Consumer Watch

Wendy Knowler fights for your rights...

Wendy Knowler masthead
October 3 2011 at 12:10

I spend most of my work week investigating reader complaints about companies failing to honour their Consumer Protection Act (CPA) rights.

The complaints pour in – from bus and train coupons and pre-paid data expiring within a short time, despite the fact that the act stipulates it must be redeemable for up to three years, to retailers blatantly feigning ignorance of the consumer’s right to a refund if goods malfunction within six months.

Veeash Lala’s case is typical of the type of complaintI’m getting regarding defective goods.

He bought a three-piece Shakira lounge suite from House & Home in Gateway, KwaZulu-Natal, in April, soon after the CPA became effective, signing a two-year credit agreement.

House & Home is part of the Shoprite Furniture Group.

Recently the couch became uncomfortable to sit on. As Lala put it: “In the centre seat, what feels like a spring is offset and when you sit on it, you feel something poking your thigh.”

Not what one wants in a couch, for sure. And he pointed out that he and his wife have no children, so there’d been no abuse of said couch.

The couch was duly collected, supposedly repaired and then returned, but according to Lala, within two days “there was a clicking sound” and the original problem returned.

Now would be a good time to repeat what the CPA stipulates.

If you buy something and within six months of purchase it malfunctions in some way, you have the right to return it for YOUR choice of a refund, repair or replacement. That’s provided you have not misused the product, of course.

Be aware that the retailers’ preferred remedy is to repair a problem item because this is the cheapest option for them, but don’t feel pressurised into agreeing to this.

Should you accept a repair, as Lala did in this case, if that repair fails within three months, or a new problem develops, the supplier has only two options at that point: to replace the item or refund you.

But that’s not what happened when Lala reported that the repair had been unsuccessful, and that the two-seater couch was showing signs of the same problem.

“I told them that I wanted a replacement for this set but they’re insisting that they have to repair it again,” he told me.

“I was also told they only have to replace goods if they go wrong in the first seven days.”

Not so – that internal policy doesn’t gel with the CPA and should have been scrapped on April 1 this year.

Six months into the CPA era, I’m amazed that a retail employee who deals with customers can impart such utter nonsense with such conviction.

Whether this is out of ignorance or a deliberate attempt to deny consumers their rights, it’s unacceptable.

And, it has to be said, House & Home is a repeat offender in this regard.

My approach in dealing with such cases is to tell the consumer what their rights are, and advise them to go back to the retailer and ask – again – for what they’re entitled to.

In other words, I give the retailer every opportunity to do the right thing, and avoid my having to wade in.

Sadly, that didn’t go well in this case. Lala dealt with two employees – the woman who’d handled his sale and a man who appeared to have a customer services role.

The latter said he wasn’t aware of the CPA provisions relating to the case, but he’d check and call Lala back the next day.

To his credit, he did call Lala back, but he didn’t have good news. “He said their supplier is insisting on a repair and that is the only option available to me. And then he gave me the supplier’s contact details,” Lala said. “I asked to speak to someone in management at House & Home, but he said my only option was to deal with the supplier. I don’t know what else to do now as House & Home are not budging on this and I shouldn’t have to deal with their suppliers.”

I e-mailed Shoprite’s furniture division general manager, Aubrey Karp.

“It sounds to me as if House & Home are allowing this supplier to dictate the terms of the remedy, which is alarming in this CPA era,” I wrote.

Within two hours of sending that e-mail, I received an |e-mail from Lala.

“I’ve just had a call from Gateway House & Home’s store manager, who said they will replace the lounge suite,” he wrote. “He said that if he’d known about the case he could have sorted it out personally.”

Commenting, Karp admitted the process which had been followed in this case was wrong.

“As part of a large public company, the Shoprite Furniture Group at all times focuses on full implementation of any law that is applicable to our business and as such, where there are glitches, we will rectify the situation forthwith.

“In this case, the supplier was dictating what should happen with the complaint, which is contrary to our policies relating to the CPA – which has been agreed to and signed by the various suppliers – and the staff member in question merely accepted his decision.”

Lala should have referred his complaint to management, Karp said. “We have provided the necessary remedial training to this staff member and have spoken to the supplier.”

Remember, don’t accept being fobbed off to a supplier if you have a problem with a product. Insist on speaking to a store manager.

The company to which you paid your money is responsible for ensuring you get the remedy you are entitled to by law. It’s up to them to sort the problem out and deal with their suppliers.

If you didn’t order it, you don’t pay for it

Two years ago I wrote about a Joburg-based company called Haltrex Systems – now called New Tech International – which was offering printer cartridges to small companies.

If they accepted, they’d be sent the cartridges, but then a second delivery would arrive and when the company protested, they’d be told it was a “bulk order” deal, and they were threatened with legal action if they refused to pay.

At the time I spoke to the company owner, then in Australia, who said he was aware of the “problems”.

“Trading is tough and sales are down, so some of them are acting in a stupid way,” he said.

There were no binding agreements or contracts, he said.

The Consumer Protection Act now protects consumers from being hounded for payment for unsolicited goods.

It states that if “a supplier delivers any further goods to a consumer, other than in terms of a different agreement or transaction, those further goods are unsolicited goods”.

And the person who has received the unsolicited goods can either keep them without paying for them, or send them back at the expense of the supplier. If a consumer pays for unsolicited goods, for whatever reason, they are entitled to a refund from the supplier, plus interest.

I recently heard from Reshma Roopnarain, who until recently worked for a Durban plastics company. She says she agreed to one order of toner cartridges on behalf of the company when approached by New Tech International about two years ago, but a second lot subsequently arrived and when a New Tech employee claimed they were part of a bulk order, they made payment for it.

But still the toners kept arriving, as did the demands for payment. Roopnarain kept paying on behalf of the company. But she felt so guilty about the cost to the company that she paid for the last unsolicited delivery – almost R24 000 – out of her own pocket.

She did this because of a written assurance from manager Tony Dharmiah in late July this year that the account was settled and closed.

But another package arrived at the plastics company after she left and Roopnarain’s boss, now her former boss, expected her to “take care of it”.

Beside herself with worry, she contacted Consumer Watch. I contacted Dharmiah, asking on what basis New Tech had continued to send cartridges to that company.

He claimed that he’d closed one account with that plastics firm, but that another employee – a woman – had opened a separate account.

But Roopnarain says she was the only woman employed by that company.

Dharmiah has arranged to collect the last delivery of cartridges from the company, and as Roopnarain has disposed of the cartridges she paid R24 000 for, he has agreed to refund her just under R12 000 “as a good gesture”.

Remember – if you didn’t order it, you don’t have to pay for it. The company must provide written or telephonic proof of the order, in the event of a dispute.

Over-the-phone computer help? Just say no

South Africans are being targeted as part of a global computer “repair” or “maintenance” scam which has a foreign-accented person remotely gaining access to their computers to supposedly effect repairs or banish viruses – and then demand online payment.

I’ve had quite a few e-mails  from people recounting their experience with this scam.

They were all contacted by phone by people who appeared to have their names and addresses, and had “sort of American” or Indian accents.

The callers – some of whom claim to be phoning on behalf of Microsoft – asked if they were having computer problems, and then instructed them on what to do to get the help they needed.

What the ‘‘technicians’’ were actually doing was |guiding the computer owner to install a programme allowing them remote access to their computers.

“Suddenly all sorts of things started cropping up on my screen and I wasn’t touching it,” a Westville woman told me last week.

But when asked for her credit card details to make a payment for the “repairer’s” services, she panicked, ended the call and unplugged her computer.

Clearly it’s a really bad idea to allow a stranger who phones you out of the blue to gain access to your computer.

However “secure” they claim to be, you’re effectively allowing them to access all the personal and financial information on your computer.

Anyone who receives such a call should not give out any |personal information or access codes.

If you get such a call, hang up immediately.

If you’re really worried about a virus on your computer, take it to a reputable repair company.

And if you have allowed such a “technician” access to your computer, contact your bank’s fraud department as soon as possible.

 

 

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