Thursday 29 October 2009

Who has rights?

We’ve been getting phone calls at the office. Unfortunately none of them were offering us large quantities of money (hint), free brand new Jaguars (hint, hint) or anything romantic (hint, hint, HINT!). Instead a number of them seem to have been inspired by one of the issues we covered recently and which seems to have provoked a response. This issue began when a consumer called us asking about a vitamin company called GNLD. Her email said:
“What’s the difference between them and other vitamins and supplements as they cost anything from P300 upwards for one month’s supply which I find ridiculous! To me it’s clearly a pyramid style business or something like it, to my husband it’s an option for ‘better vitamins’ (that we don’t normally take anyway!) even though so expensive?”
My response was twofold. Firstly I don’t believe that we need to take vitamins or dietary supplements. Well, OK, perhaps you might need to if you’re pregnant, old or already unwell and your doctor has suggested it would be good for you. Maybe then you should. However, those of us who are basically healthy certainly don’t need to start popping pills. Instead we should spend our money on a healthy diet and lifestyle.

In fact I suspect that vitamins and supplements run the risk of making us worse off. Taking pills to boost their health distracts people from focussing on those things that WILL make them healthy. I can imagine people arguing that as they swallow vitamin pills their health is therefore guaranteed. They probably give some people an excuse to have an extra beer, burger or box of chocolates.

Other than the unnecessary vitamin pills there is a wider issue. GNLD is what is politely referred to as a network marketing company. It’s not, strictly speaking, a pyramid scheme because there is a product at the heart of the mechanism but it has the same structure. You recruit people beneath you to sell the vitamins and in turn they recruit more people beneath them. Add in a complex mechanism of commissions and payments and you get a pyramid-shaped selling scheme.

So what, you might ask, if people are making some money? The trouble is that they don’t. The vast majority of people DON’T make money from these schemes. The evidence from companies like Amway and World Ventures shows that about three quarters of the people who get involved either make nothing from the business or lose money. The quarter that does make some money on average only makes a tiny amount. On the World Ventures web site they confess that in 2008 70% of their recruits made no money at all from the scheme. Of those that did make money, the median earnings were a pathetic $114.60. Then, hidden away in the small print it says:
“These figures do not represent Representatives’ profits; they do not consider expenses incurred by Representatives in the promotion of their business.”
So that $114.60 is before they’ve paid their expenses, like their phone bill, internet charges, transport and materials?”

Don’t waste your money on these vitamins or pyramid-shaped get-rich-quick schemes. Spend your money on fruit and veg instead.

I’m convinced that many of the callers we had were actually involved in the GNLD scheme. Most of them refused to give their names but just asked questions about who we were. However I had a conversation with one of the callers who was prepared to talk. She claimed to be impartial but seemed to know rather too much about GNLD to be a disinterested bystander. The most interesting question she asked though was to do with us, not GNLD.

“What gives you the right to criticise them?” she asked.

At the time I couldn’t think of a smart, witty and entertaining answer. I couldn’t because I was stunned by the question.

I think the problem is that I’ve lived in democracies for too long. In fact I’ve never lived in a country that didn’t permit free speech. I think I’m so used to being able to say pretty much what I want that I’ve not given much thought to having a “right” to do so. Of course we all know there are limits to what we can say, even in a democracy like ours. The great American Supreme Court judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes said:
“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”
Clearly there are some limits on what you and I can say. We have no right to endanger someone’s life, happiness or liberty by what we say.

Meanwhile we have an absolute right to criticise misconduct when we see it. So long as we don’t go too far and invade someone’s privacy or publish irrelevant personal information we have a right in Botswana to criticise companies when they get it wrong, we are permitted to tell them and to inform the public about their wrong-doings. In fact I’d go further. I think that we have an obligation to do so.

It’s not just newspaper columns that have a right to criticise and complain. We all do. Again I think we have a moral obligation to. It’s not just ourselves we’re defending, it’s our friends, families and neighbours.

So that’s where I get the “right” to criticise GNLD, their largely redundant products and their pyramid-shaped business model.

This week’s stars
  • Omphametse, Godfrey and Dineo at the Engen filling station at Square Mart. Our reader says they’re pleasant and helpful every time.

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice 

I hope you will be able to assist me. In January 2009 I went to Supreme Furniture store and bought a lounge suite on credit for 1 year which will end in December 2009. In February I went back to them to complain about the lounge suite. It took them 4 months to address my complaint after I complained and it was only in June that they finally took my chairs for 6 weeks after they told me that it will only take a week for them to fix the chairs. When they finally returned the chairs they weren’t properly done. They took the sofas for 2 two weeks but still the sofas are not properly done. I complained again and again but to this date they have not responded.

Can you help?

Yes, we can!

This is quite clear. Supreme sold you something that clearly wasn’t “fit for the purpose” as they are required to do by The Consumer Protection Regulations. If you can’t sit on a chair or a sofa only a month after buying it then clearly it’s not of “merchantable quality” and they’ve failed to meet their legal obligations. I also think that by taking so long to fix your furniture (and finally failing to do so) you could argue that they’ve also failed to render a service with “suitable care and skill” as also required by the Regulations.

Surely this would have been a situation where they should just have replaced your goods?

We got in touch with the MD of Supreme and the good news is that he told us you will be getting entirely new furniture from them. It’s a shame this didn’t happen when you first raised the problems but better late than never I suppose.

Let us know when this happens?

Some updates

Expired goods

Last week we reported on the case of the store that had sold a consumer expired baby porridge. She bought it in September and only noticed that it had expired 2 months earlier when her baby got food poisoning and ended up desperately unwell. She approached the store and had apparently been offered a totally non-magnificent P17 (yes, seventeen Pula) in compensation but the store had refused to cover the medical expenses. They said they would be in touch when they processed an insurance claim but following that the consumer reported that they had proved rather elusive.

We got in touch with the store, Spar Meriting in Francistown, to see what they were going to do. The store admitted that this incident had happened and assured us that all the expired products had been removed from their shelves as soon as they found out about the problem. However it’s still a little worrying that the goods were on the shelves for TWO MONTHS before anyone noticed. I thought that stores checked these things. In fact I KNOW that stores usually check these things.

The store also told us that they were going to offer the consumer TWICE the purchase cost of the goods. Yes, that’s a massive P34. However on top of that they are indeed going to process an insurance claim to compensate the consumer for the medical bills they incurred treating their baby. They’d better. We’ll let you know when they’ve done this.

GNLD update

Last week we answered a consumer’s question about GNLD, a network marketing company who sell vitamins and supplements. A number of their distributors called us and criticised us for suggesting that consumers should steer clear of any network marketing scheme. I also don’t think they liked us reporting that, on average, about three quarters of all people who get involved in one of these schemes either make no money or end up poorer. Those that do make any money usually make so little that it’s not worth the bother. We also pointed out that unless you are already sick, immuno-compromised or pregnant you don’t need to swallow vitamin pills. Spend the money on fresh fruit and vegetables instead; you’ll be healthier, happier and wealthier.

One caller asked a question that I promised to answer in The Voice. Who allows us to criticise GNLD? The answer is simple, free speech in a democracy allows us. No, in answer to the caller’s other questions we’re not registered as a society, an NGO or (this was the insulting bit) a Government department. Consumer Watchdog is a division (yes, it IS registered with the Registrar of Companies) of a privately owned company. We don’t need a licence to criticise GNLD, we don’t need Government permission and we certainly don’t need GNLD’s permission.

University of SouthCentral Los Angeles

There’s still no response from this pretend university that says it is in Los Angeles but in fact is registered in the British Virgin Islands and sells PhDs for $850 and who got cross when we revealed their scam.
The Voice and Consumer Watchdog 1 : Fake Universities 0.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Response to the WorldCOB email

Our response to their email - see below.

As you requested I gave consideration (extremely briefly) to your request to remove the posts on the Consumer Watchdog blog that relate to the Bizz Awards and the "World Confederation of Businesses".

Curious how there is not a single reference to anyone called "John Williams" associated with WORLDCOB anywhere on the Internet (other than on our web site where we've posted your email).  Does he actually exist?
End of email.

Friday 23 October 2009

The Bizz Awards (again)

Do a Google search for The Bizz Awards and you'll find loads of companies claiming the prizes as if they're something special.

However, there are many people who have seen through them (1, 2, 3, 4 (in French) translation here).

One other thing.  On their web site they claim that they:
"have been registered as members of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) continuously since October 2005.  The BBB guarantees the information trustworthiness and delivery of the benefits offered to the companies selected for this award."
That's not actually true.  The Better Business Bureau have registered WORLDCOB but they make it very clear what this means:
"BBB accreditation does not mean that the business' products or services have been evaluated or endorsed by BBB, or that BBB has made a determination as to the business' product quality or competency in performing services."
Hardly the same thing.

We get mail - The Bizz Awards

Following our comments on the "World Confederation of Business" and their so-called "Bizz Awards" they have emailed us.  It goes like this (their email is shown in blue, quotes from their earlier emails are in red):
Dear Richard,
We are aware of the fictitious company information you submitted. Unfortunately, at times our representatives are unable to immediately verify company information by email or telephone and they give out general information. You have to understand they don’t only deal with one company, but they have to notify and congratulate over fifty winners for each European and African country to which they are assigned. Once you submit the application forms (attach), the company information is re-verified and some companies are rejected at this stage. Had you proceeded with submitting forms, your application would have been declined. You will find that participating companies have excellent reputations.

Are they serious?  "General information"?  Their email to my fictitious company said:
"It is my pleasure to congratulate you once again (...) your company has been chosen for your: ·        Managerial Leadership, that involves the capacity to make adequate decisions,
·        Management Systems,
·        Quality of your products and services,
·        your creativity,
·        Innovation,
·        Social Responsibility,
·        And results obtained."

The "application form" they attached is a self-completed form.  It's not completed by someone nominating the prize winner, it's completed by the prize winer themselves!  A self-nomination form?  Click here if you want to see it.

They continue...
"When it comes to our products and services, you are under the impression that we sell the awards. Every company that has earned this recognition is entitled to contact our office and ask for the award at no charge and it should have been offered to you. We sell memberships to our business association (which among other benefits includes dozens of business networking and training events yearly) and we sell seats and dinners at our award productions. Over 2,000 companies have chosen to participate and pay for these things and they always receive what they pay for."
Yes, I AM under that impression.  The same email that confirmed that the fictitious company had won the prize said:
"in order to participate to EXPOBIZZ and the BIZZ AWARDS 2009, and to receive all these benefits for one year, you can become a member of our organization for the exceptional cost of $3,530 (three thousand five hundred thirty American dollars)."
Yes, their email did also say that
"two official honorary titles made at your company and General Manager’s name" (and that) "These certificates will be sent to you by post for free."
but when my fictitious company asked for them everything went quiet.

Their email continues:
We are aware that we don’t inspire confidence at all times and have even received inquiries by AmCham that led to favorable physical inspections by Duaine Priestley, US Export Assistance Center Director with the US Department of Commerce.

It is a shame that you post this on a Consumer Watchdog blog, calling us a scam and harming our reputation, when we are a positive factor in the business community. Please consider removing your posts. We wouldn’t still be around if we have been scamming the 2,000 companies that have signed up over the past five years or the business community in general. We hope this gets resolved amicably and that you realize that your perspective was incomplete.
Best regards,

John Williams

As they asked nicely, and as I'm a very nice guy I did consider removing the posts.  Briefly.  Then I decided they could stay.  I'm grateful that they got in touch and I'm happy to present their side of the story to the public but they've not said anything that has changed my mind.

The truth, on this occasion, is simple.  Real prizes are free.  You shouldn't have to pay to get a prize.

The worm is turning

I suppose it might be fitting in the week following our general election that I was thinking about whether, as a nation, we are apathetic or not. Let’s be frank, that’s the stereotype of the people of Botswana, that we are fairly passive, rather slow to take action and reluctant to get off our backsides when we need to.

But I don’t think this is always true. There ARE times when we DO get off our rear ends and do something about the challenges that face us. The election is a fairly good example. In a nation with a long history of democracy you might think that we‘d be complacent, seeing elections as something a little boring. Also given that, although we are a democracy, we’ve only ever had one party in power you might think that voters might wonder what the point in voting might be. However you, like me, saw the queues of people waiting to vote. The impression I got was of widespread enthusiasm. Every single person I spoke to, with one solitary example, had registered to vote and was certain that they would exercise their democratic rights.

So what has this to do with consumers?

It shows that, as a community, as a nation, that we can show backbone, energy and motivation when we feel the need. Never before have these skills been more needed among consumers. Luckily there are examples of consumers fighting for themselves.

Last week I wrote about a prize scam. Several people received emails out of the blue from a company calling itself the “World Confederation of Businesses” announcing that they had been selected for “The Bizz Awards 2009".

The email said that the award had been based on “on-line surveys and a questionnaire called “Business excellence questionnaire”, market research and official data from Internet statistics, and from the Chamber of Commerce.” Of course this was all nonsense, it was all lies.

I know this because I set them up. I took one of the emails someone had been sent and replaced their details with those of an entirely fictitious company, one that simply doesn’t exist, one they had never contacted, one I made up. This was not a company at all, it was just an email address.

Yes, you’ve guessed it, they got in touch and confirmed that the non-existent company was definitely a winner, based on all that research they claimed to have done.

So what was in it for the “World Confederation of Businesses”? How could they benefit from giving away prizes? Here’s the answer. They were in it for the $3,530 fee I would have to pay them to get my award. That’s about P24,000. That’s on top of my travel and accommodation costs for the prize ceremony in Houston, Texas. I reckon the total cost would have been around P60,000.

That’s why they were giving me a worthless prize.

The good news is that not everyone was falling for this. There was the original reader who sent over the email he had received; he was skeptical about it and suggested we should investigate further. Then, after last week’s article I got another email from another potential victim. Similarly, he had also realised that the prize was too good to be true.

Having a few minutes free he had also told the con artists what he though about them. This is what he said:
“We have been bombarded in Africa with phoney businesses claiming we are winning something. Just because most of us are from poor family backgrounds we get hoodwinked and buy into your clap trap. The next you know you are booking into someone personal account and your money is lost. Surprisingly the perpetrators are often people of African origin mainly from West Africa who milk millions from many people. Thank you for the offer. See you when you see me!”

Excellent. Not only does he see through their ridiculous prize offer and realise that it’s a scam but he also tells them what he thinks of them. Maybe if more people did this they would leave us alone and stop trying to rip us off?

This sort of thing is happening more and more often. Increasingly consumers are coming to us and not asking if something is a scam, instead they’re telling us that something is a scam that they themselves have discovered and all they ask is that we publicise it so that other people won’t fall victim to it.

We’ve also been hearing more often from people who are offended by the pyramid schemes and health scams that sometimes threaten to overwhelm us. Whether it’s vitamin pills, weight loss schemes, travel scams or pseudo-educational and self-improvement claptrap, they’re all there to steal our money. However, as these scams evolve and become more and more sophisticated, we as a community of consumers are becoming more educated and more critical.

I think that we are witnessing the start of something new, perhaps even the emergence of a new scepticism among consumers. It really does seem that as a community we are becoming more suspicious of silliness, more resistant to scammers and more opposed to abuse from crooks, sharks and charlatans.

We have reason to be proud. We are the oldest democracy in Africa. Perhaps we can become Africa’s first truly skeptical nation, a nation committed to reason, rationalism and rejection of nonsense and abuse? I hope so.

This week’s stars
  • Every one of the intelligent, skeptical and patriotic readers who made contact with us recently to tell us about scams.

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice
My wife bought expired purity baby porridge from Store X in Town X. After some days feeding the baby she realised that the baby was vomiting and having diarrhoea. She checked the packaging only to realise that the porridge had expired in July whereas she bought it in September.

She took the baby for medical treatment from food poisoning. We have got proof as in the package and the receipt.

When she approached Store X about the issue at the end of September they checked their shelves and realised that they were selling expired porridge.

The first manager then offered to compensate P17 for the porridge but said he could not cover the medical expenses. He told my wife that he will call her so that she can fill in some insurance claim forms, but he never called.

The second manager, a lady is denying responsibility saying we should deal with the first manager. The problem is that every time my wife goes looking he won’t be around and the second manager says my wife should keep on coming.

What can we do?

[Consumer Watchdog note: We haven’t given the name of the store or even the town as we haven’t had a chance to contact the store at this stage. Nevertheless we believe that this story is sufficiently important to be reported.]

This is scandalous. If the details you’ve given us are true then the life of your baby was put at risk by this store.

Expiry dates are there for a purpose. They are there to protect our lives, health and welfare. They are also required by law. The Labelling of Prepackaged Foods Regulations say:

“No person shall … import, distribute, sell or offer for sale, any food … whose expiry date has lapsed”.

The Regulations then explain the penalties that a store manager or owner can face if they flout them. This bit is worth quoting in full (because it’s funny!). Anyone who has defied the Regulations is liable:
“(a) for a first offence, to a fine of P1 000 and to imprisonment for 3 months, and where the offence is a continuing offence, to an additional fine of P500 and imprisonment for one month for each day that the offence continues; and (b) for a second or subsequent offence, to a fine of, P5000 and to imprisonment for 6 months, and where the offence is a continuing offence, to an additional fine of P2 000 and imprisonment for two months for each day on which the offence continues”.

In other words whoever was responsible for selling you expired baby food can end up in prison for a long time and can be fined staggering amounts of money. Isn’t that a wonderful thought?

Well, you might think, maybe the store will argue that we consumers have a moral obligation to check the expiry dates ourselves when we buy things? Yes, perhaps in an ideal world that’s true but let’s get real. In our busy lives we don’t have the time to check every little thing we buy. We have a right to assume that stores obey the law. In any event, the law is simple. It doesn’t say that consumer must do this, it says store must do so. It’s as simple as that.

Decent, law-abiding, respectful stores do this anyway. They check the expiry dates regularly and they take things off the shelves and throw them away. The really smart stores will take things off the shelves perhaps the day before the expiry date and sell them at a discount. That way they get rid of stock they won’t be able to sell in a few days and we consumers get a bargain so long as we can eat it quickly.

Meanwhile, the issue of expiry dates is one that is causing some disruption around the world. In the UK, for instance, the Government is apparently considering modifying the requirement for all goods to have expiry dates. It seems that the unfortunate Brits can’t tell the difference any more between a rotten apple and a fresh one so they are throwing away truly vast quantities of perfectly edible food just because it expired yesterday. It’s estimated that the total amount of food thrown away by the Western World every day is about the same as the amount needed to feed the entire world’s starving.

However, there’s a world of difference between a slightly imperfect apple and poisonous baby food.

You can rest assured that we will be contacting the store in question and demanding an explanation from them. When they read this, and they know who they are, they have a simple decision to make. They can APOLOGISE for their INSULTING offer of P17 for the poisonous porridge and they can give serious consideration to whether they want to lose all their customers when they are named and shamed, have their store go bankrupt when they get fined and perhaps even spend some time in prison.

It’s up to them.

Friday 16 October 2009

We've won a prize!

Yes, we’ve won a prize. We got an email last week from the "World Confederation of Businesses” announcing that we had been selected for “The Bizz Awards 2009”. Impressive eh?

OK, I confess, it’s not as simple as that.

The email congratulating us on the award said that it had been based on “on-line surveys and a questionnaire called “Business excellence questionnaire”, market research and official data from Internet statistics, and from the Chamber of Commerce.”

Let’s ignore the fact that gathering data from “online questionnaires might be a little suspicious. Let’s also ignore that as far as I can find, there is no such online questionnaire. Let’s overlook that silliness about “Internet statistics. The only reliable statistic about the internet is that pornography is the real reason for it’s success. Let’s finally ignore the fact that we don’t HAVE a Chamber of Commerce.

More worryingly, there’s a simple fact that undermines the value of the prize even more.


Let me prove it.

This all started when we got an email from one of our particularly smart, charismatic and skeptical readers. You’ll find that all skeptics are like this. Impossibly attractive, unbelievably intelligent and irresistible to their gender of choice.

Anyway, this one sent us an email he’d just received. It announced that he’d won a prize from the same “World Confederation of Businesses”. The email reminded him that he had to confirm his attendance at their swish awards ceremony. This smart reader knew this was too good to be true but thought we could spread the word that it was suspicious.

So here’s what I did. I lied.

I took the email that was sent to our reader and I fooled around with it. I replied to the “World Confederation of Businesses” and changed all the details in their email so that instead of referring to our reader’s company, it referred to mine. I thanked the senders for the award and asked what I should do next.

Remember that the company name I used, the name I inserted into their award announcement letter, was NOT the one they sent it to. Here’s something else. The company name I used? I made it up. It was a complete work of fiction. The company doesn’t exist other than in my imagination. All that exists is the free Gmail address I used to send the email. The “World Confederation of Businesses” have never heard of the company, COULD never have heard of the company. It simply doesn’t exist. Never has done. There is no way they could have researched the company, other than to establish that it doesn’t actually exist.

So surely we would expect them to check their records and either realise instantly that my email was a forgery or they would get in touch to clarify who the hell I am?

Wouldn’t it be funny, wouldn’t it expose them as cheats, wouldn’t it expose them as liars if they responded and offered me the prize anyway?

It would be and what’s more it WAS funny, it DID expose them because that’s exactly what they did.

Three days later I got an email from them. It was addressed to my assumed name and fake company and it said:
“It is my pleasure to congratulate you once again. I am sending you this letter to give you more information about our organization and about the way to participation, as a winner, to The Bizz Awards 2009.”

Let’s get this straight, shall we? A company that doesn’t exist, that is no more than an email address has been awarded a prize? That’s a sign, I think you’ll agree, that this company has shown itself to be a little less than respectable.

So I read their email in more detail and guess what, there’s more. The prize-giving ceremony will be held in Houston, Texas in December and I’m invited (at my own expense of course) along with a guest. I also get the chance to have my details in their “annual memory book”, will be authorised to use their logo in my marketing material and I can advertise my products on their web site.

OK, you might be thinking, what’s the downside of all of this?

The downside is the money I have to pay them for these worthless privileges. As well as my travelling and accommodation expenses for their ceremony I have to pay the “World Confederation of Businesses” a massive $3,530. That’s around P24,000.

I’m sure I don’t have to explain this in too much detail. REAL prizes don’t cost you money. REAL awards are free. REAL recognition for achievement does not require cash.

These so-called Bizz Awards aren’t real. They are just a way for a company to make money. Unfortunately this is a common occurrence. I know of two awards mechanisms that operate in Botswana that are only given to companies who have coughed up some dosh. Of course the risk with these awards is that as we all become more skeptical, as we all begin to understand how many fakers, scammers and frauds are out there, the more we will have contempt for those companies who think they can buy celebration and recognition.

It’s just the same as fake qualifications. At the end of the day it’s the person bragging about their fake award who ends up looking like a fool and a cheat.

This week’s stars
  • Zulu from Apache Spur for great service.
  • Ander and the rest of the Livebox team from Orange for excellent pre-sales, installation and post-sales service.

Thursday 15 October 2009

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice

Please tell me more about GNLD products from South Africa. What’s the difference between them and other vitamins and supplements as they cost anything from P300 upwards for one month’s supply which I find ridiculous!

To me it’s clearly a pyramid style business or something like it, to my husband it’s an option for ‘better vitamins’ (that we don’t normally take anyway!) even though so expensive?

Thanks for getting in touch. This is interesting. Several points spring to mind.

Firstly, yes, this sounds remarkably like a "network marketing scheme. Technically it's not a pyramid scheme as there is a real set of products at the core of the business. However it's certainly pyramid structured. Their web site makes the usual suggestions about things like lifestyle, wealth and "being your own boss", all the hallmarks of a network marketing scheme. However, as with all pyramid-structured selling systems the only people to make real money from them are the founders and those who join VERY early on. Most people make nothing. A lot actually end up losing money.

Not that these companies are usually forthcoming about the earnings. It usually takes legal action to force them to disclose the information. When this has happened we learn how vastly overstated the real earnings are.

The evidence from companies like Amway and World Ventures shows that about three quarters of the people who get involved either make nothing from the business or lose money. The quarter that do make a little money on average make a tiny amount.

The GNLD scheme is a good example of this type of selling mechanism. Superficially the business is about vitamins. Their web page is full of images of health, vitality and implications of wellness. So far, so good. There are, as always, pictures of the CEO grinning inanely. There are sound clips of him selling the message of self-improvement and hints of wealth.

Let’s begin with the whole vitamin business. I'm not a doctor but I know this. Unless you are severely ill, pregnant, very old and infirm or immuno-compromised you don't need to take vitamin supplements. What people need is a sensible diet. We all know that, don’t we? We all know that eating fairly sensibly, taking some exercise and cutting back on the bad behaviour are what we need. Why would you want to buy a vitamin pill that actually offers the benefits of “carrots, red bell peppers, tomatoes, spinach” when you buy all of those things in your local supermarket?

For P300 you could buy a month's supply of fruit which would be much better for you and would taste a whole lot better.

Of course, the web sites selling these vitamins make frequent mention of how they can benefit your immune system. We all know what they are offering there and to whom they are offering it.

Our advice is simple. Unless you have a real need and your doctor has advised you to take them, skip the vitamin pills and eat a sensible diet.

However, just as important to companies like GNLD as the sale of vitamins is the opportunity to recruit you into their selling mechanism. This is the same old Amway, Success University, World Ventures and QuestNet multi-level pyramid. There’s even a diagram on the GNLD web site that illustrates how the system works. Take a look. “You” are expected to sell vitamins to 12 customers but they encourage you to recruit other sellers beneath you and more beneath them.

Let’s face it, this isn’t going to work. Please tell your husband that instead of spending your family’s hard-earned money on vitamins and trying to run a pyramid-structured business, he should just give you the money instead. Then you can either spend it on real food, splash it out on something that makes you feel good, or better still, put it in a savings account!

“University” update

Still no action from the so-called “University of SouthCentral Los Angeles”. They are the ones who threatened to take legal action against us for describing them as a provider of fake degrees. We recently suggested to a reader that they mustn’t think of buying one of their fake $850 degrees from them. This is a “university” that says you can get a degree by filling in multiple choice questions, is not accredited and which says that it’s based in the British Virgin Islands, not in Los Angeles. It’s a “university” that suggests that someone with no evidence of qualifications, skills or experience can get a doctorate in 12 months just by giving them a wad of cash.

Do you think that perhaps they weren’t serious? Do you think that they were just flexing their non-existent muscles? Do you think that Consumer Watchdog and The Voice are scared of scammers? Think again!

We’ll let you know if they ever get in touch with us.

Thursday 8 October 2009

We get mail - the QXCI/EPFX/SCIO silliness

Intrigued by the SCIO/QXCI/EPFX machine we mentioned in Mmegi this week, I emailed one of the South African web sites advertising it.  I said:
We have been asked by a number of consumers in Botswana to investigate whether the SCIO device you advertise on your web site at is the same as the QXCI/EPFX/SCIO device that is currently banned from importation into the USA by their Food and Drug Administration.

Can you also please confirm the connection between the SCIO device and "Professor" Bill Nelson who is currently a fugitive in Hungary, on the run from fraud charges in the USA?

I plan to discuss this in this coming week's Consumer Watchdog column in Mmegi, the national newspaper in Botswana, so I would appreciate a rapid response.

Instead of a response from South Africa I got a reply all the way from Hungary.  It goes like this:
Thank you for sending your email.  Having read through your Consumer Watchdog website, I greatly respect your statement on your Right of Reply page, “It is critically important to us that we get our facts right.”   Therefore, I look forward to you printing the facts as follows.
I think you can live without it being printed.  Here on the blog will suffice.
The regulatory requirements for each country and each device are quite different.  The device that was sold in the USA called the EPFX was very similar to the SCIO, but the registration (granted in the USA in 1989) was different between the USA and the rest of the world (which is typical of many devices).   A summary of the FDA’s reasons are shown on the FDA’s Import Alert link which you reference below in which the FDA state what the device was and was not given marketing clearance.  Therefore, the FDA have put the device on the Import List and it is no longer manufactured.  The manufacturer of the EPFX closed in February 2009.
"Very similar" to the EPFX?  They're the same thing as far I can tell.
The SCIO has a different registration in Europe and the rest of the world as a Universal Electrophysiological System which covers many indications for use approved in Europe.  The website you mention below is advertising the SCIO under the indications for use as approved in the registration. 
William Nelson is the creator of the device.  The situation with his legal status in the USA should not bear a reflection on the device and its safe and effective use.  
Logically, yes, that's true.  It IS possible for a fraud on the run to have invented a device that works. However as he is on the run precisely because this device does NOT work and the claims made about it were (and remain) fraudulent, I think it IS relevant, don't you?
However, William Nelson has expressed an interest to chat with you on the phone if you wish.  To organize this, please write to [email address removed]
I've given this a lot of thought but I don't think I can do it.  Talk to him without laughing I mean.
As the Regulatory Manager, I’m responsible for ensuring the safe and effective use of the SCIO in all countries and areas where it is registered and used.  Every year in the Spring we complete an audit to ensure the safe and effective use of the SCIO.  The current registration in Europe expires in April 2011 as European registrations are granted for 5 years at a time.  I am more than happy to answer any more of your questions regarding the SCIO.  However, please keep in mind that I will be at a conference from Wednesday – Sunday October 7-11 and will not get the chance to respond until after the conference..
There you go.  Right of Reply respected.

I still can't see any reason not to describe the SCIO/QXCI/EPFX as a piece of nonsensical, charlatan quackery.  Avoid it.

Fighting nonsense

It’s been a hard couple of weeks. I’m trying hard to think of a recent example of someone NOT being hugely gullible and naïve. I had a boss years ago who loved to remark that “common sense wasn’t”. Wasn’t common, he meant. If you look back over the history of our largely pathetic species you’ll see that apart from the occasional moments of generosity, kindness and heroism it is largely characterised by nastiness, naiveté and stupidity.

You see this both at the large-scale, historical level but also at the micro level. In other words in my email Inbox.

As you may have seen over the last few weeks we’ve mentioned a variety of very suspicious establishments that offer so-called qualifications for nothing other than cash. These call themselves universities but are no more than post boxes, email addresses and web sites. Correction, they’re no more than bank accounts. All you have to do is send them your cash, pretend that you’ve learned something and you get a degree of varying importance back by post. The last one wanted no more than $850 for a PhD, the exam for which was multiple choice! I can just imagine the questions. Q1. Are you going to tell your prospective employers that you bought this crappy degree online? Answer 1: Yes, I’m an honest fraud. Answer 2: No, I’m a fraud, a cheat and a liar.

Following these articles we got an email. No, I don’t mean the one from the “University” in question (The “University” of SouthCentral Los Angeles) that threatened to engage their lawyers. This email came from a reader who had a question. He said:

“I was about to apply for one of those degrees at USCLA. What you wrote made me think twice. However, my question is, are there any universities that would offer you a degree in one year? Genuinely speaking.”

Well, I suppose it’s good that I helped him think twice about getting a fake degree but is he really serious? Does he really think there are REAL universities that award degrees in a year? In case you’re in doubt, there aren’t. You can’t get a genuine degree that quickly, you really can’t. You certainly can’t over the internet. You most certainly can’t just by handing over a chunk of cash.

Then there was the other question we had. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence but just after we’d done a radio show on pseudoscience we were contacted by someone about one of the “health” devices that had been mentioned on the show.

This was the QXCI machine, otherwise known as EPFX or more recently the “SCIO”. This is a box of electronics about which some astonishing claims are made. The South African web site that is used to market this device claims that it:
“is an incredibly acurate (sic) biofeedback stress reduction system, combining the best of biofeedback, stress reduction, Rife machines, homeopathic medicine, bioresonance, electro-acupuncture, computer technology and quantum physics”

The web site explains how this device works. See if you can understand any of this tripe. Apparently it’s “multi-layer faclity enables dysfunction unravelling”. It is also “Equivalent to radonic operation”. Best of all it explains that “Most computers are binary: 1 or 0. Quantum software is trinary - basis for artificial intelligence”.

Incidentally, in case you are wondering what QXCI means, let me tell you. It stands for “Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface”. Here’s your free consumer tip for the week. Anyone who uses the word “quantum” when they are trying to sell you something is a fraud or a fool. Or both.

I could go on giving you examples of this hogwash but I think you’ve probably heard enough. This nonsense was written by someone who knows nothing about anything. They’re just using a jumble of meaningless words they’ve seen somewhere that sound good. I think you can get a feel for how respectable these people are elsewhere on the site. They offer a variety of workshops on alternative health including some based on the work of Hulda Clarke. “Dr” Clarke was famous for her bizarre, dangerous and frankly stupid theories about disease. She maintained that every single disease was caused by a combination of parasites and pollutants. She claimed that her remedies could cure cancer, diabetes and AIDS. Clarke (who died earlier this year) was a quack and a charlatan with a range of fake degrees. Anyone who offers services based on her theories is another fool or fraud.

To expand my understanding a little further I phoned the people in South Africa to ask about their SCIO device. They did indeed claim that it could cure “any disease”. They also told me that anyone can use it because when you buy the device you get a training package built in. So how much does this silly machine cost? R200,000.

So in answer to the question we received, no, we don’t think you should waste your money on this silly machine. Here’s one final reason why you shouldn’t. The US Food and Drug Administration have imposed a ban on importing the device into the USA. In an interview with the Seattle Times a spokesman for the FDA said:
“This is pure, blatant fraud. The claims are baloney. These people prey in many cases on consumers who are desperate in seeking cures for very serious diseases.”

Amusingly the inventor of the machine, the self-proclaimed “Professor” Bill Nelson (who also performs as a tranvestite singer under the name Desiré Dubounet) is now on the run in Hungary, a fugitive from US justice, on the run from fraud charges.

Do you really want to use a device that is based on fraud and baloney and was invented by a man who calls himself Desiré?

This week’s stars
  • Colin in the butchery at Spar at Kgale Shopping Centre for being charming, helpful and friendly.
  • The team at Incredible Connection for responding to a problem with professionalism and style and ending up with another very happy customer.

The Voice - Dear Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer’s Voice #1

I would like to know if you are aware of an international business organization called World Ventures that operates more like a pyramid. It is said to be mostly targeting people who travel a lot.

One has to join with an amount of about P2,600, and recruit other people to join under him/her in order to start receiving financial returns from the organisation. This money is deducted directly from one's account as a person joining has to write down the numbers from his/her VISA bank card.

May I know if it is safe to surrender such information; and if World Ventures is indeed not a con business operation? The internet presents differing opinions from people overseas, some saying it is a fraud business operation and others saying it has helped them a lot.

Is it really safe for Batswana to join it? It is fasting spreading country wide around schools, churches and other places.

I think you are very wise to be cautious about World Ventures. They are a network marketing scheme based on selling holiday opportunities. Some of us believe they are more of a pyramid scheme but that’s just our opinion.

Ironically it was World Ventures that recently took over Success University, which really WAS a pyramid scheme. That’s not just my opinion. It was also the opinion of the Bank of Namibia who declared them an illegal pyramid scheme. SU was based on pyramid selling educational and motivational materials so it’s weird that SU can suddenly convert to being part of a holiday scheme, don’t you think? In fact it’s not. As soon as one pyramid scheme saturates a market a new one comes along to collect more victims.

Anyway, like all such schemes, very few people make any money from pyramid-structured schemes. Even Worldventures’ own figures show this to be true. They confess that in 2008 70.2% of their recruits made no money from the scheme (you can see the details on our web site). Of those that did make money, the median earnings were a pathetic $114.60. Then, hidden away in the small print it says:

“These figures do not represent Representatives’ profits; they do not consider expenses incurred by Representatives in the promotion of their business.”

So that $114.60 is before you have paid your expenses, like your phone bill, internet charges, A4 paper and postage?

Steer clear of World Ventures if you want to keep hold of your money. In fact steer clear of any scheme that promise you riches, makes any reference to “lifestyle” or encourages you to recruit other people into the scheme.

Dear Consumer’s Voice #2

I received an email saying I had won a Nokia competition. Do you think this could be true?

No, absolutely not. This is what the email says:

“We are please to Notify you that your email has made you proud as you have be nominated for our on going Nokia promo.We Notify you about the winning because your email came out among other emails from our online balloting.This is one of our numerous way to show appreciation to the general public for their support and acceptance of our product all this years.We came out with this promo as a form of gratitude and we decided to use online ballotting from all internet users so your email has made you proud today. You are therefore entitle to a huge sum of GBP £500,000.00.


Clearly this is unbelievable. Firstly I can’t imagine anyone at Nokia types that badly or speaks English that badly. It’s also just unbelievable. Companies like Nokia don’t go around giving away huge amounts of money to total strangers. Even if they did don’t you think they would know your name and use it?

And why do they give a Gmail address and not a Nokia email address?

I suggest that you delete this email and any others like it as soon as you see them.

“University” update

We had a very funny email from the so-called “University of SouthCentral Los Angeles”. You may remember that we recently suggested to a reader that they shouldn’t think of buying one of their fake $850 degrees from them. This is a “university” that says you can get a degree by filling in multiple choice questions, is not accredited and which says that it’s based in the British Virgin Islands, not in Los Angeles. It’s a “university” that suggests that someone with no evidence of qualifications, skills or experience can get a doctorate in 12 months just by giving them a wad of cash.

Anyway they think we’ve defamed them and threatened to sue us! You can see their email on our web site if you fancy a giggle. We replied very politely (OK, I confess it wasn’t actually very polite) saying how funny we thought they were. I’ll let you know if they contact us again.

Monday 5 October 2009

"Bizz Awards 2009" - a scam?

People are receiving an email from a company calling itself the "WORLD CONFEDERATION OF BUSINESSES" saying that the recipient has received a:
"nomination as a winner of the world’s most important business award, “THE BIZZ AWARDS 2009."
The email then invites the recipient to get in touch so they can be included in the award ceremony.

However this isn't the complete truth, it's all a bit suspicious.  Why would total strangers contact you and tell you that you've won an award like this?  In fact there's no genuine award, it's just an excuse to get you to pay for the award.  According to one source you might be asked to pay up to US $3,000 to get this worthless award.

Our simple advice?  Ignore this email and any like it.  Perform at your best, charm your customers and maybe one day you'll win a real award!

Update: See more here and here.

Warning - World Business Guide

Don't fall for this one.  An email comes in, entitled "Business Registration 2009/2010".  It invites you to submit your company details for inclusion in "the registry of World Businesses for 2009/2010 edition".  The email says that "Updating is free of charge!" but that's a deception.

In fact, in the small print it says:
AND it's a 3-year contract.

They've already been prosecuted in Switzerland for this scam, please make sure you don't fall for it here!

Friday 2 October 2009

Good news or bad news?

There’s no reduction in the number of scammers out there who will try and separate you from your hard-earned money. The worse news is that these scammers are evolving, they’re becoming smarter and much more resourceful.

In the past I think we’ve all had a mental picture of scammers as rather amateur, perhaps you had an image of them as a few teenagers in Lagos using computers in Internet cafes and cheap cellphones. Not any more. Now they are mostly seriously organised crime. We are talking about the mafia these days.

In the past we would receive scores of “traditional” emails from scammers following the tried and trusted “advance fee” approach. An email would appear claiming to be from the surviving relative of a deposed dictator or contractor to a West African government claiming to have a fortune stashed away and they needed the help of a total stranger (you) to liberate it. Alternatively the email would announce that you’d won a fortune or a car in a lottery that you never entered.

We all earned that these were scams and, like in nature, the scamming species evolved to explore new opportunities.

I was sent an email last week that was from the newer, slightly more advanced species of scammer. It began rather shakily as follows (I haven’t corrected the grammar!):

“Dear [blank]
I would like to teach you a method which will interest you. Following the rules of this method, I make more than 800$ everyday. You will ask me why I want to say it to you if it works. Last 6 months, I won more than 200'000$. It was my target. Then I promise me to share my secret after winning this amount. Just contact me, I'll send you a notice... NATURALLY FOR FREE !!”
It contained a link to a web site called On the main page is a picture of a young smiling man and it says:

“Dear reader, Let me introduce myself, my name is Brad, I'm from Gaborone in Botswana.”
It goes on to explain a supposedly flawless method for winning money at online casinos. The method sound deceptively simple and is, on first impression, convincing. However it is deeply mathematically flawed. (Background and explanations here: 1, 2 and 3. See here also for a ruling by the UK authorities on a similar scam.)

It’s all a bit of a deception, not just the claim that you can win a fortune from gambling. If “Brad” is really from Gaborone, why is his web site registered in the Seychelles and why are many of the elements of his web page in German?

The answer is simple. I did a little detective work and found out his true motivation. Brad is an “affiliate” of the casino web site he suggests you visit. In return for marketing the casino he gets a cut from any business he generates for them. Far from being someone who offers you an amazing technique for taking money from a casino he is, in fact, on their side. All he’s trying to do is seduce you into signing up for the casino, paying them the money you need to start gambling and then keeping your money. Remember this about casinos: they’re not charities. Casinos are incredibly smart organisations who employ advanced mathematical skills to take your money from you and only give part of it back. So-called “Brad” and his type are just the marketing wing of the online casino business.

That’s the bad news, that online deception is becoming much smarter. The good news is that more and more people are becoming aware of this and are becoming increasingly sceptical about things they read online.

More good news. Twice in the last week we’ve had excellent responses from suppliers. The first was from, who describe themselves as “Botswana’s Online Classifieds”. This web site is fairly new and offer an online advertising service. Think of The Advertiser but online.

We were alerted to an advertisement on the site from someone calling herself Onnie. Her ad linked to an article she wrote elsewhere online that actually suggested that people should stop taking their anti-retroviral medication. She stated:

“a divorce from ARV is the best thing you can do for yourself”
This is criminal, lunatic, dangerous nonsense and people like “Onnie” should not be permitted to get away with saying such things. I contacted the guys at and exactly 31 minutes later I got an email from them assuring me that they had deleted the advertisement.

I could not have hoped for a better response. Good for the team at for taking action so swiftly.

Here’s a similar story of a rapid response. We had an email from someone who had a payment problem with Itekanele Health Scheme. They had voluntarily withdrawn from the scheme but their payments hadn’t stopped. We got in touch and this time it took a little longer than with This time it took a mere 72 minutes before I had an email and a phone call from their Managing Director assuring me that the problem would be sorted out.

This is how things are meant to work. Every so often something slips through the net and a company has a problem like these. Nobody is being deliberately difficult or abusive, both seem to have been simple mishaps. The key thing is that both companies took responsibility without even a hint of fuss, promised to fix the problem and said sorry.

That’s the Good News. There ARE good guys out there. And none (so far) are called Brad.

This week’s stars

  • Benny at for removing a dangerous advertisement so rapidly.
  • The guys at Itekanele for responding to a problem swiftly and responsibly.