Wendy Knowler masthead
January 7 2013 at 09:32

I have thousands of readers to thank for the fact that I’m wise to most things which trip up consumers, be it face-to-face, on the phone or online, from outright scams to rip-offs and clever tricks used to part us from our money.

So today, I share some of what I’ve learnt from the “please help” |e-mails which pour into my inbox in their hundreds every day. Except for late December and early January, when they slow to a trickle, for which I am grateful.

When a shop assistant assures you that you can “return” something, don’t assume that means you’ll get your money back.

You’re only entitled, thanks to the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), to a refund if the item breaks within six months of purchase.

If the item is just fine, but you don’t want it any more – or your spouse didn’t like the shirt or the jewellery – the store doesn’t have to take it back at all.

And if they do, they get to make the rules, and mostly that means an exchange or credit note. You have no right to demand a refund.

You don’t have to sign a piece of paper in order to be bound to a legal contract. If you say “yes” when prompted by a sales agent over the phone, it’s as good as a signed contract.

The recording of that call takes the place of an on-paper contract in the event of a dispute. Never agree to enter into a contract over the phone or supply your bank details – without first checking out the company and the deal in question, in writing, in your own time, without the very insistent voice of the telesales agent, racing through a very slick script, in your ear.

Ignore the “this special is only available today” line – it’s the oldest trick in the salesman’s book.

Insist on being sent an e-mail outlining the whole deal, with all the terms and conditions, plus a website link for the company or deal.

One advantage of agreeing to a deal as a result of an unsolicited telesales call is that you have an “out” in the form of a cooling off period. Telesales is a form of direct marketing and as such, the CPA allows you to cancel the deal within five business days – for no reason, and for a full refund of any money you have paid.

The catch is the cancellation must be done in writing, and many people have ended a telesales call unsure of which company they are contracted to, or what they’ve agreed to, and by the time they find out, that cooling off period has long passed.

If you hate getting unsolicited calls on your home landline or cellphone, or SMSes, or pamphlets addressed to you in the post, you can stop it – well most of it – by registering your name on the Direct Marketing Association’s Opt Out registry, as many thousands of South Africans have already done. To sign up, go to www.nationaloptout.co.za/

It won’t stop all direct marketing, only that from DMA members, but it will reduce it drastically. A national registry, commissioned by the National Consumer Commission, in terms of the CPA, which would apply to all direct marketers, should have been up and running by now. But I’m not holding my breath on that one.

When buying a car, don’t meekly accept the addition of a “delivery” or “on the road” fee, added by the dealership to the contract. Negotiate. That fee includes business costs that should be added to the advertised price of the car, instead of being snuck in as an extra fee.

Ideally you shouldn’t pay an amount comprising more than the cost of the registering and licensing of the car, number plates and a full tank of petrol.

When it comes to buying a used car, you really need to have your wits about you. Most importantly, check the contract extremely carefully. It is sadly not uncommon for a salesman to say a car is, say, a 2011 model, but the paperwork states the truth – 2010 model – and once your signature is on the deal, there’s no proof you were told otherwise.

Very important, insist on seeing both the service book and spare key before doing the deal. Salesmen often promise that these will be given to you “in a few days”. Don’t fall for it, or you’ll pay the price.

At worst the car was overworked and underserviced, or had a radical “haircut” – the industry term for tampering with the odometer to create a fake low mileage.

The service book would reveal this, of course, so it conveniently goes “missing”.

Check out the car’s history yourself before doing the deal.

The brand’s dealerships will give you the service history, and past owners – their details appear in the car’s registration documents – have no reason to withhold information from you, such as an accident or major fault.

If you only have the salesman’s word for the mechanical soundness of the car, don’t do the deal unless they agree to your having the car independently tested first.

Yes, cars are covered by the CPA’s six-month implied warranty, but claiming your right of return is no easy matter when it comes to the motor industry.

The saying “You don’t ask, you don’t get” applies to your car insurance premium.

If you don’t ask your short-term insurer to lower your premium to account for the fact that the value of your car has depreciated and that you haven’t claimed in the previous year, your premium will go up, not down. Now is the time to contest that increase.

It will no doubt be justified by the increased cost of the spares, but don’t blindly accept this. Investigate whether or not this is true, and make the point that depreciation offsets this, in any event.

If your car is insured in your name, but it is mostly driven by your 22-year-old son, be aware that if he’s involved in an accident, your insurance company will most likely repudiate the claim on the basis that your son, the higher risk statistically, was the regular driver, not you.

I know it’s not up there on your list of most fun things to do, but go to your filing cabinet, find your short-term insurance policy and your homeowner’s insurance policy and read them from start to finish, especially the exclusions.

You might find that despite dutifully paying your premiums every month, you won’t be covered in the event of a claim, because of a term in your contract.

For example, if your boundary retaining wall collapses and you must have proof that it was built to the specifications contained in the National Building Regulations.

Which leads me to a major piece of advice…

Do not even consider buying a property without first having it professionally inspected. Several companies offer this service, and provide excellent reports detailing the condition of the entire property, among them Inspect-a-Home and HomeCheck.

The service is relatively inexpensive, about R3 000 for an average home, but could spare you financial ruin at worst, or at least give you the means to negotiate a lower purchase price.

Never pay a deposit without ensuring that details about a refund, in the event that you cancel, are discussed and recorded in writing, and initialled by both parties.

Nobody plans a function and pays a deposit for a service, thinking they’re going to want to cancel it, but these things happen, my inbox is full of such stories. If both parties haven’t agreed up front on what the terms of that deposit are, conflict is inevitable. The CPA entitles you to cancel an advance booking, but it also entitles the supplier to charge a “reasonable” cancellation penalty.

Generally, the sooner you cancel after paying the deposit, the greater your refund should be, and the closer to the date of the booked event, the smaller the refund.

Your credit record
Don’t leave it until you apply for credit or a new job to find out that you’re “blacklisted” with a credit bureau.

There’s a good chance that the “adverse listing”, is unjustified and you have the right to challenge it. For a credit check and how to contest it, go to www.creditombud.org.za

Get into the habit of documenting everything in your consumer dealings, take down the names of people and what they’ve told you, make notes of your important phone calls or, find a way of taping them.

Armed with such evidence, you’ll radically improve your chances of getting justice.

The big fat lie

If a holiday or permanent rental advert seems too good to be true, it usually is. Fraudsters get the details of genuine rental properties, advertise them at bargain rates, and then place classified adverts online.

They then ask for deposits and rentals to be paid into their bank accounts, leaving their victims to discover they’ve been scammed.

The building supervisor of a block of flats in Sea Point where some units are occupied by permanent residents and others rented out as self-catering units by their owners, contacted me a few days after Christmas to say that a fraudster called “Michelle” had placed Gumtree adverts for two units in the block, both occupied by permanent residents or tenants, claiming they were available for rent during the festive season.

“So far, four groups have arrived from up country, requesting keys to be supplied by our block’s security for units,” he said.

“One family was let into the block by a tenant, and ended up banging on the door of the woman who lives there,” he said.

“And one of the victims phoned me after midnight to say he had just driven down from Johannesburg and needed the keys.

“It has been most uncomfortable for me to have to tell these people that they have nowhere to stay and have been duped.”

“Michelle” had apparently given her victims very professional-looking documentation, but of course became unavailable when the scam was discovered.

Do your homework before paying a deposit on a holiday flat. Get the exact address and find out if it is indeed for rent, and who is authorised to ask for deposits and rentals. Ideally, ask a friend or relative to check out the place before making any payments.

In the case of rental accommodation, contact the building’s supervisor or managing agents to find out who owns the flat, and check whether the flat is for rent, and who has been mandated to deal with prospective tenants.

E-mail: consumer@knowler.co.za

On Twitter: @wendyknowler


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