Friday, 12 August 2016

Can you read?

I’m obviously not saying you’re illiterate. The fact that you’re reading this shows that you can read. But can you really interpret and fully understand what’s written before you? Can you read “between the lines”?

Here’s an example of when someone didn’t read. A few weeks ago a consumer contacted us to complain about a hotel in Gaborone where she’d booked a room. Being a modern woman, she’d done this online, using a well-known service called This was a last-minute thing, she wanted to stay that same night. She selected the date, the type of room she wanted and the site asked her for her debit card details to make the reservation. Which she gave.

A little while later something happened to change her mind and she no longer needed the room at the hotel. Can she cancel and get a refund, she asked? No, said the hotel, you can’t have your money back. That’s when she came to us. Was this permitted, she wanted to know?

Unfortunately it was. I took a look at the hotel’s details on and even went to the stage where I was asked for my card details. Right next to the “Book now” link was another link saying “Booking conditions”. Click on that and it says “You can cancel free of charge until 5 days before arrival. You'll be charged the first night if you cancel in the 5 days before arrival.”

Given that there weren’t five days between her booking and the date she planned to stay in the hotel, was it fair not to give her the chance to cancel the booking? My answer was simple. Was it the hotel’s fault that you booked at the last minute? What had they done wrong?

I know it’s frustrating to have lost nearly P1,000 on a room you never stayed in but the booking conditions were quite clear. If you cancel with less than five days notice, they’ll charge you for the first night’s stay whether you’re in the room or not. But had she actually read the conditions before paying? Probably not.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s online or a purchase you make the old-fashioned way, you really must read the conditions that are presented to you before you hand over your money and before you sign anything either digitally or with ink. If you don’t…

I was once shown a furniture store’s hire purchase contract. Near the end, written in very small letters, was a clause saying “I have inspected the goods and they are in a satisfactory condition”. But this is the contract you sign when you buy something, not when it’s delivered. The goods might not be delivered for another few weeks but you have to say in advance that they won’t, at some future date, be damaged when delivered? Why would any sane person agree to that? The answer is very simple. They agree to it because they haven’t read it.

Another clause in the agreement said that “I have read this agreement and understand it fully and I agree not to claim that this is not so.” I wonder who that clause is targeted at? I think we can guess. People who don’t read the agreements they sign.

Just as important as reading documents, is making sure that you read them critically. You have to read things while wearing your skeptical hat. The key lesson of skepticism is that you shouldn’t believe something just because someone says you should or because you read it somewhere. You should only believe things when there’s a good reason to do so.

Would you believe this if you received it in your email?
“I write to introduce this urgent/important business opportunity to you irrespective of the fact that we have not seen or known each other believing that it will be of immense benefit to both of us. My name is Mr.Johannes Smith, the head Auditor of Standard Bank – South Africa, I got your contact through the South African Chamber of Commerce in my earnest search for a reliable individual…”
Most of you will recognize this as the beginning of an advance fee scam. Someone claiming to be a very senior manager in a South African bank contacts a total stranger offering you something “of immense benefit to both of us”? And he claims to have got your name from an organization you’ve probably never contacted? The email goes on to say that there is a fund of $18.5 million that he plans to steal and he needs your bank account details so he can send the money to you. He says you get to keep 40% of it in return for helping him in his crime. Of course this is really about a payment he’ll want from you in order to process the fake transfer.

You probably wouldn’t believe the email if your received it but the scammer doesn’t need you to believe it. He’s not looking for people who are skeptical, he’s looking for people who are gullible. In fact, the evidence shows that the more ridiculous the claim in the first email are, the more likely the scammer is to make money from the scam because only the catastrophically naïve will respond. He won’t waste his time trying to persuade you and me, he’s concentrating on our less skeptical friends, family members and neighbours.

Not only must we learn to read everything, we must learn to read things in the right way. Skeptically. Read things without believing them. Only believe things when reason, logic and evidence are there to support what has been said or written. Until then, don’t believe a word you read.

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