If you want to capture someone’s attention, whisper. The not-so-young will remember that pay-off line from an ’80s perfume advert on TV.
I wish the same concept was true of small-print terms and conditions: if you want someone to read something on a contract or website, put it in really tiny, faint print.
Of course, the opposite is true. As much as people like me implore consumers to seek out the small print, because that’s the bit that’s most likely to trip them up, companies know that this isn’t human nature.
Which brings me to the “penny auction” site, ViaZiz, which apparently has a physical base in Cape Town.
Described on its website as the “new penny auction website currently taking the world by storm”, ViaZiz invites its users to bid on gadgets “and even cars” for the chance of winning them at “ridiculously low prices”.
But what many South Africans have discovered is that by registering on the website, they are giving their consent to buy a “welcome package” of 300 credits, at a cost of R2 500.
Suddenly there’s a R2 500 debit on their credit cards.
The site invites people to “Sign up for free” in bold print, requiring them to fill in a user name, e-mail address and password. Interestingly, next to the words, “I agree to the terms and conditions”, is a box with a tick already placed in it. If you remove that tick, you cannot proceed with the registration, but there is no way of finding out at that point what the terms and conditions are.
Standard practice on such sites is for a simple click on the words “terms and conditions” to reveal them to the user.
The next step requires one to fill in credit card details to complete the “registration”.
In very, very tiny print at the bottom of this page, the following crucial “disclosure” appears: “Adding your payment details confirms your acceptance of our terms and conditions.
“Package: 300 new customer welcome credits. You will be debited R2 499.99.”
“SeanNefdt” of Cape Town posted the following on consumer complaint website HelloPeter.com two weeks ago: “They are charging for bids instead of items and nobody wins and then they take your money, and the package costs R2 400. They don’t want to refund even though you did not bid and you did sign up in error.”
Many others have posted similar complaints.
Had “SeanNefdt” read the small print, he would not have completed that registration process.
But the fact that it was there means he and all the other unwitting ViaZiz customer credit buyers would probably not succeed with chargeback applications with their banks.
ViaZiz could argue the purchase was not unauthorised, because of the appearance of that disclosure on the same page as the credit card details request form. But it’s sneaky and unethical.
Especially as under FAQs, ViaZiz states the following: “First you need to register. Registration is totally FREE with no nasty hidden charges that other sites forget to tell you about! See our how-it-works section for an easy to follow user guide. The ONLY cost associated with our website is the bid package costs.”
But what that fails to state is that you can’t register without incurring that compulsory R2 500 package cost.
And it’s by no means an insignificant amount.
Merisha Naidoo wrote to Consumer Alert last week about her ViaZiz experience, which mirrors that of so many others. She discovered the site on Facebook.
“It was advertising cheap iPhones, so I clicked on the advert, which transferred me to ViaZiz.com.
“The website said registration was free and it did not mention that a deposit needed to be paid upon registration.
“After filling in my details, including my credit card details, R2 500 was debited from my account.
“I hadn’t placed a bid or anything – the moment the registration form was processed, the money was deducted.
“I immediately sent the company an e-mail stating my grievances, but two weeks have since passed and they still haven’t responded to my query.
“There isn’t even a number that I can call to get in contact with them.”
Liat Beinart got caught in the same way, and feels duped into buying that bid package.
“The words on that page are ‘Add card and finish’, rather than ‘Buy Now’, so you don’t think you’ll be charged for anything,” she told Consumer Alert.
“Only the very tiny print, clearly calculated to be missed, reveals the cost.”
And there it is – “calculated to be missed”. Whenever you are asked to give a company the means to debit your credit card account, you absolutely have to seek out the tiniest print.
A genuine registration process does not require credit card details.
Naturally, I offered ViaZiz the opportunity to respond, doing so via the only means of contact the company provides – an e-mail address.
My e-mails were ignored.
Bottom line – the smaller the print, the more important it is to read it.
If you don’t want to make a purchase, don’t supply your banking details. If you do want to make a purchase, spend time making 100 percent sure of the amount that’ll be debited from your account.
Any finally, the golden rule of consumer land: if it seems too good to be true, it is.