Consumer Watch

Wendy Knowler fights for your rights...

Wendy Knowler masthead
March 12 2012 at 11:28

It's a promise so bold, it’s bound to attract attention – and custom.

“We’ll beat any airline quote or you fly for free!”

That’s been Flight Centre SA’s claim, in various forms, for some time, and it’s resulted in the company being called to answer several claims of misleading advertising, laid with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) by consumers who believed they had indeed found a cheaper quote for the same flight but didn’t get to fly free.

Most recently – in late January – the ASA’s directorate found Flight Centre SA in breach of a 2010 ruling, ordering the company not to use the claim: “We will beat any airline or web airfare quote or you fly for free!”

The claim was found to be misleading because the terms and conditions revealed that this applied only to SA registered businesses and websites.

Then late last year, a Mr T Jacobs told the ASA that Flight Centre could not beat the quote he submitted, and did not honour its “fly free” guarantee, so the ASA should enforce its previous ruling.

Flight Centre argued that its promise had been amended since the previous ruling, to state: “Lowest airfare guarantee. We will beat airfare quotes for available flights departing from South Africa or you fly free”.

But the directorate had a different view.

“(Flight Centre) has merely again shifted the goalposts by omitting another material fact from its broad and largely unqualified claim,” it said.

It found the travel company in breach of the earlier ruling.

Flight Centre’s latest claim goes like this: “Lowest Airfare Guarantee. We will beat same-day airfare quotes for available flights departing from South Africa or you fly free.”

It goes on to say that if a consumer finds such a cheaper airfare, it will beat it by R20 discount on a domestic flight and R50 on an international one, plus give them a R100 voucher for a future travel booking with Flight Centre.

In the past, I’ve asked Flight Centre if anyone has ever got a free flight as a result of this promise. Yes, I was told. When pressed for details, I was told that the ASA had been given the details.

Well, I’m happy to report that someone – a party of five, in fact – got free flights.

In December, pensioner Tony Bagnall wrote to me to complain that Flight Centre’s Greenstone Mall branch in Edenvale hadn’t honoured its “we will beat airfare quotes for available flights departing from South Africa or you fly free” promise in his case.

He said he’d been quoted “a steal of a deal” for four adults and a child, flying to London in January, and returning in February. The price was R33 955.

He then decided to put Flight Centre’s promise to the test and found the same flights offered on Emirates’ website for a total of R27 855, “fully inclusive, apples for apples”.

“However, far from honouring their guaranteed R50 reduction with a R100 travel voucher, they demanded an additional R250 per person service charge to book the flights,” he said.

“By the time we got the final details by e-mail, their office had closed, so we were not in a position to raise a query that same day. Instead, we went to the Emirates site, booked online and saved the money.”

Bagnall lodged a complaint with the ASA, and I asked him to keep me posted.

Which he did – last week he e-mailed me to say last month he’d been contacted by a Flight Centre executive, who had said the company had been contacted by the ASA, and had investigated his complaint as a result.

In doing so, it had noted some discrepancies, and as result, the company would honour its “fly for free” promise and he’d be refunded the cost of his Emirates flights – R 27 885 – as a “gesture of goodwill”.

“I was completely gobsmacked,” Bagnall told me.

Ironically, he was in the UK, on that trip, when he got the news.

And the money has since been refunded, to the last cent.

“For us, being retired, this is a very substantial amount of money.

“I have written to ASA to thank them for their intervention, commend them on their diligence and let them know that Flight Centre eventually honoured their advertised guarantee.

“I must also thank you, since it was some of your articles that prompted me to fight back.”

Given this outcome, the ASA will not be holding a hearing about this case.

Naturally, I asked Flight Centre SA to comment on the Bagnall case.

Responding, the company’s general manager for product and marketing, Liane Cowan, said she and a colleague had investigated Bagnall’s case.

“Once it was identified as a fly for free case, Mr Bagnall was reimbursed in line with the terms and conditions of the guarantee in our advertising,” she said.

So why hadn’t this happened at the time?

“In the original investigation a critical step was missed,” she said.

“Mr Bagnall’s case should have been escalated to our management team as per the terms and conditions of the lowest airfare guarantee.

“Had this taken place, we would have immediately addressed the issue and Mr Bagnall would have had the guarantee honoured.”

She quoted from the company’s website, which invites customers to call the company’s general manager for retail stores, and supplies her cellphone number for this purpose, should they be dissatisfied with their service.

She said Flight Centre’s “fly for free” promise had not been scrapped.

“It was removed temporarily, due to a pending case with the ASA, but it is now back in circulation with an amendment,” she said.

But it’s not nearly as prominent as before.

“At Flight Centre SA, we work closely with our clients and the ASA to ensure that we do live up to and honour our advertising,” Cowan said.

“Every month we beat, on average, 1 800 quotes.”

Before the National Credit Act came into force five years ago, credit providers – the banks and the retail stores – had the right to increase the credit limit on your account whenever they wanted to, without even informing you.

Clearly, that encourages people to spend more – in some cases more than they can comfortably afford to pay back.

So, to curb irresponsible lending – and thus irresponsible spending on the part of account holders – the act prohibits credit providers from increasing their account holders’ credit limits without their consent.

There are, however, a couple of “buts”.

If you consent to an automatic annual credit limit increase, the credit provider may do this, and they may also “temporarily” increase someone’s limit on a particular day if a credit-worthy customer chooses to do so.

Two Edgars account holders recently complained to me that their credit limits had been increased without their consent when they made purchases at different KwaZulu-Natal stores.

Both complained to the company’s customer care division, and both claim to have been told that because cashiers are given incentives to increase account holders’ credit limits, some activate an increase automatically.

One of the complainants was Merryl Fairfoot of Durban, who opened her Edgars account about 30 years ago.

She said that while buying items at Edgars’s Pavilion branch in December, she was asked by the teller if she’d like to increase her credit limit.

“I said ‘no’, and then she asked me to sign a piece of paper to prove that she’d offered it to me,” Fairfoot says. She did so without reading it properly.

In January, she discovered her limit had been increased.

Responding a few weeks ago, Edcon’s executive manager of group services, Deven Naicker, said Edcon store staff were “incentivised” to offer a credit-limit increase to customers who qualified for them.

“However, we have strict policies and procedures with which staff members need to comply,” he said.

“They are required to obtain a customer’s signature on the acceptance by the customer for such a credit-limit increase offer, and a record is kept of it.”

As for the suggestion that customers unwittingly agreed to credit increases by putting their signatures to consent documents during the payment process, Naicker said it was incumbent on them to find out what they were signing for.

Fairfoot’s credit limit increase in January was not the result of her agreeing to it at the till point, but rather her consent to an annual increase when she opened the account, and the fact that she has a good credit history, Naicker said.

He denied that credit limits were automatically processed.

The story had rather a disturbing sequel.

The weekend before last, Fairfoot returned to Edgars in the Pavilion, and took her chosen purchases to the till.

“The cashier asked me if I would sign a slip of paper confirming I do not want an increase, to prove that I had been offered the increase and declined – virtually word for word what the other cashier told me back in December.

“He was very insistent that I sign but I refused. Finally, he wrote declined across the slip and put it to one side. I asked him for a copy of the document and that’s when I discovered that I was actually being asked to sign my consent to a credit limit increase.

“And I noted on my till slip that I had been granted the increase despite not signing it.”

On March 5, she returned to Edgars to pay her account.

That time there was no mention of her credit limit but she noted that it had gone up anyway – to more than R10 000.

Naicker conceded that Fairfoot’s credit limit had gone up again this month, despite her declining the offer.

“We have since reduced the credit limit to the previous value and the necessary internal disciplinary actions are being conducted to prevent a future occurrence,” he said.

He said store staff are no longer incentivised on credit limit increases – clearly that’s |a good move.

As for the R10 000 limit Fairfoot had seen on her slip last Monday, Naicker said that was a “one-off” temporary limit available only on that day should she wish to take advantage of it, in terms of the National Credit Act.

“We regret any possible inconvenience this might have caused Mrs Fairfoot and we advise that the credit limit has been reduced to its previous value.”

Fairfoot is not satisfied with that response.

“Two cashiers both misleading me as to what form they wanted me to sign, within a space of three months, either points to deliberate manipulation of credit increases or exceptionally poor levels of staff training, which clearly have not been addressed by Edgars Pavilion since I first reported this in January,” she said.

“And should I not be consulted on having my credit limit increased, even if it is for one day only?”

Fairfoot has decided to pay off her Edgars account next month and then close it.

WHAT TO DO:

l Given the relatively high interest you pay on store card balances, it’s a good idea to keep your limit as low as possible.

l Check your credit limit on your statement every month and instruct the company to lower it if you are not happy.

l If you do not want the company to have the right to increase your limit unilaterally, find out if you gave them this right when you opened the account and, if so, reverse it.

l If you are offered a credit limit by a teller when you’re making a purchase, and you decline, make sure that whatever you put your signature to reflects this and ask to be given a copy of it.

Hey, my credit limit is off limits

Before the National Credit Act came into force five years ago, credit providers – the banks and the retail stores – had the right to increase the credit limit on your account whenever they wanted to, without even informing you.

Clearly, that encourages people to spend more – in some cases more than they can comfortably afford to pay back.

So, to curb irresponsible lending – and thus irresponsible spending on the part of account holders – the act prohibits credit providers from increasing their account holders’ credit limits without their consent.

There are, however, a couple of “buts”.

If you consent to an automatic annual credit limit increase, the credit provider may do this, and they may also “temporarily” increase someone’s limit on a particular day if a credit-worthy customer chooses to do so.

Two Edgars account holders recently complained to me that their credit limits had been increased without their consent when they made purchases at different KwaZulu-Natal stores.

Both complained to the company’s customer care division, and both claim to have been told that because cashiers are given incentives to increase account holders’ credit limits, some activate an increase automatically.

One of the complainants was Merryl Fairfoot of Durban, who opened her Edgars account about 30 years ago.

She said that while buying items at Edgars’s Pavilion branch in December, she was asked by the teller if she’d like to increase her credit limit.

“I said ‘no’, and then she asked me to sign a piece of paper to prove that she’d offered it to me,” Fairfoot says. She did so without reading it properly.

In January, she discovered her limit had been increased.

Responding a few weeks ago, Edcon’s executive manager of group services, Deven Naicker, said Edcon store staff were “incentivised” to offer a credit-limit increase to customers who qualified for them.

“However, we have strict policies and procedures with which staff members need to comply,” he said.

“They are required to obtain a customer’s signature on the acceptance by the customer for such a credit-limit increase offer, and a record is kept of it.”

As for the suggestion that customers unwittingly agreed to credit increases by putting their signatures to consent documents during the payment process, Naicker said it was incumbent on them to find out what they were signing for.

Fairfoot’s credit limit increase in January was not the result of her agreeing to it at the till point, but rather her consent to an annual increase when she opened the account, and the fact that she has a good credit history, Naicker said.

He denied that credit limits were automatically processed.

The story had rather a disturbing sequel.

The weekend before last, Fairfoot returned to Edgars in the Pavilion, and took her chosen purchases to the till.

“The cashier asked me if I would sign a slip of paper confirming I do not want an increase, to prove that I had been offered the increase and declined – virtually word for word what the other cashier told me back in December.

“He was very insistent that I sign but I refused. Finally, he wrote declined across the slip and put it to one side. I asked him for a copy of the document and that’s when I discovered that I was actually being asked to sign my consent to a credit limit increase.

“And I noted on my till slip that I had been granted the increase despite not signing it.”

On March 5, she returned to Edgars to pay her account.

That time there was no mention of her credit limit but she noted that it had gone up anyway – to more than R10 000.

Naicker conceded that Fairfoot’s credit limit had gone up again this month, despite her declining the offer.

“We have since reduced the credit limit to the previous value and the necessary internal disciplinary actions are being conducted to prevent a future occurrence,” he said.

He said store staff are no longer incentivised on credit limit increases – clearly that’s |a good move.

As for the R10 000 limit Fairfoot had seen on her slip last Monday, Naicker said that was a “one-off” temporary limit available only on that day should she wish to take advantage of it, in terms of the National Credit Act.

“We regret any possible inconvenience this might have caused Mrs Fairfoot and we advise that the credit limit has been reduced to its previous value.”

Fairfoot is not satisfied with that response.

“Two cashiers both misleading me as to what form they wanted me to sign, within a space of three months, either points to deliberate manipulation of credit increases or exceptionally poor levels of staff training, which clearly have not been addressed by Edgars Pavilion since I first reported this in January,” she said.

“And should I not be consulted on having my credit limit increased, even if it is for one day only?”

Fairfoot has decided to pay off her Edgars account next month and then close it.

WHAT TO DO:

* Given the relatively high interest you pay on store card balances, it’s a good idea to keep your limit as low as possible.

* Check your credit limit on your statement every month and instruct the company to lower it if you are not happy.

* If you do not want the company to have the right to increase your limit unilaterally, find out if you gave them this right when you opened the account and, if so, reverse it.

* If you are offered a credit limit by a teller when you’re making a purchase, and you decline, make sure that whatever you put your signature to reflects this and ask to be given a copy of it.

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