Consumer Watch

Wendy Knowler fights for your rights...

Wendy Knowler masthead
August 1 2012 at 10:40

I have to confess to not being a particularly organised person. Admin is not my thing. But neither is not being able to exercise my consumer rights, so I force myself to hold on to my till slips; and a copy of every contract I sign gets put into a file called, funnily enough, Contracts; and all warranty documentation goes into a separate file.

I have readers to thank for these rudimentary record-keeping habits, because every week at least one reminds me, via e-mail, why it’s so important.

Take Ben’s case.

He signed a gym contract about eight years ago in Durban, but six months later he and his wife got into financial difficulty, and gym membership was one of the things he decided to do without.

“I approached the gym and they told me to write them a letter explaining why I was cancelling early, and fax it to their head office, which I did, and they accepted, in writing.”

He heard nothing more until a couple of weeks ago, when he got a phone call from a debt collector, saying he owed the gym R2 200.

“I explained to them that I had cancelled the contract all those years ago, but they replied that they were not interested and I must pay the said amount or legal action will be taken against me,” Ben said.

“I do not know what to do because I cannot find that fax I sent them or the letter I received back from them, so I have no proof.”

Luckily for Ben, that debt – which accrued despite the contract cancellation having been accepted – had prescribed, given that in the past three years he has not acknowledged that debt, made a payment towards it, or been summonsed in respect of it.

So I told Ben that in a court of law, prescription would be considered a valid defence and advised him to tell this to the debt collectors, and ask them to either provide proof to the contrary, or close their file on him.

“Make sure you send that letter to a valid e-mail address for the collectors, and keep a copy where you won’t delete or lose it!” I said.

Of course, had he been able to produce those letters from eight years previously, he’d have spared himself a lot of stress.

It’s especially important to file documents relating to warranties on everything from tyres to mattresses and DIY jobs.

Of course, the longer the warranty period, the more likely it is that the document will go astray before the warranty expires.

That was certainly Chris Russell-Rockliff’s experience. He had the exterior walls of his Joburg home treated by Kenitex Coatings during the 1990s. This came with a 15-year warranty.

When he needed to get the job redone earlier this year due to peeling in places, he couldn’t find the warranty documentation. He mentioned this to the company, saying he thought the warranty may still be valid, but was told it would be hard to locate the documentation in their archives.

So Chris paid R34 500 for the job, in a new colour.

A few days later, he found the warranty document stored with his passport. The job had been done in August 1998, meaning the warranty was still valid, so he asked the company to refund a substantial amount of what he’d spent.

The company refused, saying he couldn’t make such a claim after the new contract had been concluded, and in any event, many wall surfaces had cracked, which the warranty did not cover.

Kenitex’s Leon Isaacs said: “Anyone claiming under a guarantee has to produce it at the time of such claim, and this responsibility does not shift to the recipient. Our system operates by guarantee numbers, and is not name dependant, which is why production of the guarantee is necessary.”

A cautionary tale indeed.

A separate warranty file is also a must. Photocopy the receipt – because it fades pretty quickly, rendering your proof of purchase useless – and staple it to the warranty document before filing.

And if you close an account of any kind, insist that the company sends you a letter confirming that the account is fully settled and closed.

In my experience, this takes some perseverance but will pay off down the line if a debt collector pops up and claims you owe that company money.

One last thing – if you sell or give away a TV set, you must inform SABC TV Licences by means of an affidavit, with supporting documentation, or you will continue to be held liable for annual licence fees on that set. And TV licence fee debt does not prescribe for 30 years. To find out exactly what you need to do in your given situation, to avoid the attentions of the corporation’s debt collectors, call SABC’s customer service centre at 011 330 9555.

And whatever you do, keep copies of that affidavit and the supporting documents in a safe place.

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