Friday 26 November 2010

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Dear Consumer's Voice

Last week I was called on my cellphone by lady from a South African number who claimed to be from Hotel Express International. She said she got my number from one of their associate hotels here in Botswana, where I had booked previously. This sounded reasonable as I had just returned from a field trip where I stayed in two hotels in the North. I have also used other hotels in the past. She told me about a package where if I sign up I will be eligible for significant discounts in hotel accommodation and car rentals in various countries. She went on to ask my work address as she will later send me the necessary information and application forms by courier.

She then asked me if I had a credit card for purposes of payment once my application is approved and I replied that I did not, but that I only have a debit card. She responded by asking for the bank that I use and the type of account. She said she will need to check with management if the debit card would be acceptable for payments and didn’t sound optimistic. She then asked for the 16 digit number on my card so that she could go and confirm if it will be acceptable. I reluctantly gave her the number, as at the back of my mind I reasoned that the number is not really secret as it is printed where it can be seen easily by third parties. I also reasoned that it was only an inquiry and I would still have to fill in some forms before any monetary transactions are made. So I did not at this time become suspicious.

Later that day when I went to the ATM I realised that a large sum of money had been withheld in my account and was not accessible to me. When I went to the bank and enquired they told me of a transaction of P2,839.33 but said they will need to do further checks before they could tell me when and with who this money was transacted. It was later confirmed that Hotel Express International had taken the money.

The next day I received another call from the same lady who called the previous day from Express Hotel International. She told me that my application has been approved. I said that I had not made any application and was waiting for the package they were going to send by courier so that I could read before i could make any decisions. At this she replied that she signed me in when we were talking yesterday.

[The reader’s email then goes on in detail about his attempts to cancel the transaction through his bank but without success.]

Unfortunately we’ve heard stories exactly like this several times before. A “cold call” from a company like Hotel Express International that results in an unauthorised deduction from a consumer’s account. On each occasion the consumer claims to have given out his or her account number so the caller can check whether it’s a suitable means of payment, or perhaps to establish which level of membership they will be entitled to. Before you know it a few thousand has been taken from your account without your explicit authorisation.

We contacted Hotel Express International in South Africa and asked them to investigate to see how this could have happened. Unfortunately their first response was just for a senior manager to call the consumer to persuade him of the benefits of their scheme and all the various discounts it offers. That was NOT what was needed. We and the consumer made it perfectly clear that he did not want to be a member and he had never given his permission for the payment. Finally, after a sequence of emails the Managing Director of Hotel Express International in South Africa instructed his team to make a full refund into the consumer’s account.

Some of you may be thinking that the consumer was foolish to give out his bank account number like this. The consumer himself agrees with you but he fell victim to a very persuasive sales agent, presumably one who was paid on commission and who was prepared to push her sales skills to the limit!

The first lesson is the obvious one. Never give your bank account details to someone you don’t know and to whom you haven’t agreed to pay money. Never give those details to someone who is just checking something. NEVER.

Then there’s the second big lesson. Holiday discount schemes, whether they are pyramid schemes like TVI Express (recently outlawed in the US state of Georgia) and Pyxism, or the membership schemes like Hotel Express International or Prokard are all based on a misunderstanding.

You don’t have to pay money to get discounts. Hotels give these discounts away for free to anyone who asks for them. In the last few years I have stayed in hotels in South Africa at massively reduced rates without paying anyone anything to get the discounts. No membership fees, no deposits, no unauthorised debit card deductions over the phone. Ironically in their hotel price list (pdf format download here) Hotel Express International quote their price for a suite at the Courtyard in Rosebank at R1,050. By coincidence I stayed in a suite at that exact hotel earlier this month and paid a mere R675. All I did was go to and the discount didn't cost me a thebe, a cent or a penny. Certainly not P2,839.33.

My advice is to keep your money and get your discounts for free!

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