Friday, 22 September 2017

Staying safe online

We all know how to protect ourselves against infection, don’t we? We know to sneeze into our elbows, wash our hands after visiting the toilet and to use barrier methods when doing anything particularly intimate. We all know these things, even if not all of us follow the advice we’re being given. But we know.

Do we really know how to protect ourselves when we’re in front of a computer? Do we have any understanding of what the threats might be? Do you have any idea what the impact would be on you and your company if you fail to protect yourself?

We recently had a very useful lesson about cybersecurity. In May this year computers around the world were attacked by the so-called “WannaCry” ransomware. According to the BBC
“200,000 victims in 150 countries” had been infected including hospitals in the UK which “left hospitals and doctors unable to access patient data, and led to the cancellation of operations and medical appointments.” The attack also affected systems in several European countries and victims in Russia were hit hard.

WannaCry was an example of “ransomware”, a particularly vicious descendant of the old-fashioned computer virus. Once it got onto the victim’s computer all the documents on the computer would remain visible but could no longer be opened. Instead the victim was presented with a message saying that if they wanted to access their documents they need to pay the criminals behind the scheme the equivalent of P3,000 but not by any conventional means. Like all criminals who kidnap for ransom, they wanted payment in an untraceable form, in this case Bitcoin.

This particular example was focussed specifically on Windows computers and in particular those using older version of Windows, and those who haven’t been downloading the regular security updates that Microsoft releases. It also did its best to spread itself across any network in which it found itself so that once one computer was infected, all the other vulnerable computers on the network would likely be infected as well.

The worrying thing is that even though this attack targeted computers that were running very old versions of Windows, most notably Windows XP which became unsupported by Microsoft more then three years ago, there are still many businesses that persist in using it. Within a few days of the WannaCry attack I saw a computers running Windows XP at an airport check-in desk and, much more worryingly, in a hospital. I know my fellow techies will say that it’s often hard to upgrade certain “legacy” systems but I don’t care. Which is more important to you, saving money upgrading systems or the security of your customer and patient data?

What would happen to your business if all your files were suddenly inaccessible? Would you be able to continue? How would you sell anything? How many customers would you have left by the end of the week?

What’s more worrying to me is how risky some people’s behaviour can be. Just like in other areas of life, people are frighteningly careless, inserting memory sticks from unknown sources into their devices or visiting dubious web sites and allowing them to install software on their computers when they are offered something that’s either free or titillating. It’s just as worrying when I see people in coffee shops and restaurants using the free WiFi and doing some extremely reckless things.

Like online banking.

In case you don’t know this already, you should never, except in a national emergency, and probably not even then, go to your bank’s online banking service when using a public WiFi network. Just don’t, the risks are too high.

The biggest risk is that the WiFi network you join might not be real. You see a network called “CoffeeShop” and that’s the one you join, yes? But how do you know it’s for real? How do you know it’s not a fake network designed to lure you into connecting?

Even though it’s beyond the skills of most of us, a moderately skilled techie can set up a fake WiFi network very easily. I know this for a fact. Because that’s exactly what we did at the recent Consumer Watchdog conference.

Our technology partners, IT-IQ set up an unsecure WiFi access point at the conference center and conducted what they call a “man in the middle” attack. That allowed them to monitor the traffic that went through their network. During the session when the network was available 55 people connected to it and each one of them could pick up their email, surf the web and post pictures on Facebook. Not one of them realised that they’d been deceived.

Obviously on this occasion nothing unethical was done but it showed how easily smart, cyber-smart people could fall victim to such a fake network. The look on the faces of some of these people when IT-IQ held a cybersecurity workshop later that day when they were told what had happened was both funny and scary. When they were shown details of some of the web sites they had visited to prove what had been done people learned a very valuable lesson. If this is what good, ethical guys can do, what do you think the bad guys will do?

So here are some free tips to help you stay safe online.

Don’t use unsecured public WiFi networks for anything sensitive. You probably shouldn’t use them for anything but be particularly careful not to visit any online financial services such as banking and BURS when connected to one.

Don’t use out-dated and unsupported operating systems such as Windows XP. If your computer is too old and underpowered to use a later version of Windows then install a form of Unix such as Ubuntu or Linux. They’re free and come with almost everything most of us will ever need. Or use a Mac.

Use one of the free malware protection services. You don’t need to use the one that came with your computer that costs money, choose a free alternative, they’re just as good.

Above all, we must all educate ourselves. Don’t ever think you’re too unsophisticated or old to understand technology. Just because you don’t understand how a car works, does that mean you don’t wear a seatbelt?

The Voice - Consumer'a Voice

They’re confused!

I received a text message saying I owe some money at a private hospital lab, P1194 and that I was to settle the bill in 7 days. I then called the number that was at the end of the message to enquire and was told I owe P987.94 instead as my account had some credit which was used. On asking why then they sent P1194 I was told the person who sent messages was not looking at the system. Apparently my medical aid had not paid their portion. I later on called the medical aid which confirmed to me that they have paid the bill. The amount and service date of the bill was the same, except for the reference number I got from the hospital. The medical aid said the lab should call them if they need clarifications and they should correct their accounts. I finally called the lab and they said they would call medical aid and after a short while the lady from the lab called me and said now I don't owe anything. She said the reference number used by med aid is different but they are the same. I am so confused. Apparently each account has 2 reference numbers according to her. How can reference numbers be the different and be the "same"? And how can the amounts that I was supposed to pay in 7 days be different? I’m hoping u would maybe help me understand this.

Unfortunately, I don’t understand this at all. Like you, I’m as confused as the hospital lab and your medical aid. The difference is that you and me being confused is acceptable, your two service providers being confused is not. We pay companies like the medical aid and the hospital to be experts in their field and keeping accurate, timely and complete financial records is meant to be within their expertise.

My fear is that this is the sort of problem that will keep on occurring if they don’t get their records correct. I suggest that you write a letter to the CEOs of both the medical aid and hospital politely asking for a statement showing that you don’t owe either of them any money. Next time their systems have a meltdown you can wave those letters at them.

The lesson from this is whenever possible to get some form of evidence when you settle a debt or a debt is cancelled or corrected. Always insist that the letter confirms that no information regarding the false debt was ever passed to a credit reference bureau. Good luck!

I’ve waited 9 months!

I bought double bunk beds and sofas from a furniture store and reported some faults in December 2016 and up to today they haven't attended to them. Literally I go and raise the issue monthly. Please advice me on drafting a formal complaint letter. 

Assuming that the items you bought were still within the warranty period I think you should write a letter to the Managing Director or Country Manager of the furniture store chain, certainly not anyone less important. Ignore any complaints procedure they might have, remember that it’s 2017, we live in the era of Facebook. Customers are in charge now, not them. The letter should say something like this:

“Dear MD

On [purchase date] I bought a double bunk bed and sofas from your store at [location]. In December 2016 I informed the store of the following faults with the items [describe the faults]. These faults were clearly a breach of Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations 2001 which require a supplier to offer commodities that are “of merchantable quality” and that are “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased”. Since my original complaint and despite numerous reminders, your store has failed to honour this obligation, which I consider to be a breach of Section 15 (1) (a) of the Regulations which requires a supplier to offer services “with reasonable care and skill”. A failure to respond to a complaint for nine months is clearly not reasonable.

Please will you ensure that my complaint is resolved within the next 14 days. If not, I will be forced to escalate the matter to the authorities and to instigate legal action if it is not remedied.

Lots of love and kisses.”

You might want to leave out the last line.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Why are they here?

Why do people come to Botswana?

Obviously a lot of them come there because Botswana is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Our landscape, our wilderness, our animals are exceptional. They come to see that and hopefully leave some of their lovely money behind when they leave.

Others come here to invest and make profits and there’s nothing wrong with that either. In fact we need a lot more of that. We need more foreign businesses coming here with their expertise and money. That can only help elevate the general quality and volume of business in Botswana and a bit of healthy competition is always useful.

But that’s not who I mean. I’m asking about the people who come to Botswana and try and steal our money.

If you’re on Facebook (and I know many of you are), you will have seen messages from a variety of people offering you a range of “opportunities”. One I saw recently, from an enterprising Filipino, said this:
“HELLO BOTSWANA! We are looking for the next distributor that would like to start making P200 to P3,200 daily working just to share information about Aim Global business opportunity every day using your Mobile Phone? DOING IT PART TIME and AT HOME. Just comment "HOW" below and I will get back to you as soon as I can. First 10 person will be prioritized!!!! HURRY!! Let Do this 7 heads INVESTMENT. JOIN US NOW and be the next Millionaire in your Country”

Let’s start with the first question. Who or what is “Aim Global”? Their full name is “Alliance in Motion Global”, a Filipino multi-level marketing scheme selling nutritional supplements. Of course there’s nothing illegal or improper about food supplements like the ones AIM Global sell, they’re just useless for almost everybody. With very few exceptions none of us need to take them. A reasonably balanced diet involving plenty of fruit and vegetables will give us all the nutrients a normal person will ever need. Expensive extras are just a waste of money.

However, and this is common among companies offering supplements, their distributors make some remarkable claims. I found one who claimed that AIM Global’s “C247” product could help with 100 different serious medical conditions including asthma, beri-beri, cirrhosis, bone fracture, deafness, endometriosis, epilepsy, hypertension, hepatitis, “toxins in the body”, stroke, migraine and even cancer and “immunodeficiency”. We all know what that last claim means, don’t we?

Another headlined his blog post with the title “Cure For Cancer Is Possible!” before claiming that their products can offer such a cure.

These are all lies and the clue is obvious. If such a miraculous, magical product existed, someone would been awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine by now, if not even the prize for Peace as well. And they haven’t. No single product could do any of those things, certainly not all of them. So it’s safe to assume they’re lying.

Like all similar schemes the important thing to note is that the products aren’t important. Look back at the Facebook post above and you’ll notice something interesting. They don’t mention the products. They give you no clue whether the products this company sells are nutritional supplements, dishwashers or saucepans. That’s because they don’t care. Like the other schemes the real attraction is making money. Phrases like “P200 to P3,200 daily”, “business opportunity” and “be the next Millionaire in your Country” tell you all you need to know.

Dig a little deeper into the into AIM Global and you find all the usual signs of a pyramid-structured business. No mention of products, instead just hints about opportunities to make lots of money and become a millionaire by doing your best to recruit multiple layers of people beneath you to build your own personal pyramid.

Let’s go back to the original question. Why are they visiting us (electronically) us in Botswana? Why would people in the Philippines try to get people in Botswana to join this business? If the business is so successful, why aren’t they trying to recruit people in their own neighbourhood? Why aren’t they recruiting Filipinos?

That one I can answer based on personal experience. As someone who worked and lived for a short period in the Philippines, I can tell you with some certainty that Filipinos are a skeptical nation. They lived through dictatorial oppression and they know to be skeptical about scams like AIM Global. I suspect AIM Global have emptied the pool of gullible victims over there and are now exploring new regions to exploit.

But why us?

I know I mention it often but it’s a fact that the Eurextrade Ponzi scheme that hit us hard five years ago was specifically targeted at us in Botswana. They didn’t have significant numbers of victims in Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho or Swaziland. They just had victims in Botswana. That should tell us something. The problem is that we have a national reputation for gullibility. We’re known as a nation that is easily scammed. That’s one of the reasons companies like AIM Global are so busily trying to recruit people here. In the last week I’ve denied twenty AIM distributors entry into the Consumer Watchdog Facebook group but meanwhile they’re being allowed into many other Botswana-based Facebook groups and as soon as they’re admitted they’re actively recruiting people.

We have a choice. Are we going to allow companies like AIM Global to abuse us the way other schemes have done? Are we going to allow them to steal our money?

I think we need to be a bit more selective about the visitors we allow into our country. Yes, tourists and investors should be welcomed with open arms but we need to establish some stronger controls about people who want our money. The problem is that the internet and Facebook don’t know anything about national borders. What we need are skeptical border posts inside our heads and a much stronger mental passport control system.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Is World Ventures legitimate?

Please help us understand. World Ventures is now talk of the town and many people are lured to fall into it. Meetings are held almost everyday. Personally I was enticed to join and I did not have cash amounting to $411 or P4,500. I asked the lady who wanted me to join to use her money from her account to help me join since I was skeptic and indeed she gladly did so. I later in the day asked her to ask the administrators to cancel my transaction since my skepticism grew by the day.

I humble request that your organization makes more and loud noise about this movement. it is very pathetic to see even poor workers falling into the bottomless pit.

I’m glad that you didn’t waste your own money joining this scheme. It was very smart of you to get the person recruiting you to spend her money instead!

World Ventures is a pyramid scheme. The Gaming Board in Norway announced a few years ago that following a lengthy investigation they were certain that World Ventures is a pyramid scheme. Their main criteria for deciding this was simple. 95% of all the money paid out to recruits in Norway was for the recruitment of other people, not from actually selling things. That’s a pyramid scheme.

Like many other schemes that try to appear legitimate World Ventures have been forced by various countries to post income statements that illustrate what their distributors actually earn from their business. The latest figures showed that three-quarters of all people who join make nothing at all from the business. Of the quarter that had an income, almost all of the money was earned by the tiny proportion at the top of the pyramid. Everyone else had to share the small amount left over. But don’t forget that these statements only talk about income, they never mention profit. These figures exclude all the costs associated with running the business like transport, phone and internet bills. It’s likely that, with the exception of those very few people at the top, everyone else loses money.

So don’t waste your time on this scheme or any others like it. The rule is simple. Get Rich Quick schemes only make the crooks at the top rich, at the expense of you and me.

Where’s my insurance?

I insured my vehicle last year in May. This year in August I had an accident, and when I tried to lodge a claim the insurer told me that my policy had expired. This completely shocked me as I was NEVER informed by the insurer that my policy has expired even when I was in contact with them in throughout May for a claim that I was processing at the time. I appealed to the CEO, who informed me that they will only give me feedback on the appeal once they have assessed the vehicle (meaning that they needed to know the cost of the damage first before deciding on whether to cover or not). I have subsequently received a notification that the vehicle wont be covered.

They claim to have tried to call me once and failed, which I don't believe since I didn't get any missed calls from them; and I also feel that calling once was not enough! They could have sent email and or sms to actually inform that the policy had expired.

This I believe is very unfair business practice where the insurance company does not want to take responsibility for failure of the staff to inform a client that their policy has expired. 

Yes, I agree with you that the company should have made efforts to contact you to. Section 15 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations requires a company that offers any service to do so “with reasonable care and skill”. I think that means they should have tried harder to let you know the policy had lapsed.

However, if the policy lapsed because your payments stopped for some reason, then there’s also an obligation on you, the consumer, to have noticed this. Yes, perhaps it was the bank’s fault but it’s still your job to ensure that the payments went through. You, after all, are the customer, not the bank.

Nevertheless, we’ll get in touch with the company and see if they can reconsider their decision.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

It's all about health

You want to be healthy. I want to be healthy. We both want our family members, our friends and the people we respect to be healthy, don’t we?

I want to suggest something to you. There’s another group of people that you want to be healthy. Your customers.

It might seem obvious but with the possible exception of funeral parlours and private hospitals, every industry benefits from having healthy customers. We want our customers to be healthy because the alternative is a threat to our business. Sick customers aren’t as able to get to your store or office as healthy ones. Sick customers are less likely to spend money on the fun things of life because they’re too busy suffering. Sick customers are too busy spending their money on medicines and transport to the clinic to spend money with you.

It gets worse. Those customers who are so sick that they die don’t spend any money at all and often leave their family members poorer after their departure, further reducing the chances of them visiting you and leaving their money with you.

As well as being morally good, it’s also in your selfish interests to help your customers to become healthier. I recently met a senior manager from an insurance company in another country that already rewards its own staff for being healthier. Every day that an employee takes more than 10,000 steps counts towards a bonus scheme that gives the staff discounts on their shopping (so long as it’s healthy stuff, not chocolate and wine), discounted holidays and even financial bonuses. And guess what? They’re thinking of rolling out the same idea to their customers. And who benefits from this? Everyone. There’s no downside. The staff, and soon the customers, will enjoy slightly better health and treats, the insurance company benefits because the average life expectancy of the customers will probably increase slightly, allowing them to pay their premiums for longer, society benefits from having slightly more healthy, happy people and the economy benefits from the increased tax these longer-living people will contribute.

Health is a comprehensive good.

But let’s not forget that health isn’t just about the physical things. Health is much more complicated than that. You can’t have a completely fulfilled life if your mind isn’t healthy as well and having a healthy mind is almost as difficult as having a healthy body because they’re both so complicated.

For instance I don’t think you can be fully mentally healthy unless you can manage your finances properly. Those of us who fall for financial scams such as Eurextrade, Helping Hands International or MMM are not only going to end up poorer as a result of the money we lose but we’re also going to end up despondent, miserable and desperate. There have been too many stories from Nigeria reporting on the people who have been driven so desperate by their losses in the MMM scam to doubt this.

On a more positive note, I genuinely believe that the development of a personal savings habit is one of the best things you can do to boost your mental health. Owning your own things makes you happier, it genuinely does. Not being crippled by debt is a very good medicine for your mind.

We also need to start thinking about healthy workplaces. Those of us lucky enough to be employed typically spend about a third of our lives at work and we need to think more carefully about staying mentally healthy there as well. As employees but also as managers we need to work harder to make sure our colleagues are getting along with each other as well as possible, that our managers aren’t bullying staff rather than leading them and that when conflict inevitably appears, we deal with it in a mature, sensible, rational and compassionate manner.

We did a very unscientific survey recently and asked people how stressed they felt at work. 77% of the people who answered said their stress levels were either high or very high. I’m not sure that’s entirely true because I doubt that proportion of people are in genuinely high-stress professions. Those of us sitting in offices and meeting rooms might think we’re stressed but have you considered how stressful it is to be a police officer, emergency room doctor or a paramedic? That’s where you’ll find genuinely high stress.

Nevertheless, if people are reporting such high levels of stress I think they need to be taken seriously. Our business culture needs to incorporate ways of helping people deal with the stress they experience. The good news is that the solutions are actually quite easy.

I also don’t think we can call ourselves healthy if we’re open to cyber-infection. It used to be rogue computer disks, then it changed to infected USB drives and now it’s email and shady web sites that are doing their best to infect our devices with malware. You might recall just a few months ago that computers around the world running older versions of Windows were victims to a ransomware attack. When infected the contents of the computer would be encrypted and only unlocked when the victim paid a Bitcoin ransom to the crooks who created the tool that did the damage. Can you imagine the effect to your mental wellness if the entire contents of your computer were taken away from you? How would you cope? How would your stress levels be? And can you imagine how you’d feel when you found that even after paying the ransom nothing happened?

The good news is that all of these issues are on the national agenda. I know this for a fact because I know some of the people in business, the public service and the media who are all very keen to raise these issues for public debate. I also know it because it was the theme of this year’s Consumer Watchdog conference. We had a range of experts speaking about the issues and running interactive workshops where participants could learn directly about the things they could do to address them. But this is just the beginning. Only when we all start taking health more seriously will our nation stand a chance of being a healthy one.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

I want a refund!

On 31st of July I bought a phone at a store by the Gaborone station. Upon arriving home I realised it was not performing well and on the 2nd I took it back only to be told by the shop assistant that it only needs to be flashed and maybe it has virus. She did this and I went back home only to realize that following day the phone was still not performing, I went back again for the 3rd time and was told maybe it needs to be updated software and thy asked me if I don't have WiFi at work. I said I have and they showed me how to do it. When I get at work but it showed that the phone was updated in only 5 seconds but the problem was still there and I went back again and that time I only wanted them to give me a new phone or my money back of which they owner said the phone needs to be repaired. I was shocked that how can I buy something new and be told it needs repairs? I refused and decided I will look for help, I’m hoping you can be of help to me.

Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations states that goods and service must be “of merchantable quality” which means they should be “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased”. In other words, a cellphone should make calls, send messages and do whatever smart things it says on the box. Clearly in this case the phone isn’t of merchantable quality.

In these situations the store is obliged to offer you one of the three Rs: a refund, a repair or a replacement. However, and here’s the difficult part, the store can decide which of these three Rs it chooses. The store is entitled to say that they’ll try and repair the phone, however much you would rather just get your money back. It’s only after they fail to repair it that I think you can demand a different solution, like a refund.

I suggest that you give the store the opportunity to repair the phone and then see what happens.

Meanwhile, we need a change to the law. We need to follow the other countries around the world that now allow consumers to demand a refund if something they buy fails within the first 7 or maybe 14 days. I think that’s a right that we deserve, don’t you?

Can I trust them?

Hi Mr Harriman, kindly assist and unpack another too good to be true scheme marketed by Men of God. It is called Atlantic Global Asset Management (AGAM) or Questra World. Is it a scam or not?

Atlantic Global Asset Management and Questra World are a scam. They make some remarkable claims, such as you making “4-7% interest every week”. One of the people trying his best to recruit victims posted on Facebook that “You invest n see ur money making u money without lifting a finger.” Isn’t that a very clear warning sign?

The same person, someone fairly well known as a religious leader, has been presenting on the supposed benefits of this scheme in various locations around the country recently. I think it’s interesting that in 2010 he was marketing TVI Express, a pyramid scheme that eventually collapsed, leaving many people poorer and desperate. In 2015 he was doing his best to recruit people into the Xtreme Fuel treatment scheme, selling a product that they claimed improved fuel efficiency but in fact did nothing of the sort. And now he’s recruiting people into a new Get Rich Quick Scheme. Looks like a pattern, don’t you think?

Rather than describe the Atlantic Global Asset Management and Questra World business, I’ll quote the Belgian Financial Services and Markets Authority who expressed very clearly their feelings about Questra. They said that the scheme “clearly resembles that of a pyramid scheme or, at the very least, a Ponzi fraud." Similar warnings have been issued by the authorities in Italy, Slovakia, Austria, Liechtenstein, Poland, Spain and the UK.

I think the lesson is simple, don’t you? You can trust this new scheme as much as you can trust the other schemes this person has tried to sell people. They were scams and countries around the world think this one is a scam as well. Why should we think any differently?

Saturday, 2 September 2017

What's free?

You’ll have heard people say that nothing in life is free. Others might have told you that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The general consensus is that everything has a cost.

But is that true? Is there anything you can get for free?

Some technical nerds (like me) will tell you that even the things you think are for free aren’t. Facebook, for instance. Facebook is free, isn’t it? No, it’s not, even though it costs you nothing to register, you know that it‘ll use your precious data to post things and to wade through the inconsequential nonsense in your search for chrmesomething interesting, don’t you? Yes, there are image-free options that don’t use airtime and that certain network providers offer “for free” in the packages you buy but either way, even if you’re not paying for Facebook in money, airtime or data you’re certainly paying for it in another way. In return for access to their connections and your Facebook “friends”, you’re paying in a currency you probably didn’t ever consider. Privacy.

When you sign up for Facebook you “sign” an online agreement that says Facebook owns you. Not like a slave but they have the right to do almost anything they please with the photos you post, your friendship connections, the groups you join and the pages you like for their advantage. Of course they’re not going to use them for anything criminal or too dubious but they are going to mine them for nuggets of information they can use to exploit your use of their systems. Most importantly they’ll be targeting advertisements at you based on the understanding they, or rather their cleverly programmed computer systems, develop about you. If it’s obvious from your posts and the pages you like that you’re interested in financial matters then the ads you see will focus more on such things. If it appears that you’re very interested in sport then you’ll probably see more ads for sports news pages and online betting services. If they see that you like Donald Trump they can obviously market anti-psychotic drugs in your direction. It’s intelligence-based advertising that you permitted them to do. Yes, you did, in that agreement you signed electronically, you remember the one you chose not to read?

And no, before you ask, I didn’t read mine either. I found this out later.

And should you complain? Should you feel aggrieved or upset that you agreed to share your personal material with Facebook? No, I don’t think you should. They are, after all, giving you space on the largest global social media channel and the widest communication channel the world has ever known. It’s remarkable it’s even free, considering the amount of work that’s gone into developing it.

What else is free? What about education?

Yes, education can be free. No, I don’t mean qualifications, they always cost money, I mean a wider education. The source, however, is both the solution and the problem. The internet is a remarkable source of education. It’s also an enormous supply of misinformation, nonsense and deliberate deceptions. In a matter of seconds you can find “evidence” that the world is run by alien reptiles, that vaccines cause autism, that homeopathy has some beneficial effect and that the world is flat. Of course, all of these “facts” are nothing of the sort, every one of them is utter nonsense but if you’re even slightly gullible you might fall for them if you believe what you read on the internet. The good news is that despite the vast amount of rubbish on the web, there are sources of high-quality information and educational resources that you can use for free. I’ll post links in the online version of this article. (Udemy, University of Oxford, BBC, TED)

Those of us who own smartphones will also have access to some rather wonderful free things. Ignoring the data download costs, the Facebook and Messenger Apps, along with WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Google Maps, TripAdvisor and an enormous range of news, health, weather and productivity apps are all free. And genuinely useful.

And then there are sources of information. I know certain friends and colleagues will sigh when I mention Wikipedia but it’s not as bad as many people make out. Yes, the truly remarkable thing about Wikipedia is that it’s an encyclopedia, a body of knowledge, that is developed by the public. That does mean that any charlatan, crook of madman can go online and create a page of insane gibberish but it also means that you and I, the rational, (reasonably) sane ones can also go online and correct the lunacy. If you’re a registered user (which also costs precisely nothing) you can then go and see who edited it, when and what changes they made. It might be anarchy but it’s transparent anarchy. It’s what those of us old enough to remember the early days of the internet always hoped it would become. A democratic medium of information exchange. And like all other examples of democracy it’s flawed, slightly out of control and sometimes surprising.

And another thing that’s free. Consumer Watchdog.

Everything that Consumer Watchdog does for the consumers of Botswana has always been free. It’s still free and it always will be. The question we sometimes get from consumers, how much will it cost them for us to help them solve their problem is simple. Nothing. Zero. Not a single thebe.

And here’s one final thing that’s free. Something much more important than anything else I’ve mentioned. Something I firmly believe can change the world for the better. Something that can prevent, ease and settle arguments at a personal and an international level, one of the few things I’d describe as having miraculous properties. Kindness.

Next time you go into a store, a bank, or in fact any company you deal with, go in feeling kind. I know that it’s their job to greet you, their job to humble themselves to your needs, their job to greet you first but get there first. Why don’t you be the surprisingly nice one? You’ll be surprised what good it does to everyone’s life.

And that works for Facebook as well. Be nice. It’s free.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Can’t they repair my broken TV?

I bought a television on high purchase from a furniture store in the Main Mall Gaborone last year. The selling price was P8,999 but through high purchase was P18,999 of which I managed to pay more than P10.000.

I happened to miss some installments due to financial problems which I alerted them about. Then my TV got damaged due to a power cut and I went to them to inform them about the television. To my surprise they told me that they can’t repair nor replace it because of my arrears and when I asked them to at least take it back because I can’t pay something that I am not using. Still they are refusing even though the television is still under guarantee. Please help!

Unfortunately you’re in a very bad situation. Let’s start at the beginning. It’s not “high purchase” although I can understand why anyone would think it is. It’s certainly a very high-priced way to buy something. Your own figures show this. You were buying something that was available for P8,999 cash but for more than double that price on HIRE purchase. That’s what it’s really called. The word is “hire” and it’s very important that you understand that. Until you pay the last instalment you’re only hiring the TV and only then will it becomes your property. The other thing to understand is that the hire purchase agreement that you signed certainly included a clause saying that their obligation to fix the TV if It went wrong was only valid if you were up-to-date with your instalments.

Finally, even if you weren’t in arrears, I suspect they wouldn’t have repaired anyway because it had been damaged due to a power cut or the power surge that followed it and these events are often excluded from the warranty. It wasn’t, after all, the store’s fault that there was a power cut.

A quick tip. Install a surge protector with every sensitive electrical item or on your main distribution board. It might prevent expensive items from exploding when there’s a power surge.

Probably the only thing you can do is to rapidly catch up with your instalments and then see if the store can then honour the warranty.

Must I keep the box?

I bought a Huawei smart phone around March this year. In less than a month after purchasing the phone, the phone began freezing and switching off on its own. I then took it back to the shop and they tried to fix it and when I collected it the mouth piece was damaged. They refused to fix the mouth piece. After a few days the phone began freezing and switching off on its own like before. I took it back and they tried to fix the phone but failed to fix it and then they agreed that they will give me a new phone since they failed to fix that one.

Yesterday when I went to the shop they told me to bring the box of the phone. I told them I misplaced it and then they told me that they I won't be given a new phone because of the misplaced box and they can't help me anymore. Is this right?

Who cares about the box? How does it matter?

Well, it DOES matter if you agreed when you bought the phone that the box was so important that you needed to keep it. But did you? Did you sign anything saying that you agreed to keep the box the phone came in? If you did NOT sign such an agreement then the store can’t demand it. Section 17 (1) (d) of the Consumer Protection Regulations forbids a company from causing “a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”. Making up a rule after a problem occurs that you must supply the original packaging is clearly causing such a confusion. Section 17 (1) (e) also forbids them from “disclaiming or limiting the implied warranty of merchantability” unless they made the requirement to keep the box very clear when you bought the phone.

I suggest you double check whether there is any evidence that you agreed to keep the box and if there isn’t, go and explain the law to them. See if they feel like obeying it before we escalate things further.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Is Bitcoin an investment?

Bitcoin doesn’t show any signs of going away. In fact, the growing hype about it just makes it more and more appealing to people. The problem is that most of us know so little about this new currency that we’re open to being exploited by those who see Bitcoin as an opportunity to make money from us rather than from Bitcoin itself.

So let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a currency, but it’s not like any currency we've seen before. With Bitcoin there are no coins or notes, no bits of metal or paper you can put in your wallet or purse. This currency exists solely in cyberspace. It's a digital currency, sometimes called a virtual currency or more often a cryptocurrency. ‘Crypto’ refers to the fact that Bitcoin transactions are kept encrypted online.

The biggest problem about Bitcoin is that it’s confusing. As soon as you start researching Bitcoin you encounter terms like "blockchain", "distributed ledger" and "Bitcoin mining" and they’re hard to understand for us amateurs. There's also the confusion that your money is "out there" in cyberspace and not in your pocket. That's something new and hard to comprehend.

In fact the "out there" element is very new and innovative. The blockchain, an online database of Bitcoin transactions that records and confirms every transaction ever performed between people using Bitcoin, is hosted all over the world, not in one place. There is no central repository of these transactions, they’re all over the place. That’s the “distributed ledger”.

Then there are the so-called Bitcoin Miners, the people who run the computers on which the Blockchain is hosted. These miners, using enormous computing resources, can earn themselves Bitcoins by holding and verifying the transactions but it's important to know that the required level of computing power required to be a profitable data miner is way beyond individuals like you and me and can only really be achieved by "mining farms" with enormous processing power and energy consumption.

As I mentioned, one of the most important elements of Bitcoin is that it’s encrypted and as a result it’s currently extremely difficult for banking and intelligence agencies to track the payments that are made using Bitcoin. It’s effectively impossible to see what someone is buying or who they’re paying. Whether it’s you buying a plane ticket or your neighbour buying drugs, child pornography or explosives, the transactions are untraceable. For some that allows them some reasonable privacy, for others it’s a great way of hiding criminal and terrorist activities. This scares law enforcement agencies all over the world.

Despite all these issues I suspect that Bitcoin, or maybe something like it, might be the future of money. Many of us already use international online payment systems such as Paypal and Apple Pay and local money transfer services like eWallet, MyZaka and Orange Money but they're all based on currencies that we know. Bitcoin is the next step along the monetary evolutionary staircase. Not only is it an online payment mechanism but it’s a currency of its own.

But it's highly risky.

Bitcoin is still so new that even financial experts have no idea of what it's future will be. Some are already saying its days may be numbered. What's more, and despite what some proponents are saying, its value can easily go down as well as up. If you bought Bitcoins in November 2013 you would have lost 78% of your "investment" by January 2015. Before anyone criticizes me for using those figures I admit I chose the highest and lowest values but my point is that it's volatile. All currencies are volatile but Bitcoin is clearly even more volatile than others.

Today the value of a Bitcoin has increased dramatically again. At the time I’m writing this, the value of one Bitcoin is over $4,000, more than twice the value it had three months ago. Those of us who were considering buying a few months ago are probably kicking ourselves right now but does that mean we should buy into Bitcoin now? Just because the value has increased so much recently, that doesn’t mean that rise will continue any further. In fact, while many people are encouraging us to “invest” in Bitcoins, many others are warning against the same thing. There is absolutely no guarantee that Bitcoins will continue to increase in value, no guarantee that it won’t crash and burn.

The biggest complication that worries me is that Bitcoin is surrounded by scams and people desperate to exploit our ignorance. On Facebook you’ll see a number of advertisements for people making the most of the Bitcoin name. For example, I saw an advertisement announcing the “Bitcoin Revolution with BitClub Network” at a hotel in Francistown next month. The ad proudly displayed images of the three “Bitcoin Entrepreneurs” who would appear at this revolutionary event and that amused me. Is there such a thing as a Bitcoin Entrepreneur? Is there such a thing as a Pula entrepreneur? A Dollar entrepreneur? A Rand entrepreneur? Of course not.

You have to ask yourself this. If someone came to your town and advertised a seminar on making money from the US dollar, would you think of attending? You should also ask yourself this. How do these “Bitcoin entrepreneurs” benefit from you attending the workshop or joining their scheme? If they have a way of making money from Bitcoin, why are they offering to share it with you and me? Doesn’t this sound a bit suspicious to you? It certainly does to me. In fact, my view is that BitClub Network shows all the signs of being a pyramid scheme. The reason these people are trying to recruit other people is that they make money from new people joining rather than from the value of Bitcoins.

My recommendation is simple. If you’re tempted to “invest” in Bitcoins then do so but understand that it’s a very high risk place to put your money. Like any other such investment you should only invest money you can afford to lose. Don’t invest the rent or your loan repayments and don’t trust anyone who wants you to join their Bitcoin scheme.


Note: In the print version of this article I erroneously referred to "Data Miners" instead of "Bitcoin Miners".

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Voice.- Consumer's Voice

Where’s my laybye?

I need your advice and help. In March I placed laybye at a store at BBS Mall and the due date was 11th July. I had misplaced my receipt so I went to the store about a week ago to inquire if I can collect my clothes without the receipt and they clearly said No. The lady advised me to go look for the receipt, I asked her what will happen if my laybye expires and she said I could take something from the shop with the money I put down for laybye which was P105.

I found my receipt yesterday and I went to the store to collect clothes. To my dismay the lady told me that I long collected my clothes on the 21 of July but I swear I never collected the clothes. I even showed them the receipt and they refused to refund my money or let me get something amounting to that money. I know its not that much but for me P100 is a lot of money as I’m a single parent caring for my kids alone, so a big shop like pep to cheat its not right. How can I be assisted?

There are several things you can do. Firstly, you can suggest to them that they have breached Section 17 (1) (d) of the Consumer Protection Regulations by “causing a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”. I think that by telling you that you have no rights to the goods you paid for and without offering any proof that you really collected the goods already, they’ve clearly caused some confusion about your rights, haven’t they?

Another thing you can do is go to a Police Station and ask them to intervene. If the store is claiming that someone has taken the goods you paid for then a crime has been committed, against both the store and you. Ask the police if you can make a formal statement that you did not take the goods and then present that to the store, assuring them that if you are shown to have lied when making the statement, you’ll willingly submit to prosecution for making a false statement.

Finally, we can get in touch with the store to ask them to be a little bit friendlier. Because so far they’ve been the exact opposite of that!

Who should pay for the goats?

Hello sir I need your help I bought some goats from someone and then we agreed with one another to keep the goats at his place until the transfer went through. We didn’t agree with any payment he was saying those goats are for security until the money went through and it takes 14 days for the transfer so now the money went through into his account and he is saying I must pay for the feeds for that 14 days so can you please help with that one. What can I do?

I think this is a very good example of a situation that wouldn’t have occurred if your agreement had been put in writing. If you’d sat down together and written a sale agreement you both would have known who should pay for what and you would have avoided all doubt. I always suggest that whatever it is you’re selling or buying, both sides benefit from having the agreement in writing. That way if there is ever any disagreement you have that agreement to go back to.

Incidentally, what sort of money transfer takes 14 days in 2017? There shouldn’t be any reason for such a long delay.

Given that you don’t have a written agreement to rely on, I suggest you offer a compromise. The other guy did incur costs feeding the goats during the time the money took to transfer but it wasn’t something you had agreed to pay for. Why not suggest to him that you’ll split the costs between you. Maybe he’ll be reasonable?

And next time? Get it in writing!

Friday, 18 August 2017

The small print

It’s not the big things that will hurt you, it’s the little ones.

We all know that the most dangerous mammal in Africa is the hippopotamus, don’t we? Except that it’s not true. The most dangerous mammal in the one you see in the mirror every morning. Human beings are much more likely to kill you than any other two or four-legged creature. Even more dangerous are the critters with six legs such as the mosquito. Even more dangerous are the ones even smaller with no legs at all: bacteria and viruses.

As consumers, the same rules apply. The big, obvious, “in your face” things like advertisements, special offers and fancy displays of goods in windows are seductive but it’s not them that will end up hurting you. It’s the little things that will do that. The little words in the contract you sign. The words you either didn’t read or didn’t understand.

Despite being a passionate believer in the liberal, free market this is an area where my former radical left-wing opinions still sometimes appear. The capitalists are screwing us, the workers. That’s because they can afford lawyers and we can’t. Or perhaps they can just afford better ones than we can. They can write contracts that exploit our ignorance, naiveté or laziness.

Mmegi readers will know that the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama was due to speak in Botswana, probably right now as you are reading this. However, following his “exhaustion” he was forced to cancel his appearance just a week before he was due to arrive. I’m not going to comment on the politics of this. As you’ll all know the Chinese government were very angry with us and our government for permitting him to come here and exercise his right to speak his mind on such dangerous topics as spirituality, Botho and Ubuntu. No, I’m really not going to comment on their bullying tactics, colonialism and contempt for our tradition of free and open speech. No, I really won’t.

Instead I’ll avoid such sensitive subjects and talk about the contract that applied to anyone who was planning to attend the event and listen to him speak. Several people have asked for our advice following the cancellation and how they should address the organisers who have apparently said that the money people paid to be there either won’t or can’t be refunded. Is this reasonable, they ask?

In fact, what matters most is not whether their refusal is reasonable or not, what actually matters is what the contract says.

In the contract that apparently applies to this event, there is a clause that says:
“The Organizer reserves the right to modify the program without prior notice. The Organizer may announce possible program changes on its home page and/or at the venue of the event.”
Yes, technically speaking, the non-appearance of the key person at the event, the keynote speaker, the (almost) universally respected leader of a global religion is a “program change”, in the same way that KFC without chicken, a bar without beer or a bank without money would be a “program change”. And yes, the Dalai Lama was only one speaker at the event, there were plenty of other people scheduled to say their thing. But can you name even one of them?

KFC can give you chips without chicken, a bar can serve you lemonade or wine and a bank can pester you with Know Your Customer information demands, but a Dalai Lama event without the Dalai Lama is different.

But regardless, there’s no refund and that’s probably understandable. The organisers have already paid a deposit for the venue and the catering, bought flights for the other people who were going to speak and paid staff their salary for persuading people to stand up against a foreign government determined to tell us how to run our country and dictate who can speak their minds here. Whoops, I went there again, sorry.

So they’ve incurred costs and a full refund probably isn’t morally possible but the small print is what matters most. In fact, it’s the only thing that matters. But maybe the organisers should have followed the advice offered by a member of our Facebook group. Why didn’t they take out insurance against this happening? It would have added to everyone’s costs but it would have enabled them to offer their disappointed customers something instead of just irritation and frustration.

The thing that worries me most is how often we hear from consumers who are faced with financial ruin because they didn’t read a contract. Or perhaps they did read it but they didn’t understand it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a furniture store’s hire purchase agreement, an insurance policy, a cellphone contract, a banking agreement or a lease, so many people simply sign on the dotted line and don’t take the time to understand what it is they’re committing themselves to. And then they get into trouble.

Perhaps the most unsettling clause I ever saw in a contract was in a hire purchase agreement. After several pages of tiny text, including a mixture of Latin, long words and confusion, it finished with a statement something like “I have understood this agreement and promise never to say that I didn’t”.

So what should we do? How can you and I protect ourselves? The first thing is simple. Never, under any circumstances, sign a document that you haven’t read and understood. Secondly, always ask to take an agreement away with you so you can read it at leisure. Go back the next day and sign it if you think you commit to it. If a store won’t let you take the agreement away then ask yourself what it is they’re trying to hide.

Another thing you can do is take control. Just above your signature, write something like “I do not agree to clause X”, or “I have not read or fully understood this agreement”. Maybe even cross out and initial any clause you don’t like. Always write “Not inspected or tested” on any delivery note you ever see.

Above all, understand the importance of your signature. If you sign it, you’re committed and there’s often no way out.

UPDATE: The organisers have stated that refunds WILL be available to those who request them. Good news!

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Where’s my ring?

Hi Mr Harriman. I bought a ring worth P4300 in a certain company and it got damaged the upper part detaching. Their policy says they can either repair or replace or refund. I took the ring to them and they said they can repair in 2 weeks. Two weeks is over and they called me to say they haven’t found the parts to repair it and I should start counting another 3 weeks. I don’t agree because I have waited too long. The ring was 3 months old. Do I have the right to ask for an exchange or refund because I can’t wait for another 3 weeks. My marriage is new and it pains me to live without my ring.

I agree with you entirely. You’ve waited too long. You spent a huge amount of money on an item that was incredibly important to you, something of enormous sentimental value. A wedding ring isn’t the same as a watch or a necklace, it’s meaningful and the delay that this company has caused you is completely unacceptable.

The store is right that they are required to offer one of the three Rs, a refund, repair or replacement. They’re also correct that it’s up to them to decide which of the three they offer you. However there a limits. They had three weeks to repair the ring and although I’m clearly not an expert on jewellery, I can’t imagine why it should take so long to repair a wedding ring. I think you have the right to escalate the situation a bit. I think you’re entitled to tell the store that they’ve had more than enough time and that now you expect a solution within a week.

I suggest you tell them that a repair or a replacement are now the only solutions you will accept. We’ll also get in touch with them and see if we can’t get them to accelerate things a bit.

Is Helping Hands International ok?

Please help. Is Helping Hand International with its money pyramid a genuine NGO and is it registered in Southern African countries?

Helping Hands International is a pyramid scheme. The people marketing the scheme have described it as a “non governmental organization” attempting to “empower the less privileged people and orphanage homes”. They also claim that joining the scheme will offer a variety of things, including “passive income”, new cars, laptops, a “house of your own”, free trips abroad, loans of up to P500,000, scholarships and “residual income for life” but none of this is true. Not a single thing.

Unlike Multi-Level Marketing schemes like Amway and Herbalife, Helping Hands International has no products and its business is based entirely on recruiting people beneath you and those recruits recruiting people beneath them. Everyone joining is promised the prospect of money magically flowing in their direction. That’s what we call a pyramid scheme.

Some months ago I had a WhatsApp conversation with someone who was busily recruiting people into Helping Hands and I asked him “So you earn money by recruiting other people? I don't have to sell anything, just recruit more people?”. His answer was simple. “Yes Sir”. See, the scheme’s own recruiters even confess it’s a pyramid scheme.

They’re also liars. Their advertisements claim that they are “in partnership with Bill Gate Foundation, Hyundai Motors, Apple Corporation, HP” but in reality there are no such partnerships. Reputable people and companies like these don’t endorse pyramid schemes like Helping Hands International.

In summary, this is nothing more than a pyramid scheme run by people who tell lies. Like all pyramid schemes Helping Hands International will eventually collapse, leaving its victims disappointed, embarrassed and poorer. Do you really want to be a victim? Please warn everyone you know about them. Let’s spread the word and help protect our family, friends and neighbours.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Are we all pirates?

I caused some disturbance in our Facebook group last week when I posted the details of a conversation I had with someone who posted an advertisement in the group. His advertisement offered a range of technology services including “Laptop repair(any problem)”, “Theory Test Software(for Laptop/Desktop & phones” and “*asswords removal both pc & phone” but the one that interested me most concerned Windows.

The ad offered “Operating system Windows 7,8,8.1,10”. I messaged the guy and asked him how much Windows 10 would cost me. “p100”, he told me. Given that Windows 10 currently costs about ten times that much if you buy it directly from Microsoft, I’m sure you can understand that I was suspicious. “Is this legal”, I asked? “What's legal??upgrading your machine??that's ur laptop u do whatever u want...”, was his response. I asked if this wasn’t software piracy and he said “No sir if you know IT that's not a piracy”. My final question was “Are you paying Microsoft their licence fee?” and that when he lost patience.

“Old man get your facts together then talk to me when ready I got no time to argue with u let me help those who want my service”.

I posted this exchange as well as a copy of his original advertisement so everyone in the group could see it and the reaction was mixed. The overwhelming majority expressed surprise or shock at what was clearly software piracy but a vocal minority had different reactions. One member of the group said “Leave the guy alone, why are you trying to disturb his hustle”. Another asked “How are you ripped off when he sells a software worth more the P1500 to you for P100?” Someone else suggested that “That's how the world works, until then, let the guy be, hes trying to make cash akere”.

I should state that I admire small entrepreneurs, those people who try to make some money the hard way, by hitting the streets (or Facebook) buying and selling things, trying to make a profit. But I don’t admire hustlers. My dictionary defines the word hustle as “to obtain illicitly or by forceful action” and that’s an approach we shouldn’t accept. I also don’t admire thieves.

And yes, I do think this guy is a thief. The simple truth is that the only way he can afford to sell people copies of Windows 10 for on tenth of its normal price is if he is selling pirated copies of the product. And selling pirated copies of anything is a form of theft. The fact that it’s common is no excuse. Many people exceed the speed limit when they’re driving and drive through red lights but does that make it right? Does the frequency of a crime excuse that crime? No, it doesn’t. It also doesn’t matter that someone else might have done the same thing. That doesn’t excuse you doing it.

The fact that the person or company having its products stolen is fabulously wealthy is also irrelevant. Software pirates aren’t modern-day Robin Hood figures robbing from the rich to give to the poor, they’re keeping the money for themselves.

It’s also important to know that they’re selling you a product that probably won’t work properly. Companies life Microsoft are smart enough to build protections into their technology to ensure that piracy is difficult for its consumers. Sooner or later the computer running the pirated version will connect to the internet and then will declare itself to Microsoft’s servers and will then start the process of shutting itself down. One member of the group appears to have that problem, posting “My software is not genuine. My laptop keeps on popping that message whenever am using it”. Eventually the software is going to stop working completely.

Not everyone was sympathetic to our pirate. One member of the groups suggested that if “you are comfortable buying pirated software, then you might not mind buying a stolen cellphone or tv.” Another described his customers as “being ripped off by unscrupulous crooks masquerading as businessmen”. Yet another correctly suggested that his services should be avoided because “he's breaking a handful of laws in doing so and making the recipient a criminal as well.”

And that’s a very good point. Section 317 (2) of the Penal Code says that:
"Any person who receives or retains any property knowing or having reason to believe the same to have been unlawfully taken, obtained, converted or disposed of in a manner which constitutes any other offence, is guilty of an offence and is liable to the same punishment as the offender by whom the property was unlawfully obtained, converted or disposed of."
Meanwhile I also acknowledge that Windows 10 is an expensive product. It comes already installed on almost all personal computers but if you need to buy it new, you’ll need to pay about P1,200 online and more if you go to a computer store. If you add the price of Microsoft Office on top that’s roughly the same price again so it really can be an expensive business.

But the irony is that you don’t need to spend any money at all to get a computer working. You don’t need to spend a single thebe on Windows or Office if money is tight.

The alternative is to be radical. Go for an entirely legal, safe and free alternative to Windows. Yes, I did say “free”. Install a version of Unix such as Ubuntu or Linux which you can download for free and it even comes with the equivalent of Word, Excel and Powerpoint and is really easy to use. Better still it even runs on the older, lower power computer you might have. I’ve done it several times and I have computers at home and in the office running Linux right now. Even better still, like its distant cousin, the Mac, a computer running Unix is almost immune from viruses and malware?

If money is short (or even if it’s not) the alternative is there. You don’t need to spend your precious, hard-earned money with Microsoft or even a hustler selling you stolen goods.

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Must I pay so much?

Kindly assist me with information and possibly solution.

Someone borrowed P5,000 from a motshelo. I had referred him to the lady. He did not pay as per agreement. It took long but I ended up paying P13,000 for this P5,000. The lady insists that she is owed P27,000 for this P5,000.

What help can I get if any and where can I get the help? Please note this is not a registered micro lender.

I would really appreciate your assistance with this.

I think the lady should stop smoking whatever has driven her insane.

This is nonsense. The “in duplum” rule, a piece of common law applicable in Botswana says that when a debt is settled, the interest charged may not exceed the capital amount outstanding. If the original amount borrowed was P5,000, the interest at the time you settle the debt cannot legally exceed that amount. The lender can charge a modest amount for administration costs but they can’t use that to avoid the in duplum rule.

Also, although motshelo schemes are “informal”, they are nevertheless covered by NBFIRA, the Non-Bank Financial Institutions Regulatory Authority. I suggest you call NBFIRA tomorrow and ask for their advice. Their numbers are 3102595 and 3686100. If you can’t get through to the right person let me know and I’ll find someone there for you.

Is this loan genuine?

I received an email from a company called African Loans offering to lend money. I applied for a loan of 15,000 Euros and they have asked me my banking details and a registration fee of 215 Euros. They say they will lend me the full 15,000 Euros and I must pay them 638 Euros monthly for 48 months at an interest rate of 2% per year. They say that the total monthly payment will be 15,314 Euros.

I’m concerned because I have also lost a lot of money through the 419 scams by Nigerians.

Could you please check this one out for me?

I think you know this is a scam, don’t you? Given that I can see from your email footer that you work as a finance officer, I’m sure you’ve done the maths already. 48 monthly payments of €638 is a total of €30,624, more than twice what they say it is. Also, I’m sure you will have calculated that interest rate they claim they’ll charge is 26% per year, not 2%. Tell me you noticed that they can’t do maths?

You’ll also have wondered how a lender would claim to lend anyone money at a level lower than the inflation rate either in Botswana or anywhere else, and so much lower than your bank can do.

I also hope that you’ve wondered why a genuine finance company would use a Gmail address ("") rather than a more business-like one? I’m certain that you’ll also have wondered why a company that says it’s based in Europe would consider lending money to someone in Africa.

Again, I’m sure you’ll have wondered why you need to pay them a “registration fee”. You’ll have tried to remember the last time your bank tried to charge such a fee, wouldn’t you?

Given that you fell for a 419 “advance fee” scam in the past I’m sure you’ll have noticed the overwhelming similarity between that scam and this loan offer? You’ll remember how the previous scammers offered you, a total stranger, something amazing so long as you gave them money in advance. You’ll remember how you didn’t get that money back. You’ll have learned that scammers don’t offer refunds if you complain.

Please tell me that you saw all these things? Please?

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Voice - Consumer's Voice

Can they keep my money?

Hi Richard. I went to a bed shop a month or two ago and saw a bed was interested in but I was told I can laybye it for 6 months. Unfortunately I am no longer working and won't be able to pay my monthly so I opted to cancel the laybye and they are saying they are going to charge me something out of the money I already paid. This was never explained to me when I took the laybye so they just won't refund me.

There were no instructions whatsoever on the laybye regarding the terms and conditions.

Are you sure there wasn’t a form you signed explaining the conditions of the laybye? I’d be surprised if a reputable store didn’t insist on a written agreement for this sort of purchase. If there isn’t how can they expect to know who owes what to who?

In normal circumstances I can see how a store might want to charge you a small fee because of the minor inconvenience you’ve caused them when you cancel the deal. They’ll need to update their records to show that the bed is no longer reserved for you and they might even have turned away another customer who wanted to buy the bed. This will have cost them some money through no fault of their own.

However, if there isn’t such a written agreement then I can’t see how they can demand that they keep a portion of what you’ve already paid them. They can’t just make up conditions to suit their interests. Section 15 (1) (e) of the Consumer Protection Regulations says that a company fails to meet minimum standards of performance if, when a deal is cancelled, they fail to pay back a down-payment or deposit “promptly”. Section 17 (1) (d) also says that they can’t cause “a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding” regarding your legal rights” by just making up conditions when they feel like it.

I suggest you go back to the store and ask them to show you where you agreed that they could deduct any amount from your payment. If they can’t then they have no right to do so.

How much interest can they charge?

I wanted to ask if it's within a Shop's right to charge one interest in a store card that is way more than what that said person owes them? E.g. Maybe I owe them 5,000 and I don't pay them for 1 year because I'm not working can they charge me interest monthly and then the amount I owe becomes 15,000?

Yes, they can. There are no limits to what a lender can charge you with one exception. That’s the so-called “in duplum” rule which says that when a debt is settled, the interest cannot be greater than the capital amount that is remaining. So if you go to them owing P5,000, they can’t charge more than P5,000 in interest. But that’s only at the time you settle the debt in full. If you’re paying the interest over an extended period then there’s no limit. That’s why if you buy something using hire purchase or have a long-term bank loan the interest could exceed the capital amount.

Meanwhile you’re entitled to a full statement of your account that should show you every payment you made, every charge they applied and the penalties and interest they applied when you were in arrears. I think you should ask for such a statement and check that their records are correct and that their arithmetic is correct.

As for the numbers they’re quoting they seem possible to me. The costs of using store cards and buying on hire purchase are enormous and if you get into arrears they can be even greater. Our advice is to avoid hire purchase and store cards like they’re an infectious disease. While store cards are sold to us by stressing their convenience and the ease with which you can buy things, the real reason stores want you to have them is that they make separating us from our money so much easier. If you do ever get one please make sure that you read and understand the terms and conditions before you sign the application form. If by any chance the store won’t let you take the T&Cs away to think about it, then you know they have something to hide!

We're ignorant

Last week I asked whether we’re stupid. This week I’ve been wondering if we’re ignorant. The answers are very different.

No, I don’t think we’re stupid, at least not all of us. Yes, we’ve all heard stories of consumers doing things that can only be described as stupid, like lending large amounts of money to total strangers without a written agreement but most of us are smarter than that, aren’t we? Most of us know to sign agreements that we’ve read and fully understood and that don’t screw us, don’t we? Please tell me that’s true?

Let’s assume that only a few of us are stupid. So that’s ok. I think that there’s a threat just as dangerous as stupidity and that’s ignorance. Don’t get confused, they’re not the same thing. Stupidity is the lack of ability to think properly, ignorance is just a lack of information. I’m fairly ignorant about the electrical systems in motor vehicles but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I also know almost nothing about gardening, dress-making or the traditional religious belief systems in Mongolia. But that doesn’t make me an idiot.

The problem is that ignorance threatens consumers just as much as stupidity. It puts us at the mercy of suppliers who don’t have our interests at heart or those who are actively trying to deceive us. The simplest example is with modern technology. Most of us know very little, perhaps nothing at all, about the technology that surrounds us. We don’t know how our cellphone or laptop works, how messages travel through the internet or how that video connection to our cousin in a faraway country happens. So long as it works we’re happy.

You might ask if it even matters? So long as it works, my emails arrive, I can chat to cuzzy and I can make that call, who cares how it works? That’s true in those cases but what happens when the laptop goes wrong and the company repairing is say you must pay them P2,500 for a new motherboard? Do you have any idea whether they’re telling the truth or not? What happens when you’re buying a replacement and the salesperson just starts talking about kilo-this, mega-that and giga-the-other. Do you understand a word they’re saying?

It’s no different with financial products. Very few of us are sufficiently well-educated to know the difference between different types of investments and we rely on the salesperson to give us the information we need. The same salesperson who is probably paid a commission on the size of your investment, not how well it suits your needs.

In all of these areas we need suppliers of complicated products, whether they’re computers, cellphones or investment policies to educate us openly and fairly, taking our interests into account. But you know they’re not going to do that, don’t you? So we need to force them.

Here’s a simple tip for you. Whenever someone claiming to be an expert in their area tries to explain something complicated to you and you don’t understand, use this phrase:

“Explain that do me again but this time imagine I’m only 12 years old.”

If that doesn’t work, try this one, my personal favourite:

“Explain that to me again, but using different words.”

Anyone who’s a real expert in their field will be able to do either of those things easily. Anyone who can’t clearly isn’t an expert.

There are also areas where we’re ignorant simply because we’ve never experienced something before. Bitcoin is the best example right now. As you might now by now, Bitcoin is a currency, but not like any currency we've known before. There are no coins or notes with Bitcoin, no bits of metal or paper. There’s nothing you can put in your wallet or purse. It exists purely in cyberspace. It’s a “cryptocurrency” and it’s all a bit confusing until you’ve done some serous research. Until then we’re ignorant? The danger is that this ignorance is being exploited by people who have only their own bank balance in mind. The crooks selling “Billcoin” and “Pipcoin” are doing their best to persuade us that their schemes are either similar, or connected to Bitcoin when in fact they’re nothing more than scams. Our ignorance in this area is likely to leave a lot of people very poor.

There are also situations when our ignorance of procedure presents a risk. Until last week, I didn’t know what you were meant to do when someone died in their home. The background isn’t relevant but we recently found ourselves alone in a friend’s house just hours after he’d died, having been discharged from hospital so he could die with dignity at home and surrounded by the people who loved him. Ok, we thought. What next? The first funeral parlour we called, one you all know, was unhelpful. No, we can’t do anything without a death certificate, they told us. But he died at home on a Sunday, we told them and no doctor was present. You need to take him back to the hospital so they can certify him dead, they told us. Can’t you do that, we asked, you’re the experts on transporting deceased people. Not without the death certificate, they said. You’ll need to take him back to the hospital so they can certify him dead, they continued. “Have you got a truck?”, they asked us.

That’s when we hung up and called a more sympathetic competitor. An hour later, a friendly doctor and the competitors’ team arrived and everything was sorted out. Between them, they’d been able to explain and provide some assistance.

I’m not asking for miracles but I think both the hospital and the funeral parlour have a duty to tell those of us ignorant about the technicalities of death how it’s meant to be. Why don’t hospitals produce a guide on what to do for those of us who are amateurs? Why don’t funeral parlours have a link on their web site that explains how the process should work? Why don’t they help us overcome our ignorance?

In this case our ignorance not only caused us some distress but it led to a big company losing business and receiving a formal complaint about their arrogance, lack of sympathy and stupidity.

Yes, I DO mean stupidity, not ignorance.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Are we stupid?

It’s a question I sometimes ask myself. Are consumers stupid? Are we perhaps a bit insane? Should our mothers allow us out unaccompanied?

Some while ago we had a visit from a desperate consumer who wanted our help. She was a mature woman with a long, reasonably successful career in business. Now she was running her own store. She was the sort of person I really admire. She’d saved some money from her mainstream job, had quit and had invested it in a small start-up business and then worked very hard to make a success of herself. Until she made catastrophic mistake.

She had a regular customer, a man who would often visit her store, would have a chat and would then buy a few things. He sounds like the perfect customer.

After several visits the situation changed a bit. He visited the store one day and told the owner about a project he was working on and that he needed some capital. Would she lend him some money? She gave it some thought and because he was a nice guy, spent money in her store and had a nice smile she said yes, he could borrow the money. Off they went to the bank and she transferred the money directly into his account.

Guess what? He didn’t pay her back. My heart sank. But you and I both knew that was going to happen, didn’t we? You don’t lend money to strangers. Don’t we all know that?

A year later she was in my office asking me if I could think of any way to help her get money back.

My first question was simple. You put this in writing, didn’t you? No, she said, it was just a verbal agreement. My heart sank further. How would she ever be able to prove that she’d lent him the money, how much she’d lent him or what plan there’d been for him to repay her?

I plucked up some courage and asked the big question. How much did you lend him? “One point four”, were her exact words. I felt a little better. I was about to suggest that she forget the loan and give up because, well, it was only P1,400, wasn’t it? To someone running a successful store that’s not enough to ruin the business and she’d probably spend more trying to recover the money than the amount she might get back.

But I didn’t say that. I didn’t say it because of the expression on her face. My heart started sinking again. Rapidly. “Exactly how much did you lend him?”, I asked.

“One million, four hundred thousand Pula”, she said.

My heart sank so low that I was close to calling my cardiologist.

I think I was very restrained. I didn’t laugh out loud, my jaw didn’t drop to the floor, I didn’t get up and start shaking her. Instead I sympathized, told her that I suspected that it would be very difficult to recover the money without any evidence that she actually lent it to him but recommended an attorney that I trust who might have some ideas. The problem is simple. If she ever managed to get him in front of a magistrate or judge he’s just going to say that it was a gift between friends or perhaps even lovers and that she’d agreed he didn’t need to pay back the money. He could come up with any story that seemed plausible and she wouldn’t be able to prove otherwise.

I also think I was very restrained because I didn’t ask the women for her mother’s phone number so we can arrange to have her locked in her bedroom until she grows up and develops some common sense.

It’s important to note that this woman isn’t stupid. She had a successful career and then had the intelligence needed to start a small business. But she’s clearly catastrophically naïve.

It’s similar for the people who join Multi-Level Marketing schemes like Amway, Herbalife, Tupperware and pyramid schemes like World Ventures. They’re not stupid but they are gullible. Even when they’re presented with the facts that the companies very quietly reveal in the income disclosure statements they either ignore them or develop complex denial mechanisms to avoid the uncomfortable truth. Almost everyone who signs up for the schemes either makes no money or even loses money from doing so.

And then there are the victims of scams. The scams we’ve all seen about the daughters or widows of West African millionaires who need help transferring money out of their country, amazing job offers in exotic places or expressions of love and desire from strangers on Facebook. Are the people who fall for these scams stupid?

Yes, some of them obviously are but the majority are just gullible. Gullible enough to fall for that initial email of Inbox message. And that’s exactly why these scams are so successful. The scammers actively seek the most gullible people.

Cormac Herley, a researcher employed by Microsoft, wrote a paper (link to 553kb pdf download) in 2012 entitled “Why do Nigerian scammers say they are from Nigeria?” that examined these scams. He wrote:
“An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre. It will be recognized and ignored by anyone who has been using the Internet long enough to have seen it several times. (…) The initial email is effectively the attacker’s classifier: it determines who responds, and thus who the scammer attacks (i.e., enters into email conversation with). The goal of the email is not so much to attract viable users as to repel the non-viable ones, who greatly outnumber them.”
The scammers send these ridiculous emails to millions of potential victims, and they’ve discovered that the best way to maximise their success rate, to get the highest proportion of victims to cough up cash, is to make that first message as ridiculous as possible. If they do that, then only the MOST gullible people will respond. The people likely to respond to those emails are the ones worth the scammer’s time. Make the first email as stupid as possible and the victims will select themselves.

Stupidity isn’t the biggest threat we face and no, most consumers aren’t stupid. But a lot of us are deeply, dangerously gullible. And the only way to combat that is by developing a national skepticism. Are you prepared to be part of the movement?