Broken-telephone syndrome?

Telkom generic. INLSA Picture: Leon Nicholas

Do managers and store staff who blatantly deny people their Consumer Protection Act rights, when it comes to the return of defective items, do so deliberately or out of ignorance?

With the CPA now more than three years in existence, I find it hard to believe it could be the latter, but perhaps I’m expecting too much.

Well then, before I get on to today’s example of CPA non-compliance, a quick re-cap again, of how the CPA’s returns policy works. Never let it be said that I haven’t done my bit to get this particular message across!

If you buy something in the conventional way – that is, you initiated the purchase – you can only return it, legally, if it proves to be defective within six months of purchase.

In that case, you get to choose the remedy – a refund, a replacement, or a repair.

The store cannot insist on repairing the item, but it can send it away for assessment in order to rule out user abuse.

(If the item is not defective, the store is not legally obliged to take it back at all, except if you bought it as a result of direct marketing: responding to a direct marketing SMS, phone call, e-mail or someone stopping you in a shopping centre to “demonstrate” the wonders of their product, in which case you have five business days to cancel and get a refund.)

And so to Georgina Crouth’s experience.

In late March, she bought a dongle from the Telkom Direct store in Cresta.

Three weeks later, it stopped working, so she returned it to the store where, she says, she was told she could not be refunded or get a replacement: it had to be sent off for repair, a process that would take 15 days.

“I told them that according to the CPA, I didn’t have to accept a repair, but they wouldn’t listen,” she said.

“Telkom is a parastatal, flouting the State’s own laws.”

Asked to comment, Telkom said: “Telkom adheres to the provisions of section 56 of the Consumer Protection Act.

“For all over-the-counter purchases, we require the goods to be sent to the supplier to determine if the defect arose through the customer’s negligence or if the goods were faulty due to a manufacturing fault.

“If it is found that the item is indeed defective, through no fault of the customer, then the customer does have the choice of a refund, repair or replacement within the six-month period.

“Goods purchased as part of a deal would not result in a cash refund, but the customer’s account being credited.”

But Crouth is adamant that she was told that her only option was a repair.

So I asked Telkom whether it was saying that the manager correctly explained Telkom’s policy in this regard to Crouth, and that she misunderstood, or that the manager did not comply with Telkom’s returns policy in her case.

“We are unable to comment on the allegations made against the Telkom agent as we have no record of the interaction,” the spokesman said.

“However Telkom does apologise for any confusion or inconvenience caused to our customer.

“Telkom confirms that the CPA forms an integral part of the company’s business processes. This will again be communicated and confirmed to all customer-facing staff in Telkom stores.”

Putting up prominent notices to that effect in all Telkom Direct stores would be helpful, too.

Meanwhile, well over a month later, Crouth still hasn’t got her dongle back.

“And not a word from the branch either,” she said. “It’s really annoying and frustrating because I am dependent on the internet.

“Communication with customers is clearly not Telkom Direct’s forte.”

I have taken up many cases in which the consumer has claimed that they were told that a repair was their only option in the case of an item malfunctioning within six months of purchase.

And the company’s head office would later claim that what actually happened was the counter staff told the consumer that the item first had to be sent off for “assessment”, and if found to be defective, the consumer could then choose a repair, replacement or refund.

One way for consumers to deal with this is to write their remedy of choice on the form which they are required to sign when handing in goods “for assessment”, and to keep a copy or take a photo of that document.

That way they have recourse should the supplier unilaterally decide to repair the item during the “assessment” process, contrary to their wishes.


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