File photo: Reuters/Kham

Pretoria - No refunds. I see those words on shop walls and till slips a lot, almost two years since the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) made those words illegal – at least as a blanket policy.

No store is compelled to take anything back if there’s nothing wrong with the item, much less give you your money back.

But if something you’ve bought breaks in some way, through no fault of yours, within six months of purchase, and you’d prefer a refund to a replacement or repair, the store has no right to point at a sign and say: “Sorry, no refunds.”

Some won’t take responsibility for defective goods at all, while others insist on doing what they were doing pre-CPA, which is to have the item repaired, regardless of what the consumer wants.

And what most customers want, of course, is their money back, or a new item as a replacement.

My inbox tells me that many cellphone outlets are still carrying on as if the CPA doesn’t apply to them.

If a customer – either contract or pre-paid – takes in a faulty cellphone or accessory, more than a week after first using it, they are often told that they don’t have the option of a refund or replacement, it must go in for repair.

And if they do agree to replace the phone, it’s often with a refurbished phone, not a new one.

Last month Pamela Masiko-Kambala bought a mobile charger at the Vodacom shop in Cavendish, Cape Town.

Less than a week later, she returned it to the store and asked for a refund, but she was told the store does not issue refunds, and was invited to take a replacement item instead.

Masiko-Kambala told Ishereen Jacobs, customer relations manager of the Vodacom Shop Tygervalley Group – which has 21 stores in the Western Cape and one in Sandton – that the CPA entitled her to a refund, and e-mailed her sections of the act in support of her argument.

But Jacobs was having none of it.

She emailed Masiko-Kambala, and copied me, the following: “As I have advised, our store has a no-refund policy and we are happy to assist you if you bring in the product to our store so that we can exchange it for a different product.

“We have displays stating we do not refund any cash transactions. Please note our displays in our store (are) visible to all clients.”

Naturally I took this up with Vodacom’s head office.

Media spokesman Nomsa Thusi had a rather different take, thankfully.

“This is absolutely not company policy. We have once again instructed all franchises to ensure full compliance with the CPA,” she said.

“We will refund the customer.”

The networks claim to be fully compliant with the CPA’s implied warranty provisions.

The act does allow suppliers to assess products which consumers claim to be defective, in order to rule out misuse, for which they aren’t liable.

In practical terms, that means taking your cellphone from you a short period, ideally not more than 10 days.

Many cellphones return from this assessment process marked as liquid damaged, which is, in most cases, vehemently denied by the owner of the phone.

In order to avoid your phone being repaired during the “assessment” process, if it’s a replacement phone you’re after, it’s advisable to note this as your choice of remedy on the paperwork, and make sure you keep a copy.

As for the issue of refurbished phones, it’s one which subscribers complain to me about repeatedly.

“They refer to them as refurbished phones, service units, and even ‘models with history’, but basically they are second- hand phones,” one reader complained.

Remember, the CPA only covers the first six months of the life of your cellphone, and all goods sold.

In those six months you can insist on a refund or a replacement phone – a new one. But after that, you are at the mercy of the supplier’s chosen returns policies.

I asked South Africa’s two biggest cellphone companies to clarify their policies with regard to replacing cellphones that prove to be defective within six months.

Here’s how they responded:

* MTN: It is MTN’s policy that when a handset is purchased by a customer and is returned to MTN as a result of a defect within the six-month implied warranty period from the purchase date, the handset can be replaced with a new handset, subject to an assessment to determine the nature of the defect.

The defect may be a manufacturing fault or a mobile device software issue, or it may be water-damaged or damaged as a result of the negligence of a consumer. If the defect is a manufacturing fault, the customer will receive a new handset.

* Vodacom: Vodacom’s business practice is to replace defective handsets returned in terms of the provisions of the CPA with new ones. However there may have been exceptional circumstances when returned handsets were replaced with refurbished handsets. This may have been due to, for example, the outlet in question being out of new stock of the handsets sought by the consumer.

So why does the industry still have “out-the-box failure” policies, whereby faulty phones will be replaced within a short period – usually a week – when this is the consumer’s right for six months?

Vodacom explained that this was “an additional benefit”.

“It provides customers with an immediate exchange of a new device, based on an external inspection only, whereas with the six-month CPA warranty, the device has to be taken through a technical process to verify the technical fault.”

Good to know.

If you are happy to accept a refurbished phone as a replacement for your faulty phone, within that six-month CPA period, that’s fine.

If, however, you would prefer a new phone as a replacement, you are within your rights to insist on one. But you are not entitled to insist that your problematic phone be replaced with another brand because you’ve lost faith in the original one.

The CPA compels the supplier to replace the phone with the identical model.

If it has since been discontinued, you’d have to accept the model which replaced it. - Pretoria News

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