Consumers should social media to complain about bad service because companies know bad publicity is damaging to their brand and therefore respond quicker. Picture: Elise Amendola/AP

Ever signed a contract without first reading the small print, or shaken hands on deals that sounded too good to be true? Shared “competitions” on Facebook or Whatsapp for a luxury vehicle, shopping vouchers or free goods? Have you paid upfront fees to a tradesman and been saddled with incomplete work? Or backed down after trying to return goods to a store, only to be told “no refunds, no returns”?

As consumers we have (some) power at our disposal, if only we yielded it more prudently and learnt from others’ mistakes. Here's a list to help you get started on a journey to becoming a more savvy consumer this year:

Never fail to read the small print. It’s a new year and many of us want to reinvent ourselves as healthier, better, more travelled and more secure individuals. But before you rush out in giddy excitement to sign that gym contract, timeshare agreement, or apply for a “loan” with an online entity that promises to help you “find” money miraculously, take the time to read the contract.

It may well save you a headache further down the line. And if you haven't read and understood the contents of a contract, never sign, agree verbally - or tick a box online. Trust me, you're never going to get that loan: you'll discover you're signed up for “paralegal services” to which you rashly agreed, without your knowledge, and will only receive threats of legal action if you don't pay up. Timeshare salespeople are notorious for pressuring consumers into immediate signing because they don't want you to think about whether or not the deal is good for you. And before entering a gym contract, rather exercise caution - first sign a shorter-term contract, see how useful it is and how often you visit. Timeshare, “loan” and tow-truck issues constituted the bulk of complaints that arrived in my inbox last year - by far.

Never trust that “helpful” tow-truck driver to call for authorisation. If your car needs a tow, be suspicious of the tow-truck driver. They are often accused of dishonest tactics and misrepresentation to land the business, remove your vehicle from the crash or breakdown scene, and later demand exorbitant fees to release it. Programme your insurance company's tow authorisation number into your phone and call your insurer yourself if you need any help. If you're one of the country's estimated 70% of uninsured drivers, contact the SA Towing and Recovery Association on 0861 072 872 or the United Towing Association of South Africa on 08611 88272. Both have called for the industry to be regulated and offer a free, 24-hour service with one of their members, who are bound by strict codes of conduct, unlike some of the other towing cowboys on the road.

Keep it to yourself: Never give out your personal information, ID number or bank account details to entities you don't know or aren't absolutely sure about. And never click on an email that claims your bank needs information from you.

A lose-lose: You should never pay, or buy something, to “claim” a prize.

Too good to be true: Woolworths and Pick n Pay issued alerts last month that the freebie coupons available through online “competitions” and shared liberally on Whatsapp and Facebook, were scams, which are believed to be phishing attempts. Same goes for the “free” cellphones, luxury cars and holidays in paradise that routinely crop up on social media.

Guard your accounts: Watch your bank account for any untoward activity. If you notice unauthorised debits, contact your bank immediately to assist in verifying the source of the debits. Banks are able to reverse debits within a specified timeframe. After that, you would have to lodge a dispute, which may take months.

Fools rush in: When booking a holiday, don’t be pressured into buying “limited offers” on packages, cruises, flights or accommodation because they might not be the best deals. Don't buy straight away: shop around, compare and look at the terms and conditions.

Laws of return: Ask about refund policies and warranties before you buy. The Consumer Protection Act only gives consumers a six-month warranty of implied quality - after that, it becomes a seller or manufacturer issue. Hold onto your receipts and packaging if possible because you might regret not being able to return that pricey toy or appliance within its warranty period.

Beware the fly-by-night tradesman: Avoid working with contractors who can't offer you a fixed office address and landline number. It's no guarantee that work will be satisfactory but it will be easier to trace them if something goes wrong, which gives you some leverage. 

And don't be tempted by unregistered builders, plumbers, electricians and others. Ask for contactable references and previous clients; check whether they are insured, and if they belong to associations such as the Master Builders' Association and the Electrical Contractors' Association of SA. All new home builds must be registered with the National Home Builders' Registration Council.

Use social media to your advantage: Many of us try to do the right thing by avoiding drinking and driving, but when opting for a taxi service, we entrust strangers with our lives. When my Christmas Day taxi trip turned into a nightmare, my first port of call was to complain via the app. More than a week later, I hadn't received any response from Taxify so I tweeted about it and quickly got their attention. They told me they had blocked the driver and claimed to have stepped up their support efforts. One would hope so. It shouldn't have to be that way, but companies seem quicker on the button on social media because they know bad publicity is damaging to their brand.

Make sure you're covered: Update your short-term or long-term insurance policies, if your circumstances change in any way, and make full disclosure. Read the contract's fine print: if your insurer requires that you have tracking or driver monitoring devices, a hands-free kit in your car, electric fencing around your property, a working alarm system or any other security features, ensure you have those in place because failure to do so could mean your claim is denied and you won't be paid out.

Incorrect details on your policy means incorrect cover, so protect yourself by opting for the right plan and be certain you are not under-insured. And if you have a new cellphone, move house or hit the jackpot with expensive gifts over Christmas, update that insurance policy.

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @askgeorgie

The Star