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

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.

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:

* Read the terms of conditions of any contract you commit yourself to, be it a signature on a written agreement or a verbal commitment during a telesales call. In the case of the latter, never agree to anything during that first call. Always ask the caller to give you a link to the company’s website and then zone in on those all-important terms and conditions.

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.

* Don’t give your ID number or bank account details to a stranger who has called you up out of the blue and offered you an apparently great deal.

* Know that if you do agree to a deal as a result of direct marketing – an unsolicited telesales call, a presentation for some form of holiday “opportunity”, a visit to your home to demonstrate a product, an e-mail or SMS – you have five business days to cancel the deal and get a refund. You don’t have to give a reason, but you do have to put that cancellation in writing. So make sure you get a valid e-mail address.

* Use your detective skills before you buy that second-hand car or pay a deposit to that wedding photographer, accommodation agent or pool/ kitchen installer – not afterwards, when things start to go wrong.

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.

* Know that if something you’ve bought breaks in some way within six months of purchase, you have the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) right to return it for your choice of a replacement or refund.

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.

* Know that if something you’ve bought is not defective, and you want to return it because you’ve changed your mind, you have no right to demand a refund or return it at all, for that matter. The CPA does not compel suppliers to take back non-defective goods. So if they offer you a credit note or exchange, technically that’s goodwill.

* Apologies for the generalisation, but tow-truck operators on the scene of an accident tend to employ some rather creative methods to get your damaged car on to their trucks. So, if you’re insured, save your insurance company’s accident number in your cellphone and make that call yourself to find out which operator is authorised, and therefore covered, by the company.

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.

* When you need a plumber or electrician in an emergency, choosing a company on the basis of a large, impressive- looking advert in the Yellow Pages can result in overcharging and under-delivery.

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

* Document your consumer catastrophes by taking photographs with your cellphone. Such evidence makes your case so much stronger and more likely to be taken seriously.

* If you see a price tag in red, it doesn’t necessarily mean a marked-down price. It is intended to make you assume that.

* Beware the open-ended “up-sell”. When you order a pizza and you’re asked “Would you like double or triple cheese?” don’t be shy to ask what that extra dairy would cost. Hint: quite a lot. Same goes for that other upsell favourite: “Would you like avocado with that?”

* As a tenant, insist on the agent or landlord doing an inspection, with you, before you move in and again as you are about to move out, noting the condition of the place in writing so there can be no disputes about what damages you did or didn’t cause, which could affect your deposit refund.

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”.

* There are a lot of fraudsters posing as ethical traders online. The first red flag is a seemingly bargain price. The second is not being able to pay by credit card. If you pay for goods or services with your credit card – online or not – and don’t get what you paid for, you can apply to your bank for a chargeback, and if you can prove that you lost out, you’ll get your money back.

* Make the unit price your friend. With pack sizes of similar products varying in both obvious and less obvious ways, the only meaningful, accurate way to compare prices is via the unit price. Pick n Pay displays this, alongside the selling price, as for a kilogram or litre, and Shoprite as for 100g or 100ml. The other groups don’t do it at all.

* And, finally, read the ingredients list. It will shatter your assumptions about many products, from what’s really in that supermarket burger patty or bag of “premium” dog food, to the ratio of nuts to sugar in that “healthy” breakfast spread.

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?

The Star