SMSes may scare motorists, but 'they're illegal'
Johannesburg - More threatening text messages are being sent by the SA National Roads Agency Limited to motorists who have failed to pay their e-tolls.
This time the texts are being sent by a private debt-collection agency on Sanral's behalf that warns of “listing” and legal action. Several motorists started receiving these messages on Tuesday, but motoring bodies are calling them illegal.
The Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance, now renamed the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, said it had investigated the source of the SMSes and found that the numbers on Sanral’s “useless” website and the intimidating SMSes were being rerouted to a private collection agency, ITC Business Administrators, whose employees had been instructed to say they were from Sanral.
Ivan Herselman, the director of legal affairs at Outa, said these messages, and this action on behalf of ITC, were illegal.
“The call centre agents are, in fact, employed by ITC which is a private registered debt-collection agent acting on behalf of Sanral.
“We found that each agent questioned is registered as a debt collector employed by ITC,” he said. “Furthermore, the calls are all answered as 'Sanral Violations Centre', which they aren’t.
“What makes matters worse is that these SMSes use the word ‘will’ - direct threat of definite legal action,” Herselman said.
Both of the above actions are in contravention of the Debt Collectors Code of Conduct, which states that in collecting or attempting to collect a claim, “a debt collector shall not misrepresent the true nature of his or her business or threaten to institute legal proceedings, whether civil or criminal, if there is no intention to carry out such a threat”.
“Unless Sanral is prepared to follow through with this threat, it may not send these messages,” Herselman said.
“Furthermore, the minister of transport is on record in July 2014, saying criminal action can't proceed against e-toll defaulters.
“In addition, the regulatory environment is not in place to enable or enforce non-payment of e-tolls through legal action.
“This is gross misconduct as per the Debt Collection Act and its regulations,” he said.
Outa intends to take action to combat the harassment and intimidation by Sanral’s collection agents and encourages the public to visit its website to register their dissent, which will enable the organisation to start a mass-action campaign to put a halt to the messages.
The Automobile Association said it was sure Sanral understood it could not threaten legal action against motorists unless it intended following through with court action.
“While it is a legal requirement to pay your e-toll account, it remains each driver’s choice to do so or not.
“Should Sanral follow through on these threats, it will be left to the drivers to defend themselves in court,” the AA warned.
The association said the appointment of a debt-collection agency to manage this process was adding another layer to the costs of collection, which were already unnecessarily high.
“It is extremely disappointing that Sanral has gone this route without first resolving its billing problems.
“A number of Gauteng drivers have been questioning their bills but have not received satisfactory replies, if they’ve received any replies at all.
“Many people are also still not receiving invoices or statements, but may have received these text messages, which is unreasonable.”
The AA said further that given Sanral’s negative public image and the poor uptake of the Gauteng e-toll system, it found Sanral’s approach counter-productive.
“We'd have preferred a less aggressive, more inclusive approach to resolving the current non-payment impasse,” the AA said.
The Justice Project SA agrees.
“While no nasty and unconscionable tactics adopted by Sanral and contrived to threaten and intimidate motorists regarding e-tolls surprise us, it is strange that the agency has chosen to do so halfway through the new dispensation, wherein a discount of 60 percent on outstanding e-toll bills is being extended to those who take advantage of this offer before 1 May.
“This can only be interpreted as meaning Sanral’s less 60 percent campaign has failed to achieve the desired results,” said Howard Dembovsky, the project's national chairman.
By already hiring a debt-collection firm to start threatening motorists, Sanral has proven its bad faith. It has previously threatened people with criminal records for non-payment of e-tolls and abandoned that extortive practice since it became apparent on 7 December that it, and the department of transport, had finally acknowledged the Administrative Adjudication of Road Traffic Offences Act, and not the Criminal Procedure Act, must be used to prosecute alleged offenders, he said.
“It is therefore our considered opinion that Sanral’s latest 'rent-a-thug' tactic may well backfire, given that people who were not intimidated by the hollow threat of incurring a criminal record are unlikely to feel more intimidated by having their vehicle particulars 'listed' on some undefined 'list' and having debt collectors hound them to death with equally hollow threats of 'legal proceedings',” he said.
Attempts to get comment from Sanral were fruitless.