Ways to avoid falling foul of scamsters

Johannesburg - I hope 2014 is a good year for consumers. That’s what I always say in my first column of the year, of course.

I always hope that more businesses will treat their customers with respect and fairness and that the regulators – the Consumer Commission, Ombudsman offices, National Credit Regulator – will do their utmost to handle the complaints of the victims of illegal or unethical treatment quickly, fairly and impartially.

On a month-on-month basis prices were flat in November. Photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi. Credit: INDEPENDENT MEDIA

But mostly I hope that more consumers wise up, know their rights, recognise the traps and take steps to protect themselves from all the nasties lurking in consumerland.

Because that’s the ultimate consumer protection – consumers empowering themselves to avoid being ripped off.

As rewarding and uplifting as it is to get justice for someone who has been ill-treated by a company, my greatest satisfaction and motivation come from getting an e-mail from a reader telling me they would have fallen for a scam or sham had they not read a particular Consumer Watch column.

So here’s some of what I wish consumers would do, or avoid, this year:

Trust me – there is an extremely good chance that you’ll find something in that small print that’s a deal- breaker for you: costs that were glossed over or not fully disclosed in the telesales pitch; a really big exclusion in an insurance policy, that sort of thing.

Here’s what I’m talking about: I got one of those unsolicited calls about a policy – with a relatively inexpensive monthly premium – which would cover the repair of dents and scratches on my car, with no excess charges. They come to your home to do the job, the telesales agent said, you can call them out as often as once a month, and – the best part – pre-existing damage is repaired, free of charge.

What a fantastic deal.

Okay, so here’s what she didn’t say in that phone call, the call during which a person is asked to agree to the policy: it only covers very surface imperfections – those that don’t exceed the top coat of paint. That would rule out the small dents and scratches on my car. Nor does it cover hail damage. Not so fantastic. Not for R1 440 a year plus an admin fee.

This is a biggie: so many people go into these deals on the basis of little more than what they’re told by a salesman. Then, when the car turns out to be a lemon, or the kitchen guy does a runner, or they discover the accommodation agent had no mandate to rent out the holiday chalet, they turn into super-sleuths.

They Google the company or individual’s name and discover media reports, consumer complaints website entries and even court judgments which would have served as “avoid at all costs” warnings, had they come across them before they made their payment.

Had they asked the authorised service agents to consult their computers for the car’s service history before they did the deal, they would have found out that the mileage had been tampered with, and other shockers the salesman didn’t mention, before committing themselves.

Wise up before, not after the fact.

That is provided something you did didn’t cause the problem – and the company is entitled to send the product to be assessed to rule out user abuse. What they can’t do is unilaterally repair the item during that “assessment” period if you have indicated that your remedy of choice is a refund or replacement. So make sure they – and you – have a record of your chosen remedy when you hand the item in for an assessment.

If you’re not insured, you’re fair game. Before you consent to your car being towed, find out where it is being towed to – the closer the better, and get the exact address – what the rate a kilometre is and what the admin, security and daily storage fees are. And make sure all that information is noted on the form you sign, and get a copy of it.

Then, get your car moved from their yard as soon as possible to avoid a massive storage bill.

It’s much easier to listen to what someone is saying to you than to read a whole lot of fine print, but it’s also a lot easier to read the fine print than it is to deal with the consequences of not doing so.

Contractually, only what appears in writing counts.

Keep in mind that word-of-mouth recommendations are more reliable.

Never, ever sign a lease and move into rented accommodation believing an agent’s or landlord’s verbal promises that vital repairs or refurbishments will be done “soon”.

Of course, sometimes, as we know all too well, thanks to the global processed meat scandal, what’s declared in the ingredients list doesn’t tell the whole story.

I leave you with a fresh, foxy twist on the donkey meat story. It was reported last week that Walmart had recalled donkey meat sold at some of its Chinese stores after tests showed that the meat contained DNA from other animals, including fox.

What’s that line about one man’s meat?