Friday, 17 June 2016

Regular visitors

It’s not just good restaurants that have regular visitors. Consumer Watchdog has them as well.

We have questions and complaints that keep on coming back, again and again.

A reader reported on Facebook that one of our longest running “friends” was back again. She said:
“I just got off the phone with some South African trying to sell me a travel and hotel discount credit card. I'm not sure of the company name... Travel hotel express something... I was on the phone with him for 16 minutes and he said the membership is about R3000+ annually. Then he wanted my debit card expiry date and card number on the front of my card...that's when I started worrying. so I told him I can’t just give my details to something I really don't no about. In fact I suggested we communicate via email so I can have time to understand what I will be paying for and he said he doesn't do email. Is it okay to exchange such details on the phone... More especially if you haven't identified the product you are paying for? Was I almost conned?”
I don’t know for sure but I suspect that this was Hotel Express International again. We’ve heard about this many times over the years and the story we’re told is often the same. Someone gets a “cold call”, an uninvited phone call from a stranger in South Africa extolling the benefits of paying to join Hotel Express International, offering them discounts on hotels, car hires and flights. As part of the sales process they ask for the potential customer’s credit or debit card details either “to keep on file” or to check whether they are eligible for “Gold” or “Platinum” membership. Every time, they claim, they did not give explicit permission for Hotel Express to actually deduct money from their accounts but guess what, that’s exactly what happened. Without explicit permission they get enrolled, their bank balance is depleted and they then have trouble getting their money back.

Each time we’ve sent these complaints to Hotel Express International and some times we’ve been able to help get their people’s money back but not always.

As well as being upset for people who feel they had their money taken without their consent I’m also surprised that people are still falling for the suggestion that you need to pay to join a scheme like Hotel Express International to get hotel discounts. You can get discounts for free. I stay in hotels in South Africa quite often and do you think I ever pay the full rate? Of course not.

Just for example, I booked a stay in Joburg recently and booked a suite in a hotel at a discount of around 40%, just by booking using their web site. Was I required to pay to join a scheme to do this? Of course not. In fact, if you compare the rate I paid against the official “rack rate” the hotel quotes I saved 60%.

So why would you need to pay to get a discount when hotels give them away for free?

The lesson is simple. Don’t join Hotel Express and whatever you do, don’t give them your card details over the phone. Luckily for the reader who contacted us this time, she was one of the more skeptical, rightfully suspicious consumers. Next time it might be someone less well-protected. Might that be you?

The other regular visitor we see is the advance fee scammer. Despite this business operating for many years now, we still see emails like this one:
“Attn: My Dear Friend,
I have a business proposer for you, your urgent. Response and telephone number is needed for more information.
Thanks, sincerely
Barrister Micah (Esq)”
I’m sure many readers will now be able to spot the various clues in this very short email. Firstly, there’s the quality of the English. Would a real barrister (an attorney) who wants to do business with you really write this badly? “a business proposer for you, your urgent”?

Then there’s the often overlooked fact that this supposed attorney doesn’t know your name. This isn’t how business works. Real business people don’t approach total strangers and offer to do business with them. Real business people know their potential business partners’ names.

This is the beginning of an advance fee scam. If you were to respond to their email they’d explain some complicated story about millions hidden away in a bank account in a West African country and that they needed your help to transfer it to a safer country. They’d promise you a cut of the money if they could use your bank account. Of course there is no money, you know this, but that doesn’t stop the scammers trying this old trick. Sooner or later they would demand money from you to make the deal happen. That’s what the whole thing is about, that “advance fee” they want you to pay them.

And you know what? It still works. If it didn’t they would have moved on to another type of scam. The fact that it’s still happening means there are still naïve people falling for it. Most people are now skeptical but next time it might be someone less well-protected. Might that be you?

The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana one said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and that goes for all areas of life. Not knowing what happened in the past puts you at a huge disadvantage. Learning from the mistakes of earlier victims of schemes and scams is something we all need to do.

But there’s still a long way to go. The fact that these visitors keep on reappearing proves this.

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