Friday 2 December 2011

The Consumer Detective

These days everyone thinks that they’re a detective. We watch Law and Order, CSI and Sherlock on TV and think it’s simple. Most dangerously we watch House and all think we have medical detective skills. In fact real police (and medical) detective work is much more complicated and less sexy that it’s portrayed on the TV. Most of it is tedious, routine and unrewarding work punctuated by the occasional flash of inspiration or luck.

However, in these days of the internet there are ways in which consumers CAN be detectives.

Last week I heard two visitors from South Africa on a local radio show talking about a miraculous opportunity they were offering us to make loads of money and move from poverty to riches. They called it “Wealth Solutions”.

I was suspicious mainly because at no point did they actually explain how anyone would make all this money. They didn’t mention the need to make, build or assemble anything. They didn’t mention going to the office, having meetings or actually getting off your rear-end and doing anything. It was hiding something.

The clues followed very shortly. The name of one of the people presenting this opportunity and the venue, day of the week and time of the presentation were all exactly the same as the presenter, venue, day of the week and time as the presentations a few weeks ago by Cashflow Pro.

Cashflow Pro is the brainchild of a South African called Jabulani Ngcobo. According to the South African press Ngcobo is currently under investigation by the South African Reserve Bank and the South African Police Commercial Crimes Unit. It seems that for someone with no qualifications and no business history the amount of money he’s bringing in is too much to be credible. There are suspicions that he’s running either a pyramid or Ponzi scheme.

Another clue that there was something amiss was that there is no company called “Wealth Solutions” registered in South Africa. There are plenty of companies called Something-Else Wealth Solutions but none with the simpler name of just Wealth Solutions. I know because the SA Government have put their company registration details online. The SA Companies and Intellectual Property Commission has a web site ( where you can search for all the registered companies in the country.

So there’s no company “Wealth Solutions”. Why were the presenters so keen to hide their real identity? Maybe because they don’t want their potential investors to know the trouble the founder might be in?

I also used the CIPC web site to check on an educational establishment in South Africa called Oxbridge Academy. A reader had asked us to check whether they were legitimate or not and whether their qualifications were recognized.

It turns out that Oxbridge Academy (which has nothing to do with either Oxford or Cambridge Universities, the normal meaning of “Oxbridge”) claims on it’s web site that "Oxbridge Academy was founded in 1997". However a quick check on CIPC showed that the company was only founded in November 2007. Their web site also makes it clear (if you read closely enough) that their R10,400 “one year Diploma Programmes are not accredited since they are offered, assessed and certificated by Oxbridge Academy”. In other words they aren’t accredited qualifications in any way. You have no guarantee that an employer or educational establishment will formally recognize them.

Another useful online detective tool is an internet facility called a WHOIS lookup. You can use a variety of web sites to do a WHOIS lookup of any web site of your choice. For instance, and I’m not victimizing Oxbridge Academy, I’m just using them as an example, you can discover that their web domain ( was first registered on 4th April 2008.

Let’s be fair. At least Oxbridge Academy has the decency to register as a company and tell the truth about the status of it’s qualifications. Others are not so scrupulous.

The WHOIS lookup has been useful with the even less respectable educational establishments like the fake “Headway University”. A quick WHOIS lookup showed that Headway’s web site was only created on 2nd September this year. However if you ask Headway University themselves how long this “online educational institution” has been online they claim that “from 1972 we were a campus based university then in 1991 we came online”. So that’s just a lie.

Finally there’s the miracle that is Facebook. Yes, I know there are many things wrong with Facebook and privacy is one of them. It’s a bit of a struggle sometimes to control the information about you that Facebook publishes but remember that it can’t disclose information you didn’t volunteer, so don’t complain if people can see your cellphone number. You did, after all, give it to them and allow them to display it. However, this slightly relaxed attitude towards privacy makes Facebook an excellent detective tool. It’s surprising how easy it can be to trace people on Facebook who don’t otherwise want to be found. The same goes for LinkedIn where people are so open about their often “creative” CVs. I’ve been able to trace many of the people behind the TVI Express pyramid scheme operating in Botswana using both Facebook and LinkedIn.

So here’s a big thanks from me and the Consumer Watchdog team to the WHOIS lookup, Facebook and LinkedIn for supporting us amateur detectives. An even bigger pat on the back to the SA Government for the CIPC web site as well. Many other countries have done similar things so with a little luck we’ll have the same here in Botswana one day? Then we can all be detectives.

No comments: