the morning of 1st April I was told that they had someone to sort out the system and were in the process of placing the order. I called again the following morning but still no orders were made and when I expressed my dissatisfaction, they were very rude and in the end they slammed the phone down on me. I called back that afternoon and asked to speak to the Managing Director so I could complain about their behaviour. I also told him that I was going to cancel the order.

The following morning I called asking for their fax number so I could send a letter cancelling the order. I was told that they were now placing the order but I reminded them repeatedly that I had cancelled the order the previous day. I faxed them a written cancellation the same day and asked them to refund the deposit I had given them.

On 8th April the manager called me to say that the parts have arrived but I told him that I already cancelled the order with them. They now claim that the order was placed before I cancelled even though when I cancelled over the phone he had not yet placed the order. They also claim that as the order was a special one they won’t give me a refund.

Can you help me?

We can do our best but from our initial experience of Lion Motors (who are the local Peugeot dealers) they don’t seem to want to help. We’ve phoned them several times, we’ve explained who we are and that we’re trying to help you but they haven’t even had the courtesy to respond yet.

What you’ve done is great. You explained that you wanted to cancel an order but, most importantly, you put it in writing. It’s not your fault that they have failed to respond and honour their obligations to you.

Section 15 (1) (e) of the Consumer Protection Regulations makes it perfectly clear. They say that it is an “unfair business practice” if a supplier fails “to promptly restore to the consumer entitled to it a deposit” after a deal is cancelled. Obviously the timing is critical. If you had tried to cancel the order after it was placed then you would have difficulty cancelling the order but your case is different. You know that the order hadn’t been placed when you cancelled it so you are entitled to a complete refund immediately.

We’ll write to Lion Motors and explain the law to them. We’ll let you know if we hear anything from them!