‘R699’ man responds late in the day

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IOL mot pic jul7 st shireen khan INLSA Shireen Khan, one of the many thousands of car owners who discovered last week that the advertising fee which she has been getting to offset her car finance instalment was no more.

Durban - At 1.30 on Friday morning, I received an SMS from the man at the centre of the “New car for R699 a month” saga, Albert Venter, chief executive of the Satinsky Group and the mastermind of the deal that saw people being paid for advertising - mostly for the deal itself - on the back of their new cars.

That is until last week, when their worst fears were confirmed - the fees dried up altogether.

Venter texted: “I want to talk, to personally talk to you about how the banks made billions and don’t want to take responsibility with us to help our customers get out of this.”

“This” being the fact that most of the estimated 17 000 branded car owners got not a cent in advertising fees for June, leaving them legally indebted to pay the full instalment to their banks - typically about R3000 a month - without the help of the subsidy they had come to rely on.

‘A SEPARATE COMPANY’

Satinsky has said little about what has happened, either to its clients or the media, consistently fobbing off complaints and queries about the fact that advertising fees have been arbitrarily declined since February, by saying the advertising contracts state fees can fluctuate from month to month.

Satinsky also went to great lengths to distance itself from Blue Lakes, telling Consumer Watch it was “a separate company with no ties to our company”, but did not respond to a request for the contact details of the responsible parties at Blue Lake.

Two weeks ago, Satinsky offered to speak to the banks on behalf of its financially distressed clients about extending the length of the finance agreement – currently six years – as a means of bringing down their instalments.

Nothing was said of the massive interest implications of such a move.

But those who have approached their banks about this on their own have been told it’s impossible, because it will result in a “negative credit rating”.

Then, last Tuesday, when news that the fees had dried up completely spread like wildfire, Satinsky told its clients it had dissolved the “management agreement” between itself and Blue Lakes Trading & Promotions and found “a suitable alternative offering”, having appointed Accelerator Rewards (Pty) Ltd as its “valued partner”.

But it appeared all they stood to get from a car sale based on their referral were “points and discount vouchers”, when what they really need is cash.

But speaking to me on the phone on Friday morning, Venter said those who signed up for Accelerator Rewards would indeed be paid cash “up to R3000” for cars sold on the basis of their referral.

He conceded that should have been made clear in the notice.

“Four thousand people have already signed up with Accelerator Rewards,” he said. “They put out leads about well-priced cars – both new and second-hand rental cars - and get paid commission on cars sold via their unique code.”

So, the stickers have to stay on the cars? I asked.

No, Venter said, the discounts on offer were just “a bit extra”.

“If we can get 7000 people signed up for this rewards programme, we’ll have the biggest car sales force in the country,” Venter said.

And they wouldn’t just be punting the cars, but allied products such as insurance, too, he said.

“And the bank financing the ‘from R699’ car of the person who successfully sells a car, should be prepared to finance that car, too,” Venter said. “It’s only fair.

“I am not running away.”

“I ask you now, with my cap in my hand, let’s make this work,” he said. “And I need happy customers for that to happen.”

I pointed out that trust had been eroded by Satinsky’s failure to be transparent about the declining advertising fees and the unilateral ending of the Blue Lakes arrangement.

“Yes, lack of communication was the one mistake I made,” Venter said. “We should have engaged more effectively with our customers.”

So why were the fees slashed from February without apparent justification, in breach of so many thousands of clients’ contracts?

“A lot of bad publicity started happening,” Venter said. “People started pulling their stickers off, and then sending us pre-dated photos to keep getting their fees, so we got fewer and fewer advertisers on board.”

And, presumably, fewer cars were being sold, too.

Whatever the reasons, the car owners, who had initially got a fee which made their car instalments affordable – in exchange for having to carry the advertising stickers on their cars, do relatively high mileages and submit photos of their cars monthly – got paid less and less until the fee dried up altogether this month.

So WHAT are their options?

On a Facebook page which about 500 “victims” of the scheme have joined, there is talk of taking legal action against Satinsky for breach of contract.

Some have posted photos of their advertising stickers, with additions such as “scam” and one man has suggested they drive their cars to a specific field in each province as a form of public protest.

Ayob Mungalee of the People Seeking Justice Action Group, who visited Satinsky’s head office in Fairyglen, Pretoria, on Thursday in a delegation of four, demanding to speak to one of the directors, said the group would be exploring options to get the company to cease trading or be put under supervision.

He said he’d spoken to about 120 people from the poorer communities of Johannesburg who’d bought these “R699 a month “ cars, including his wife.

Of course, what most of these people are desperate to know is, what do they do now?

Well, Venter would say the answer is to sign up with Accelerator Rewards.

Of course, whereas with the Blue Lakes contracts, the car owners got paid a fee whether their adverts sold any cars or not, that’s not the case with the rewards programme.

They only get paid if a car sale is linked to their advertisement.

Most owe more to their banks than they can get as a trade-in, so even relinquishing their car leaves them with a shortfall to pay off every month.

Extending the bank term, to lower the monthly instalment, or negotiating with the bank to lower the interest rate, which appears to have been very high – as much as prime plus four percent – are options some “victims” have explored with their banks, with no success, in some cases.

SOMETHING DOESN’T ADD UP...

The three banks that agreed to finance the Satinsky cars all insist they didn’t factor in the anticipated advertising fee from Blue Lakes when they assessed whether the applicants could afford the repayment. They say the applicants passed the affordability tests based on their earnings and expenses alone.

Venter says the application process was carefully vetted, applicants were required to supply all the usual documentation to support their declared income and expenditure to the banks, and credit bureau checks were done.

“Plus the bank documents were signed by all the clients,” he said.

He vehemently denied monthly expenses amounts were altered.

But here’s what doesn’t make sense: if all these thousands of people could afford the repayments without subsidy, why would they have chosen to buy a Satinsky car, which required them to drive around in cars emblazoned with those garish adverts, clock up high mileages, then have the schlep of documenting and posting the stickers and their mileage every month? And why are they in such financial straits now the fees have dried up?

There has to be something missing from the picture that is being presented.

On Friday, Absa said it had reviewed its relationship with Satinsky late in 2013, after consumer complaints about the scheme, and had recently terminated its relationship with the company.

A spokesman said: “Absa places the interests of its customers first, and customers are urged to contact the bank if they encounter difficulties with servicing any repayment.”

Asked to respond to claims Satinsky altered some applicants’ monthly expenses for them to qualify for vehicle finance, the spokesman said: “The customer acknowledges the correctness of the information and should evidence be presented that the dealer misrepresented the customer, Absa will act thereupon.”

GET THE PAPERWORK

Ayob Mungalee, of the People Seeking Justice Action Group, said his wife, Shireen Khan, got her branded car in December 2012. She had applied for car finance directly with a bank a few months earlier and was declined. Others have made similar claims.

If you own one of these cars, ask your bank for all your application documents. If you dispute the expenses stated on them – in other words, the sums are not what you declared to Satinsky – lodge a complaint with the national credit regulator and the ombudsman for banking services.

One of the “R699 a month{“ car owners posted on the Facebook page that he’d SMSed Venter to ask him if he’d enjoyed a “nice supper” with their money.

He posted Venter’s response: “Are you a loser… your payment was calculated on our income and nett income as given and stated by you. Can you not afforded (sic) it. Do you booze your money out? Loser!!!”

Venter said the man had threatened him, his family and his staff.

“In the end, I’m just relieved it’s almost over”

Five years ago in this column, I wrote about Just Group Africa (part of the Satinsky Group), when many people alleged it was only after they had signed up that they were told they’d have to do more than 2500km a month to qualify for the full subsidy - something that was not specified in the contracts they signed.

Heather Greyling, who got her Tata Indica through Just Group Africa in 2008, was one of the complainants featured in that column.

Greyling contacted me last week when news of the advertising fees being stopped broke.

“Thank goodness, I only have three instalments left on my car,” she said.

“I’ve persevered over the last 60 months, with not too many hiccups, other than the first 12 months of nervous breakdown material.”

SPECIFIED FEES

Greyling switched from the Earn While You Drive contract, which paid specified fees linked to mileage - R1500 a month in the case of those who drove more than 2000km a month - to the Earn While You Own contract, which paid R570 a month as a set fee, or R3000 for each car sold off the advert on their car.

“I’d more than 50 responses to the unique code, as it flagged me; not once did I get that R3000,” she said. “And I know for a fact that two of my colleagues accepted the deal.

“I gave up arguing with them and was just happy to get the R570 every month,” she said.

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